Egyptian Astronomy

[Cross posted to Revise and Dissent]

The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

I’ve been out and about this week, or else working because so I can get out and about. Yesterday it was down to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London for a study day by the Egypt Exploration Society: The Heavens on Earth: Astronomy and Ancient Egypt.

The lecture hall was surprisingly packed. Prof. Malcolm Coe had the tough task of opening day with everything you needed to know about astronomy in forty minutes. It’s difficult explaining the Sun and Moon’s motions concisely, but adding in the stars and as well, and the timescale of topic, which stretched across four thousand years and it’s difficult to clearly explain things without being overwhelmed the by sheer quantity of information. There were things left out, but with good reason I feel. The success of the talk can probably be gauged by the relative lack of mechanical questions after the succeeding talks.

Dr. Kate Spence was the first Egyptologist up with the umm… contentious topic of “Astronomy and the Pyramids?” A lot of her talk was on the mechanics of how one aligns a pyramid with the accuracy of the Egyptians. She discussed several methods, including her own which you can read as a PDF and a follow-up here (also PDF). The graph below is highly suggestive of a systematic system because of the ongoing trend in the errors.

Pyramid Alignments
Click for a slightly better resolution image, or better still download paper 1 or paper 2.

It was a good talk, but what made it better in my opinion was that she also highlighted that there is a large degree of uncertainty, particularly with the astronomical and archaeoastronomical data. In terms of the astronomy Spence says she’s not so certain of her method now as she has been after listening to astronomers. She tackled the theories about shafts in the pyramid fairly, and made it clear that this was more questionable than other claims about the Great pyramid. I wasn’t convinced of the stellar alignments. A member of the audience suggested that the southern shafts could have been solar, which Spence rejects as the shafts have horizontal exits which would block sunlight. By similar logic, I’m not sure that stellar alignments would work either. The lack of similar southern shafts in other pyramids also makes any explanation open to accusations of special pleading. But by acknowleding these problems I think she gave a good sample of the debate in the field.


Karnak Tempel im Morgenlicht. Photo by JoSchmaltz.

After lunch Dr Luc Gabolde gave an interesting talk: The Orientation of some Egyptian Temples: an attempt to create a direct link with the Dive World. Initially he talked about Karnak and was reminiscent of Ed Krupp’s Light in the Temples though he when much further in allocating stellaer alignments to some sites too. I thought this was problematic for some reasons like atmospheric extinction. At low angles the atmosphere dims starlight so much that it cannot been seen. This means very few stars can actually be seen on the horizon, they emerge from atmospheric murk a degree or two above it. This makes it difficult to align a building on the rising point of a star. There were some other problems, but they rested as much upon my ignorance of Ancient Egypt as anything else.

Dr Sarah Symons at the EES

Dr Sarah Symons, who got me the free ticket, was last up and had the easiest slot. The three previous speakers had already been hammering in the basic astronomy, so Symons had relatively little new astronomical ground to cover. Her talk, The Life and Death of Egyptian Stars, was the one I could identify with the most. It wasn’t simply about if astronomy was present, but also why it was present. There were no alignments, instead she talked about star ceilings and the curious diagonal calendars inside coffin lids.


Star ceiling at Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple. Photo by Cupienda.

I thought this was a good talk to end on because it drew together a lot of what had already been talked about and placed it in a social context. For some people it seems enough to prove ancient astronomy existed without asking why. The mere existence of ancient astronomies doesn’t interest me. Proving ancient people could look at the stars isn’t much of a step on from proving they had eyes. By putting the practice of astronomy into society Symons started to tackle the question of why astronomy was used and what it can tell us about Egyptian society.

All in all it was a fun day. I found lots of new things that I didn’t know about and so expanded my ignorance. I now need to brush up my hieroglyphs, spherical trigonometry, geology, optics…

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2 Responses to Egyptian Astronomy

  1. sarahsymons says:

    Thanks for the review, Alun. It was good to see that so many people were interested in listening to Egyptologists, archaeologists, and astronomers discuss the latest research in the field. In this subject area, sensational documentaries and ‘alternative’ books often make such a big noise that the (in my opinion) more interesting questions about what ancient Egypt can tell us about the origins of scientific activity are pushed into the background. From Egypt, we have depictions of the star sky, texts which deal with the motions of stars, and tables of observations. We also have timekeeping instruments such as sundials and water-clocks. It seems a shame that these documents and objects don’t get more attention than ‘alternative’ theories; the EES Study Day has restored a little balance, I hope.

  2. […] Giving a public talk at the same time as an England World Cup football match might seem foolhardy, but the regulars at Leicester's Cafe Scientifique showed that football was no match for a discussion of ancient Egyptian astronomy.  I expected to have no audience at all but was very pleasantly surprised by the level of interest on Tuesday 21st June.  Coming hot on the heels of the rather more formal EES Study Day, the atmosphere was more relaxed and the questions were the best I've had. […]

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