2.1 Ancient Astronomy

Posted by Andri Fadillah Martin on Monday, February 13, 2012

Ancient Astronomy

Many ancient cultures took a keen interest in the changing night time sky. The records and artifacts that have survived until the present make that abundantly clear. But unlike today, the major driving force behind the development of astronomy in those early societies was probably neither scientific nor religious. Instead, it was decidedly practical and down to earth. Seafarers needed to navigate their vessels, and farmers had to know when to plant their crops. In a real sense, then, human survival depended on knowledge of the heavens. The ability to predict the arrival of the seasons, as well as other astronomical events, was undoubtedly a highly prized, perhaps jealously guarded, skill.

In Chapter 1 we saw that the human brain's ability to perceive patterns in the stars led to the "invention" of constellations as a convenient means of labeling regions of the celestial sphere. (Sec. 1.2) The realization that these patterns returned to the night sky at the same time each year met the need for a practical means of tracking the seasons. Widely separated cultures all over the world built large and elaborate structures to serve, at least in part, as primitive calendars. In some cases, the keepers of the secrets of the sky enshrined their knowledge in myth and ritual, and these astronomical sites were often also used for religious ceremonies.

Perhaps the best known such site is Stonehenge, located on Salisbury Plain in England, and shown in Figure 2.1. This ancient stone circle, which today is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Britain, dates from the Stone Age. Researchers believe it was an early astronomical observatory of sorts—not in the modern sense of the term (a place for making new observations and discoveries) but rather a kind of three-dimensional calendar or almanac, enabling its builders and their descendants to identify important dates by means of specific celestial events. Its construction apparently spanned a period of about 17 centuries, beginning around 2800 B.C. Additions and modifications continued to about 1100 B.C., indicating its ongoing importance to the Stone Age and later Bronze Age people who built, maintained, and used Stonehenge. The largest stones shown in Figure 2.1 weigh up to 50 tons and were transported from quarries many miles away.

Figure 2.1 Stonehenge This remarkable site in the south of England was probably constructed as a primitive calendar and almanac. The fact that the largest stones were carried to the site from many miles away attests to the importance of this structure to its Stone Age builders. The inset shows sunrise at Stonehenge on the summer solstice. As seen from the center of the stone circle, the Sun rose directly over the "heel stone" on the longest day of the year. (English Heritage)

Many of the stones are aligned so that they point toward important astronomical events. For example, the line joining the center of the inner circle to the so-called heel stone, set some distance from the rest of the structure, points in the direction of the rising Sun on the summer solstice. Other alignments are related to the rising and setting of the Sun and the Moon at various other times of the year. The accurate alignments (within a degree or so) of the stones of Stonehenge were first noted in the eighteenth century, but it is only relatively recently—in the second half of the twentieth century, in fact—that the scientific community has credited Stone Age technology with the ability to carry out such a precise feat of engineering. While some of Stonehenge's purposes remain uncertain and controversial, the site's function as an astronomical almanac seems well established. Although Stonehenge is the most impressive and the best preserved, other stone circles, found all over Europe, are believed to have performed similar functions.

Figure 2.2 Observatories in the Americas (a) The Big Horn Medicine Wheel, in Wyoming, was built by the Plains Indians. Its spokes and other features are aligned with risings and settings of the Sun and other stars. (b) Caracol temple in Mexico. The many windows of this Mayan construct are aligned with astronomical events, indicating that at least part of Caracol's function was to keep track of the seasons and the heavens. (G. Gerster/Comstock)

Many other cultures are now known to have been capable of similarly precise accomplishments. The Big Horn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming (Figure 2.2a) is similar to Stonehenge in design—and, presumably, intent—although it is somewhat simpler in execution. The Medicine Wheel's alignments with the rising and setting Sun and with some bright stars indicate that its builders—the Plains Indians—had much more than a passing familiarity with the changing nighttime sky. Figure 2.2(b) shows the Caracol temple, built by the Mayans around A.D. 1000 on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. This temple is much more sophisticated than Stonehenge, but it probably played a similar role as an astronomical observatory. Its many windows are accurately aligned with astronomical events, such as sunrise and sunset at the solstices and equinoxes and the risings and settings of the planet Venus. Astronomy was of more than mere academic interest to the Mayans, however. Caracol was also the site of countless human sacrifices, carried out when Venus appeared in the morning or evening sky.

Figure 2.3 Arab Astronomers at Work During the Dark Ages, much scientific information was preserved and new discoveries were made by astronomers in the Arab world, as depicted in this illustration from a medieval manuscript. (The Granger Collection)

The ancient Chinese also observed the heavens. Their astrology attached particular importance to "omens" such as comets and "guest stars"—stars that appeared suddenly in the sky and then slowly faded away—and they kept careful and extensive records of such events. Twentieth-century astronomers still turn to the Chinese records to obtain observational data recorded during the Dark Ages (roughly from the fifth to the tenth century A.D.), when turmoil in Europe largely halted the progress of Western science. Perhaps the best-known guest star was one that appeared in A.D. 1054 and was visible in the daytime sky for many months. We now know that the event was actually a supernova: the explosion of a giant star, which scattered most of its mass into space (see Chapter 21). It left behind a remnant that is still detectable today, nine centuries later. The Chinese data are a prime source of historical information for supernova research.

A vital link between the astronomy of ancient Greece and that of medieval Europe was provided by astronomers in the Islamic world (Figure 2.3). For six centuries, from the depths of the Dark Ages to the beginning of the Renaissance, Islamic astronomy flourished and grew, preserving and augmenting the knowledge of the Greeks. The Arab influence on modern astronomy is subtle but quite pervasive. Many of the mathematical techniques involved in trigonometry were developed by Muslim astronomers in response to practical problems, such as determining the precise dates of holy days or the direction of Mecca from any given location on Earth. Astronomical terms like "zenith" and "azimuth" and the names of many stars, such as Rigel, Betelgeuse, and Vega, all bear witness to this extended period of Muslim scholarship.

Astronomy is not the property of any one culture, civilization, or era. The same ideas, the same tools, and even the same misconceptions have been invented and reinvented by human societies all over the world, in response to the same basic driving forces. Astronomy came into being because people believed that there was a practical benefit in being able to predict the positions of the stars, but its roots go much deeper than that. The need to understand where we came from, and how we fit into the cosmos, is an integral part of human nature.

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