Author – Alan Mason -
A story of how our ancestors may have laid the foundations of science, particularly astronomy, by the careful observation of the natural processes around them.
1. Site of the Pre-Historic Village
The people lived in a small village of circular huts, clustered together in an open clearing. Each hut contained a family, and the population would be about two hundred people. The huts were built with wooden frame walls and thatching over it to keep out the weather. The map, (2), shows a few landscape features to which the people had given simple names. For convenience, we assume they lived in a temperate part of the northern hemisphere.
A. THE IMPRESSIONIST STAGE
The people lived out of doors for much of the time and consequently knew more of natural events than modern people do. They had no compasses, clocks, or calendars but they were well aware of certain basic facts about the movements of the sun.
(i) Compass Points
When the wind blew from the direction of Woody Hill, and Moon Lake it tended to be cold. When it blew from the direction of Breast Hill it was much warmer. Thus the people had a general impression of north and south, even if it was inexact. They also knew that the sun rose in the general direction of Arrowhead Wood, although it varied a lot during the year. The sun also set in the general direction of Three Peak Hill. Thus they had a general impression of east and west. They had words for the compass directions which only meant, “About, or roughly, north” etc., as shown on the map (2).
2. The Village at the Impressionist Stage
(ii) The Day
Although the people had no way of measuring time intervals exactly, they knew that the sun rose every day in the general direction of Arrowhead Wood, moved higher in the sky towards Breast Hill, and from then on it fell lower in the sky until it set in the general direction of Three Peak Hill. It did this every day as long as the sun was visible.
(iii) The Year
The people had no calendar but they had a word, “winter”, for the colder time of year, when the days were short and the nights lasted longer. In the summer the days were longer and there was plenty of light to do things. The nights were shorter. They recognised “midsummer”, not exactly, but as a time of maximum heat. They knew winter grew gradually colder towards a minimum temperature, “midwinter” but they would not be aware of a precise date. The people probably could not count much beyond 20 to 40 and the idea of 365 days in the year would be a difficult concept for them.
B. THE MEASUREMENT STAGE
The people were static in their village and lived by raising crops like simple wheat, rye or oats in the fields nearby. They also farmed animals like sheep, goats and a few cattle. The younger men went on regular hunting trips while the women gathered food locally like fruits, nuts, thick leaves, and root vegetables when they were in season. Older or crippled men would have been too slow for hunting, so they specialised in sedentary crafts like knapping flints for arrowheads and tools like axes, knives or hole-borers. They and the children also kept an eye on the livestock, while most of the men were away.
As some jobs were static, it gave an opportunity for intelligent members of the tribe to observer natural events more closely. The stump of a dead tree, on a little mound in the village, was called “The Meeting Tree” because this was where outdoor meetings of the tribe were held.
(i) The Compass Points and Noon
One day, an old flint-knapper, called Magus, decided to mark the course of the shadow of the Meeting Tree through a whole day. He already knew the shadow would be longest at sunrise and sunset, and shortest in the middle of the day, but he wanted to see exactly what happened. He marked the tip of the shadow by pushing a stick in the ground and leaving it in place.
3. Looking Northwards and Studying the Shadow Position.
Magus used ten pegs, one for each finger, but as he had no clock the pegs were put in unequal time intervals. This did not affect the smooth curve (pink line) of the points. Although he knew nothing about graphs or “interpolation” he was quite capable of “joining up the dots” as nursery children do today.
He discovered that if he stood with his back against the Meeting Tree, and looked at the peg of the shortest shadow, it always pointed in the same direction, exactly north, and not just “about north”. The direction could be found more accurately by using taller sticks and sighting along them from the Meeting Tree. On our map of the village, due north was a line which touched the right hand edge of Moon Lake and the right side of Woody Hill.
He also found that if he stood right over the peg of the shortest shadow, and looked towards the sun, the top of the Meeting Tree was always exactly between the two peaks of Breast Hill. This was the direction, exactly south. Later, he realised than if you wanted to know the exact middle of the day, it was when the sun was directly in line with Breast Hill.
Over time, everyone realised that these observations were true every day, every time you plotted the shadows. The exact positions of north and south can now be shown on the map of the village. Everyone now knew exactly when the middle of the day occurred.
4. The Village at the North / South Measurement Stage
Magus had also discovered that if he put just one peg in at sunrise and another peg in at sunset, on the same day, the two pegs gave a special line. This line always pointed in the same directions, no matter what day you chose, or what time of the year you did the peg marking. It was the line of exactly east and west, no longer “about east” and “about west”.
Now, due west from the village was a line which just touched the right side, of the left hand peak, of Three Peak Hill. Due east was a line which touched the right hand edge of Arrowhead Wood. (5)
Scientist or Magician?
The tribe were amazed at the discoveries of Magus when he explained them at the Meeting Tree. (6) They regarded him now as a kind of magician, a master of hidden mysteries. Although these discoveries did not yet affect the members of the tribe they were enthusiastic about his work and encouraged him to go on. They were proud of him when people visited from other tribes, and were impressed at the findings.
5. The Village at the Four Compass Points Stage
6. Magus Explains His Discoveries
(ii) The Calendar of Solstices and Equinoxes
Magus had the help of a young boy, Eos, as he was doing his measurements. He was an intelligent child and suggested a set of observations to Magus. The sun never seemed to rise in the same place during the year. Instead of checking the sun’s shadow over a single day, and then pulling out all the pegs afterwards, why not try pegging just sunrise and sunset for a whole year?
It was a bold suggestion and would need some planning, but Magus immediately saw the value of the idea. It only needed two measurements a day and would not prevent them from doing other observations. How many days were there in a year? No one knew, but they were going to need a lot of pegs.
7. Students of the Sunrise
They had begun recording in the warmer weather and the sun rose to the north of east. As the days went by, the sunrise direction gradually moved further to the north. Eos had noticed that the short shadow from directly south, at mid-day was growing even shorter. He suggested to Magus that they measure this with pegs as well.
Both Magus and Eos knew they were moving towards mid-summer. Eos thought that at
exact mid-summer the sun would be at its highest in the sky at noon, and the shadow would be the shortest of the year. Despite their growing excitement, mid-summer proved to be a bit of a disappointment to Magus and Eos. The sun seemed to have “slowed down” because the direction of sunrise remained quite steady for several days, and the pegs in the shadow tip were all in the same place.
It meant that they did not know which day was mid-summer, only that it must have been one particular day among several days. (This is why the modern astronomical name is the Summer Solstice, meaning, “sun stands still”. It doesn’t, of course, but the sunrise position stands still for several days)
When the sunrise position began to move southwards they knew that mid-summer had passed. Eos suggested that they marked the maximum northward position of the sunrise with a post rather than a peg. Magus had some of the men help him to drive in a stout post. As they continued to plot the sunrise position with pegs, they discussed future conditions and made predictions.
8. The Sunrise Positions During the Year
They both knew that summer days were long and nights were short. The opposite was true in winter. There must be a day when night and day were of equal length. Without clocks they could never measure this directly. Eos had a brilliant intuition. If mid-summer sunrise was to the north-east and mid-winter sunrise was to the south-east, then half-way between them would be exactly east. This must be the time when the day and night were of equal length. They could not prove it but it seemed to be a reasonable assumption.
Eventually, they both observed the Autumnal Equinox when the sun rose exactly in the east, and set exactly in the west. They realised this was an important marker in the year and had a stout post erected, instead of a peg. They carried on their observations until midwinter, when snow was on the ground. Again, they found a “standstill” when the position of sunrise was static for days. They had a post erected to mark mid-winter, but it was very difficult to do as the ground was very hard. Eos pointed out to Magus that the angle between the Summer Solstice and the Equinox was the same as between the Winter Solstice and the Equinox. (8)
They observed the Vernal or Spring Equinox when the sun rose due east and set due west. There was no need to erect a post as the sunrise position was identical to that of the Autumn Equinox. As they moved to the completion of a year’s observations, young Eos was full of criticisms of their methods and possible ways of refining them to achieve greater accuracy. Magus had come to realise that his own natural curiosity was far exceeded by this boy, who had a keen, analytical mind and was always racing ahead of the immediate task in hand. He was just beginning this work, and he had his adult life before him and was likely to go far with it.
C. THE ANALYTICAL STAGE
We need to remember that neither Eos nor Magus had any idea what the sun was, or why it made these apparent movements in the sky. They would have a set of beliefs based on their religion or folk-tales, not unlike the later Greek myth of the god, Apollo, who drove his Sun Chariot across the heavens each day. (9) The fact that Magus and Eos had erroneous belief systems does not detract from the fact that they were practising good observational science, and had discovered for themselves, the four cardinal compass points, as well as the Solstices and Equinoxes.
9. The Greek Theory of Solar Movement
Felis Makes Plans
At this point, the village headman, Felis, intervened as Magus was explaining the significance of the posts which had been erected as a result of the solar observations. As leader of the hunting group he travelled far more widely than Magus or Eos, and he explained that he knew a village, at a distance of about five days travel, where they had set up large standing stones to mark the positions of the solar events during the year.
He wanted something similar, either in his village or nearby. It might be worth combining with several villages to create an important solar centre. They would hold proper mid-winter and mid-summer festivals there, like the ones he had attended elsewhere on his travels.
10. Swinside Stone Circle, Boughton in Furness, Cumbria
He also had plans for his nephew, Eos, who, he agreed with Magus, was a very bright boy. Felis intended to acquire two or three horses to add to the livestock the village carried. This would increase the tribe’s mobility. Eos should learn to ride, and then he would take him on a long journey to where the Great River came out to the sea. Here, there were whole circles of standing stones, (10) and Felis wanted Eos to study the business with experts, for several months or even a year, before returning to his home village.
The Education of Eos
A couple of years later, Felis led a small party on horseback to the Great River. He met with “The Elders “, a group of wise men who had assisted in building stone circles, and introduced Eos to them. Initially The Elders were surprised at the young age of Eos, and they asked him to explain about what he had been working on with Magus.
What impressed The Elders was not the discoveries he had made, but his criticism of their methods and the various sources of inaccuracy he had found. The boy was not puffed up with self-importance, but only too aware of the shortcomings of the methods he and Magus had been using. They asked about the height of the Meeting Tree, and the distance of various landscape features.
Smiling at the boy’s replies, they explained that most of their difficulties were of scale. He and Magus had done well but they were working on far too small a scale to achieve a high degree of accuracy. With a better observation platform, and sighting positions on the horizon, several miles away, he would be able to determine the exact day of the solstices. The Elders told Felis that, despite his age, they would accept Eos into their group for initiation and training. Felis said farewell to his nephew, and leaving a trusted body-servant to keep an eye on the boy, rode back to the village.
11. The Boy as a Dreamer of Future Worlds
The Problem of Records
We do not know how people in the Pre-Historic period kept records. Writing had not yet been invented. “Pre-Historic” is now an old-fashioned term which simply means, “before written records”. Magus and Eos had kept records by pegs in the ground, but this was only a temporary arrangement, easily disturbed and not really convenient. For the analytical stage to flourish it was essential to keep extensive records which could be studied at leisure, otherwise it became necessary to repeat work that had already been done.
In South America, the Incas of Peru kept records by using knotted strings of different colours, in a kind of net, known as a quipu. The early Spanish colonists simply thought these were badly made domestic mats. Later scholars discovered the quipus were a source of information about accounts and transactions. It is possible that Eos and The Elders instructing him used some system like this, or bone/wooden tally sticks to keep a record of their work. We know that in the Palaeolithic period, over 500, 000 years ago, people used bone tally sticks.
The Precession of the Equinoxes
The reason for laying such stress on careful recording of observations is because of the next stage of enquiry. As we have seen, establishing the cardinal compass points by careful measurements is the work of a single day. Establishing the position and date of the Solstices and Equinoxes is the work of at least a year. The investigation of precession needed observations over several lifetimes.
Eos had mainly been observing solar motion through cast shadows. The Elders now introduced him to accurate observation of stellar motions. He was well aware of the main stellar clusters, or constellations, and he knew their local names. In addition, he knew that during the course of a night the star pattern revolved around the Pole Star, which lay exactly to the north. The Pole Star could be found from the two “marker stars” in “The Plough”. (12)
12. Revolution of the Constellations around Polaris during the Night
We know today that the north pole of the earth’s rotation points, quite fortuitously, at Polaris. During the night, as the earth revolves, the star pattern appears to revolve around the Pole Star, but this is an illusion. Eos, Magus, and all The Elders at that time, believed that the stars were simply a pattern in the heavens. They had no idea of the enormous size of stars and the enormous interstellar distances involved. They were just an unchanging pattern that moved around the earth in complex ways.
He knew another important fact about the constellations. There were twelve constellations in a belt across the heavens. The sun, the moon, and the wandering stars, (the planets) kept to this belt in their movements. Our name for this belt is “The Zodiac”, and the names of the constellations were the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, called for their fanciful resemblance to mythological beings, animals or familiar objects. (13)
Eos also knew that the twelve signs gradually moved round during the course of a year. If you took a fixed observation point, like a small lake, and noted the night sky above it, each of the Zodiac Constellations appeared for a month, and then moved on. (The twelve zodiacal months do not correspond exactly to our calendar months because the latter do not have a fixed length.)
13. The Twelve Signs of the Zodiac
The Elders were extremely interested in observations of sunrise at the Spring Equinox. They wanted to know in which Zodiacal Constellation the sun rose. Obviously they had to know the exact date of the Equinox, and the determination of this has been explained earlier. They were aware that the position of sunrise at the Spring Equinox was gradually changing at a very slow rate. In the colourful language of astrology, “the Sun moves from one Zodiacal House into the next one.” This shift is what is meant by our modern astronomical phrase, “the Precession of the Equinoxes.” This precessional movement of the sun takes place in the opposite direction to the yearly motion illustrated in Figure 13.
Nowadays, we would measure this change as an angle, and record it in numbers, but we do not know how The Elders recorded the subtle shift in the Equinoctial Sunrise within the Zodiacal Constellation. It is possible that they used sighting rods at the time of the sunrise, and then cut an incised line on a heavy stone, later in the day.
We now know the reason for precession. It is demonstrated by the familiar toy gyroscope, whose spinning mimics the turning earth. As the gyroscope flywheel begins to slow, so the upper pole starts to wobble. It describes a circle, turning slowly in the opposite direction to the spin of the flywheel. In just the same way, the precessional wobble of the earth’s north pole moves in the opposite direction to the spinning of the earth itself.
14. Gyroscope Demonstrating Precession
Precisely Known Times
It is a puzzle as to why The Elders were so interested in the precession of the equinoxes, but we are most impressed that they were able to do this at such an early stage in human scientific endeavour. It may have had a mystical significance, and we think that this early science was not separate, but intimately bound up with the religion of the time.
We might offer as an explanation, the concept of “precisely known times”. The ancients only knew one time of day exactly, and that was noon, as explained earlier. Similarly, they knew only four dates in the year exactly, and they were the Solstices and the Equinoxes. When the ancients stated in which Zodiacal House the sun resided at the Spring Equinox, they were giving an indication of the historical period in which the observations were made. This fixes their place in large-scale time, albeit very inexactly, as will be explained later.
We now know that the precessional cycle of the sun takes 26, 000 years. As there are twelve Zodiacal Houses it takes 26, 000/12 or 2, 167 years for the sun to move through one House. Another way to look at the process is that it takes the sun 26, 000 years to complete a 360 degree circuit of the heavens. This is 26, 000/360 or 72 years for the sun to precess just one degree. This gives some idea of the accuracy of observation needed to detect a difference of one degree across the whole of a long human lifetime.
Recent Houses of the Zodiac
About 2, 000 years ago the sun moved out of the House of Aries, (the Ram) into the House of Pisces (the Fishes) and we are now moving into the House of Aquarius, (the Water Carrier). .Some modern cults have seen this as powerfully symbolic. The Aries period was the time of Jewish history described in the Old Testament, and the original Jew, Abraham, taking a ram, caught in a thicket, for sacrifice, instead of his son Isaac. The “shofar” or ram’s horn trumpet was an aspect of Jewish ritual.
The last two thousand years has been the time of Christianity, whose early secret sign was the fish, in Greek, “icthyous”, an acronym spelling out “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour”. Older readers may remember the sixties musical, “Hair” with its evocative song, “This is the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius.” Depending on which prophetic school you follow, the Age of Aquarius is either going to see the world flooded by melting ice caps, or a chronic water shortage that will create wars everywhere.
A Major Historical Date?
There is, perhaps, a significant pre-historic construction which gives an indication of the time period in which it was built, and when the appropriate astronomical observations were made.
This construction is the Sphinx of Egypt. I don’t want to enter into the many controversies that surround the Sphinx, but I note three important ideas.
15. How the Sphinx May Have Looked Originally
Firstly, there is good scientific evidence that the Sphinx is much older than the present dates ascribed to it by Egyptologists. It appears, in the opinion of some geologists, that it has suffered erosion by running water. The only way this could have happened, in a notoriously dry country like Egypt, is at a time when water was more abundant and the climate was very different from what it is today.
Secondly there is evidence that the head of the Sphinx was re-cut from its original design, to give it a Pharaonic head-dress. The original was simply an accurate version of a lion. (15)
Thirdly, the Sphinx is very accurately aligned to the east. It points to sunrise at the Equinoxes. What the Sphinx is saying to us is, “I was placed here when the Sun was in the House of Leo (the Lion) at the Spring Equinox.”
16. How the Sun Moves Through the Houses of the Zodiac
As Figure 16 shows, from today at the start of Aquarius, we need to track backwards through Pisces, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, and Cancer to Leo; at least five Houses. The simple calculation 5 X 2, 167 yields a value of 10, 835 years. If the Sphinx was built somewhere in the middle of the Leo period, a value of about 12, 000 years ago may be more realistic.
Many believe that the Great Pyramid, and the other two pyramids on the Giza plateau, are contemporaneous with the Sphinx, and were also constructed around about the tenth millennium BC. The fact that some pharaoh, thousands of years later, had his masons carve an inscription saying, “Khefren” built this,” proves nothing other than human vanity.
17. Hipparchus of Rhodes
A Contentious Historical Theory
The ideas set out above are the subject of much argument and discussion. The traditional account claims that the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Rhodes (17) first discovered precession in the second century BC, but all his writings are lost to us. We only have the evidence of the Greek astronomer, Ptolemy, writing 400 years later in the second century AD.
Various authors have claimed that the Babylonians had discovered precession in the fourth century BC, and these discoveries later filtered through to Greece. Others have theorised that the ancient Egyptians, who had accurate calendars, kept astronomical records and were careful observers of the heavens, knew of precession in the third millennium BC or even earlier.
Further evidence of the advanced nature of ancient Greek astronomy is provided by recent research on the second century BC Antikythera Mechanism. It was originally recovered in 1900 from the wreck of an ancient sailing vessel off the Greek island of Antikythera. Recent scientific work, based on evidence from a variety of X-rays, has shown it to be an ancient mechanical computer designed to calculate astronomical positions. The accuracy and complexity of the design are quite remarkable. The complex trains of delicate gear-wheels were not equalled until the clocks and watches of the early nineteenth century.
18. The Antikythera Mechanism of the Second Century BC
The whole topic of ancient astronomy became alive again in the 1980s and 1990s with the publication of several popular books which incorporated precession into theories about ancient civilisations. For example, “Hamlet’s Mill” (de Santillana and von Dechend), “Keeper of the Genesis” (Bauval and Hancock),
The reader is directed to three very detailed wikipedia articles, “Axial Precession”, “Precession of the Equinoxes”, and “Archaeoastronomy”, which describe the science and discuss various claims about ancient discoveries.
In Conclusion, What Happened To Eos?
Eos spent five years in training and observation with The Elders, returning once a year to see his parents, and the rest of the tribe, including Felis. On his first visit home, Felis took the body-servant of Eos aside and questioned him. The man explained that the boy was very happy with his studies, and The Elders treated him well. He seemed to like having someone from home to talk to, but most of his conversation went right over the man’s head, unless it was about family and friends.
At the end of five years, Eos rode home, a dignified young man of eighteen in a blue cloak set with ivory clasps. Felis was impressed, and it was clear that The Elders held Eos in high regard. In a private conversation, Felis asked him about his future plans. He explained that far away to the south, many days journey, there was a wide flat plain, among low chalk hills. This spot had been chosen for a special astronomical and religious site.
The plan was to cut very large blocks of stone and align them to reflect the solstices and equinoxes. It would be the biggest thing on the entire island and would draw pilgrims from all over. Now he had been fully initiated into his craft, he had been invited to join the group of men planning this new stone circle. It would take many years to complete and he was likely make a new life for himself there. All this would need to be explained to his parents, as he was expecting to leave the village forever.
19. Science, Magic and Religion
Just how difficult would it be, for a pre-industrial people, to measure the precession of the equinoxes? Imagine a special wooden viewing platform built round a large heavy stone. This platform had an eye-level ledge with a sight, and was used to establish the precise position of a star close to sunrise. (20)
A set of ten tall poles were set up, about a kilometre away, close to each other and across the approximate line of the star position. When the sun rose, the brightness would extinguish the starlight, but the wooden sight from the viewing platform would be fixed at the position of the star at sunrise.
When the light was bright enough the observer on the viewing platform could see where the star line lay with respect to the poles. “The star line is on the fourth pole from the left.” He would send off a messenger, to run the kilometre distance, and tell the men by the poles to fix a more permanent wooden post in the correct position.
20. Methods for Measuring Precession
Metric units are used to make the calculation easier, and a kilometre is a useful distance for the circle radius. The perimeter is 2Πr, or 2 X 3.14 X 1 = 6.28 Km
One degree of this circle will measure 6.28 Km / 360, or 6, 280 / 360 = 17 metres.
We know it takes 72 years for the star to precess one degree, so it will take 72 years to move 17 metres of circumference. It will move 17 / 72 = 0.2 metres each year. This is 20 cm. or about 8 inches a year. This seems to me well within the measuring capabilities of the methods I have described. If the ancient astronomers limited themselves to one measurement every five years this would give a metre of precessional motion at the circumference.
REFERENCES AND ILLUSTRATIONS
1. Site of the Pre-Historic Village (After, “Celtic Britain” Homer Sykes, Cassell, 1997)
2. The Village at the Impressionist Stage (Author)
3. Looking Northwards and Studying the Shadow Positions (Author)
4. The Village at the North / South Measurement Stage (Author)
5. The Village at the Four Compass Points Stage (Author)
6. Magus Explains His Discoveries (Author, with respects to Andrea Mantegna, 1430-1506)
7. Students of the Sunrise (“Symbolism” Michael Gibson, Taschen, 1999)
8. The Sunrise Positions During the Year (Author)
9. The Greek Theory of Solar Movement (“Redon” by Michael Gibson, Taschen, 1996)
10. Swinside Stone Circle, Boughton in Furness, Cumbria (Sykes, op. cit)
11. The Boy as a Dreamer of Future Worlds (Gibson, op. cit)
12. Revolution of the Constellations around Polaris during the Night (Author)
13. The Twelve Signs of the Zodiac (Author)
14. Gyroscope Demonstrating Precession (Author)
15. How the Sphinx May Have Looked Originally (Author after google image)
16. How the Sun Moves Through the Houses of the Zodiac (Author)
17. Hipparchus of Rhodes (google images)
18. The Antikythera Mechanism of the Second Century BC (google images)
19. Science, Magic and Religion (Gibson, op. cit)
20. Methods for Measuring Precession (Author)