Astronomy and the Charting of Stars is as Old as our Civilization

More than 5000 years ago, ancient astronomers were already creating detailed star maps.

How did the ancients know so much about space and the Solar System? How is it possible that we find artifacts from two, three, five thousand years ago in different parts of the world with similar astronomical significance that prove that ancient astronomers from around the world clearly knew more than we believe? Let’s take the Sumerians for example.

The spectrum of astronomical knowledge possessed by the Sumerians already at the earliest stages of their development is another secret of the Sumerian civilization. Today, it is already clear that astronomical documents that have come down to us from ancient Babylon are copies of earlier Sumerian texts.

Hundreds of clay tablets have been found containing astronomical terms, formulas, tables, and all calculations were made with amazing accuracy. Scientists can not stop arguing about how exactly these calculations were made. Could the Sumerians themselves make such accurate observations, and in general, why did they need them at the dawn of civilization?

Judge for yourself, more than five thousand years ago, the Sumerians already knew how to calculate the periods of rotation of stars and planets, using a heliocentric model of the universe, very reminiscent of the modern one.

The Sumerians knew all the planets revolving around the Sun, although Uranus was only officially discovered in the 18th century. They divided the entire celestial sphere into the visible part, which they called “the face of the sky”, and the “heart of the sky” – the part that was hidden from them. 

Sumerian astronomers separated the rising and setting stars and observed their movement relative to the line where the celestial dome merges with the earth – the horizon. The highest point of the skydome was in the center, we now call it the zenith.

The Sumerians clearly distinguished between the periods of the winter and summer equinox and the periods of the solstice. Such a broad knowledge in the field of astronomy allowed the Sumerians to create the first lunisolar calendar in the history of mankind. The Sumerian calendar appeared in the sacred city of Nippur, and then all the inhabitants of Southern Mesopotamia began to use it when performing cults and rituals.

The calendar is based on a very accurate comparison of the alternation of the lunar phases with the annual cycle of the sun’s rotation. In the Sumerian calendar, the year consisted of 12 months, 2 semesters, and 4 seasons, and every few years, a special decree introduced an additional thirteenth month, the purpose of which was to align the rotation cycles of the Moon and the Sun.

And then, we have numerous examples of ancient astronomical efforts from other places in the world – from artifacts discovered in Germany to monuments in Japan and South America. Here are several examples of fascinating ancient star maps that clearly should not exist if we consider that the ancient civilizations truly were as unadvanced as we believe them to be.

Ancient Star Map in the Japanese Tomb of Kitora

During excavations that took place in the Japanese district of Nara within the village of Asuka, archaeologists discovered the tomb of Kitora. During its detailed examination, a map of the stellar firmament was found, which shows the location of the stars of the first century BC.

It is considered interesting that the burial itself dates back to the 7th century already in the modern era.

Here is the ancient star map discovered on the ceiling of the Japanese Kitora Tomb. Credit: Agency for Cultural Affairs
Here is the ancient star map discovered on the ceiling of the Japanese Kitora Tomb. Credit: Agency for Cultural Affairs

All this splendor was discovered in 1983. Despite all the other finds, archaeologists recognized the star image as the most important discovery. A detailed study revealed that 68 constellations are inscribed there. From this fresco, astronomers even managed to accurately determine the days of the summer and winter equinox.

It has been reliably established that this fresco was made in 65 BC. And this is just a good copy from an older original. In addition to well-known constellations, such as the Pleiades or the Big Dipper, there are objects on the map, which are not determined by scientists in any way. There is an assumption that these are constellations that were observed in the deep past over Ancient China.

A scientists has annotated the star map. Here is everything that it shows. Credit: Steve Renshaw
A scientist has annotated the star map. Here is everything that it shows. Credit: Steve Renshaw

The inaccuracies found on the fresco by scientists were explained by the fact that the author, who copied the image on the ceiling of the tomb, was extremely far from the knowledge and principles of astronomy, but performed the work quite accurately.

It also remains a big mystery for scientists how such a detailed map was made without the use of telescopes. After all, the human eye is unable to see in such detail some of the constellations depicted on the ceiling.

Side view of the map in the tomb. Credit: Agency for Cultural Affairs


Sumerian Star Map

The Planisphere is a neo-Assyrian flat star map, namely, the reproduction by the ancients of the spherical part of the starry sky on a clay tablet. The artifact, designated as K8538, was found in the library of King Assurbanipal in Nineveh. Scholars suggest that the ancient star map was a direct copy of a tablet made around 5,500-5,600 years ago during the actual celestial events illustrated on the tablet.

The city of Nineveh was the last capital of Assyria and was destroyed by the Babylonians in 600 BC. The library of King Ashurbanipal, which contained about 50,000 tablets, was half looted. As a result, many ancient scriptures have not survived to our time. On such “tablets of knowledge,” various events were depicted that took place with the planet Earth in different epochs of the universe. But back to our K8538 planisphere.

Perhaps the most extraordinary ancient star map discovered to date. Credit:
Perhaps the most extraordinary ancient star map discovered to date. Credit:

The map is a circle divided by radial lines into 8 equal sectors (1-8 or 0-7). Its diameter is 18 centimeters. Unfortunately, about 45% of the planisphere is missing due to 2 significant damages.

The surviving part of the tablet is a circular map with the names of the stars and constellations, namely their symbolic designations. This planisphere was rewritten from an older Sumerian source and tells of several events that happened in the past. One of these natural events was the fall of an asteroid on planet Earth in the Alpine region.

The problem is that there is no crater left from this impact in Europe which raises questions about how genuine this map is. We can’t, however, argue with the detailed description of this event that was translated from the ancient star map.

The Sumerian Planisphere as it is being kept in the museum. Credit: British Museum
The Sumerian Planisphere as it is being kept in the museum. Credit: British Museum

The division of the planisphere into eight parts raises many questions. For example, the king of Assyria Sargon II built “eight gates of Babylon in eight directions of the wind”, which is reflected on the tablet as a very important number throughout ancient Mesopotamia.

Furthermore, the planet Venus had an important mystical significance for the Sumerians. It was depicted in the form of an eight-pointed star, four of which were elongated. For many other ancient peoples, the dome of the night sky, like the symbol of Venus, was divided into 8 sectors, each of which represented one element of nature.

Each element, in turn, had a unique connection with the universe. Clay tablets were of great mystical significance to the ancients and were used in rituals and spells. In addition to the systems familiar to us, other unknown stars are displayed on the planisphere, the origin of which raises a chain of new questions.

Nebra Sky Disk

This artifact has long been thought to be a forgery. Scientists now know that it is real and describes the night sky. This is a bronze disk with a diameter of 32 centimeters and a diagram of the sky depicted in gold. It shows the sun, the moon, the Pleiades, and three other crescents, two of which are thought to represent the lines of the horizon, and the third probably symbolizes the concept of the boat with which the sun moves.

The disk was found in the German mountain Mittelberg, along with several other relics from the Bronze Age, and all artifacts are at least 3,600 years old. The disc is made by a civilization that flourished in Europe before the arrival of the Celts. This is probably one of the first celestial maps in human history.

There are two long arcs on both sides that extend 80 degrees. The distance between sunrises and sunsets during the summer and winter solstice is 82.7 degrees. It is believed that the two arcs represent the points on the horizon at which the sun rises for a year.

The ancient Nebra Sky Disk star map in all its beauty. Credit: Rainer Zenz / Wikimedia Commons

Between the two arcs, there is a whole circle and a crescent. The crescent definitely symbolizes the moon, while the large circle can represent the sun or the full moon. Recent research on the disk suggests that this is most likely the sun.

In the background are 23 celestial objects that are not placed in a special order and a group of seven stars, which symbolizes the star cluster of the Pleiades. X-rays have shown that there are two more stars under the right golden arc, so the arcs are thought to have been placed at a later date.

It is widely accepted that the disk was used as an astronomical instrument and that by comparing the sky and the positions of sunrise and sunset on the arcs of the disk, the time of year could be determined. There are also theories that the disk was used to calculate the difference between the solar and lunar cycles by adding the 13th lunar month, something that is done every two or three years.

Most likely, it is also important that the disk was found on top of a hill – a good place to observe the movements of the sun. The site of the ancient artifact was surrounded by a small artificial hill, which was probably used to measure the sun’s position on the horizon.

Since its discovery, the disk has not stopped puzzling archaeologists and astronomers, and in particular, the way the moon is depicted. According to ancient Babylonian rule, the 13th lunar month is added only when the observer sees the moon and the Pleiades, exactly as they are depicted on the celestial disk of Nebra.

Pedra Do Inga

Pedra do Inga easily ranks among the most mysterious archaeological sites of the past century. This is a monument that differs from the previous three ancient star maps we discussed because it is so much more. Besides the distinctive astronomical features, Pedra do Inga has another 400 engravings that illustrate animals, foods, humanoids, even rituals, and unknown symbols.

Now, experts believe that some of the symbols on the massive monument form a solar calendar while others are illustrations of constellations. Very few of these engravings have been deciphered but experts believe they have found Orion and Cygnus, as well as the Milky Way.

 There are hundreds of engravings on Pedra do Inga and many have astronomical meanings. Credit: IgorSuassuna / Pixabay
There are hundreds of engravings on Pedra do Inga and many have astronomical meanings. Credit: IgorSuassuna / Pixabay

There are a couple of incredible facts about Pedra do Inga that we should mention. First, experts cannot date the monument. They know that the stone base is 6000 years old and more. As for the engravings, they could be several hundred or several thousand years old.

Even more interesting is the fact that experts found Egyptian and Sumerian symbols engraved on Pedra do Inga. Does this mean that the monument is thousands of years old and ancient civilizations from South America and Mesopotamia were in contact? Or was Pedra do Inga created recently and these symbols were simply put there to confuse us?

Ancient astronomers were obviously better at their job than historians ever believed. We find proof of their achievements year after year. So, it is obvious that astronomy is as old as human civilization. But what if it is even older?

For example, recent research on 40,000-year-old cave paintings, previously believed to be illustrations of animals, suggested that they were actually constellations and stars. What if astronomy predates even the earliest human civilizations?

It is more than clear that the ancients had a much better view of the sky than we do even without powerful tools like telescopes. But how could they understand the night sky to such an extent? It is not possible that they simply copied what they saw because there are clear explanations of each object on these ancient star maps.

Were these star charts created by the cultures we believe or were there more advanced ancient civilizations that made these observations? This is a commonly discussed problem in the community although many experts prefer to stay away from such “controversial” theories. But is there a better explanation at this point?

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Alice Silva Reale de Araújo. (n.d.). Pedra do Ingá: Arte brasileira com muito mais de 500 anos.
Haughton, B. (2021, April 03). The nebra sky disk – ancient map of the stars.
Starr, M. (2015, July 20). Mysterious ancient star chart shows foreign skies.
Wilson, L. (2021, March 15). Scientists find 40,000-year-old star maps with sophisticated knowledge of constellations.

Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. My experience as a freelance writer began in 2018 but I have been part of the Curiosmos family since mid-2020. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.
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