Astronomy and Rock Art

Venus Calendar rock art

Astronomy Rock Art, Negev Desert Israel.

Rock Art and its meaning

Early references to astronomy can be found in the Negev Desert rock art, which indicates Egyptian and Sumerian influences. These ancient civilizations observed the skies religiously in order to interpret events and predict the future. With reverence, they tracked sunrises and sunsets, moon phases, eclipses,  zodiac stars, and planets as if the stars were supreme beings who watched and controlled their world. Their nearest neighbor, Israel, borrowed their astronomical knowledge and engraved it on Negev Desert rock art. Archeological findings indicate that rock art depicts seasonal sky views and mythical stories in an attempt to explain the behavior of nature. Ancient astronomy expressions are found in burial places, tombs, rituals, myths, and rock art.  

Early Astronomy in Sumer and Egypt

Religion in ancient cultures was based on the worship of nature’s hidden forces closely linked to astronomical cycles. As evidenced by Sumerian and Egyptian records, astronomy was still in its infancy in 1300 BC. Their observations centered primarily on the Sun, Moon, Venus, and stars near the North Pole.

For the earth dwellers, the stars and constellations created impressive heavenly scenes containing human and animal figures. The royal flavor they added to the scenes magnified life on earth. The Sumerian cylinder seals, boundary stones, Egyptian temples, and rock art illustrate fine examples of such abstraction. Ancient art provides us with an insight into the ancient mind spanning thousands of years. For example, a display of major and minor gods on the left side of Fig1 illustrates the knowledge of stars in Ancient Babylonia from the 1200 BC boundary stone. We see the major stars or gods in the top row, Sin the Moon God in the form of a crescent, the Sun God as a circle with radiating lines, and Venus/Ishtar, represented as a circle with eight points.

Early astronomy from Egypt and Babylon
Fig.1 Early astronomy evidence from Egypt and Babylon. Left-Boundary stone Old Babylon 1200BC. Right-Pharaoh Seti tomb 1300BC

The right side of Fig.1 shows a painting of Egyptian star knowledge from the tomb of Seti I, dated 1300 BC. The scene depicts the constellations surrounding the North Star and their relative placement in the sky. The painting is cleverly set up so that the lines (added by the author) between the North Star and the figures at the bottom suggest constellations associated with the current season.

The ancient world was profoundly influenced by astronomy, which influenced beliefs and rituals that spawned myths celebrating the power of the stars, befitting ancient imaginations.

• The first temples were aligned to heavenly bodies.
• The first calendars were based on the lunar and star cycle.
• The festivals were celebrated following the sun’s yearly travel.
• The gods in many cultures were derived from heavenly bodies.

Early Moon Calendars 

Ancient civilizations observed the stars, sunrises, and sunsets, the moon’s daily phases, eclipses, and the positions of the zodiac stars. Observing the sky and recording star arrangements enabled them to predict their appearance. As a result, a new heavenly clock or calendar was created. By measuring time progress, people were able to plan events and coordinate their social and agricultural activities. Evidence shows that moon tracking began 20,000 years ago, well before the agricultural revolution. In Fig3, we see an example of an ancient lunar calendar; a painting that dates to 15,000 B.C. from the Lascaux Caves. The twenty-eight dots underneath the pregnant four-legged animal represent the count of the lunar cycle.

horse and deer moon calendar, Lascaux, France
Fig. 3 The horse and deer moon calendar, Lascaux, France

On the right drawing, under the deer, there is a square with thirteen dots representing the number of crescent moon nights until the full moon. The moon cycle count, in this case, proceeds in both directions comprising twenty-six days, the number of days the moon appears in the sky.

Moon Calendars Rock Art, Negev Desert

Moon cycle tracking is evident in Negev Desert rock art. The unique rock art depicts a centipede in Fig.4 scene1 and is an ingenious method of counting the monthly moon cycle (for further information, see Rock Art Moon Calendars). This unusual creature has twenty-eight legs, with a square at the end. Each leg represents a day of the moon cycle, and the square represents a moonless day.

Moon calendars Negev Desert, early astronomy rock art
Fig4. Moon Calendars from Negev Desert rock art. Scene1- A centipede with 28 legs for counting the full moon cycle. Scene2-Two stars for counting half a moon cycle

The rock art scene in Fig. 4 scene2 shows two star-like engravings with 7 rays each that count the moon days. According to this counting scheme, one stone is added for each day, and when the first star fills with stones, the count proceeds to the lower star. Counting proceeds until it reaches the ray with the full circle (meaning full moon), which represents the conclusion of the half-moon cycle. At this point, counting continues in reverse order.

Venus Calendars Rock Art

The lunar calendar does not follow seasons since there are only 29.5 days in a lunar month. This introduces an inherent mismatch, of 11 days yearly, between the lunar and solar cycles. In Sumer, this mismatch problem was resolved by interlacing months and adopting accurate stellar references or cross-checking with the Venus cycle.

Fig.5 scene1 is rock art that shows an ingenious Venus 8-year calendar counter. The wheel with 12 cavities counts the months by adding a stone for every lunar month that passes. The 8 plant branches count the years.   (for more details see  Venus Calendars Rock Art).

The Venus cycle calendars rock art research, Negev Desert,
Fig. 5 The Venus cycle calendar rock art, Negev Desert, Scene1-Venus octagonal cycle. Scene2-Venus synodic cycle

The rock art, in Fig.5 scene2,  is a simple and effective counter of Venus’s Synodic cycle. The three sun-like symbols having 8, 9, and 8 rays each (from left to right) count the synodic calendar days. The count begins from the left sun, adding a stone to each day until full. In the next step, a stone is added to the middle sun while clearing the left sun. The process continues filling the rays in the middle sun until full, which completes a count of 72. Then a stone is added to the right sun and the left and middle sun are cleared, and the count continues as explained before. The counting process continues until the right star fills with stones. This final stone placement results in simple math of (8X9X8=576) and with the addition of days until the alignment of Earth, Sun, and Venus. (for more details see  Venus Calendars Rock Art).

Solar Calendars

Solar calendar marking is much more difficult to follow but the solstice and equinox days are determined with artificial alignments with the sun. With simple means, people recorded the sun’s behavior. They oriented monuments and temples to the sunrise or sunset on the year’s important days, such as the equinox and solstice. These alignments, see Fig.6, recorded these days that later turned into the holy days. They marked the dispersed tribe’s pilgrimage days for rituals, worship, and social gathering weaving the dispersed tribe’s social life fabric. Most of the celebrations took place during the spring equinox.

Orientation of Negev Masseboth
Fig. 6 Orientation of Negev Masseboth, a sample of 199 (Avner U. 2002)

Later, when astronomical knowledge expanded, the sun rising and setting time turned into a very useful time marker. By recording the star’s appearance/disappearance just before sunrise or after sunset one could determine the time of the year. This led to the early Zodiac creation 3000 years ago during the Babylonian period.

Winter skies Rock Art

The desert’s winter season is considered the blessed season in the desert. It is the time the rains pour down, watering the dry earth, and filling the empty water cisterns. The desert people must have waited anxiously for these heavenly signs of winter, engraving the sky scenes in rock art anticipating their arrival.

Rock Art astronomy winter season constellations
Fig. 7 Winter season constellation Negev Desert rock art.

Such is the Negev rock art image in Fig.7, which accurately depicts the sky picture of the prominent winter constellations. The figure’s shape, like Perseus on top with the pulsing star Algol between his legs, and their order match accurately the winter sky constellations layout.

Summer skies Rock Art

Unlike the winter sky, which represents a blessed season, the summer sky Fig.7 represents the cursed season. The figures in this rock art show the summer constellation roaming in the sky. The poisonous scorpions, snakes, and huge lizard that fills the sky are a reflection of what the desert people experience on earth.

 rock art astronomy Summer season constellations
Fig. 7 Summer season constellations, Negev Desert rock art.

Don’t look for a perfect match with this artistic display to its sky view. Most of the scenes and figures are brewed by the artist’s imagination. However, the adherence to the sky view manifests in hidden details such as dots and specific constellation characteristics. There are many hints in this scene, for example, the big lizard in the center represents the constellation Bootes recognizable by its kite-shaped body, its 90-degree tail,  and the erect pose of Bootes that announces the summer. This is the heart of this scene. The square shape of the crab tail on the right suggests the shape of the constellation Ursa Major. The lowest dot in this scene, below the lizard’s tail, is the star Spica in the Virgin constellation. On the upper right side, you can see the M, the outline of the Cassiopea constellation.

Spring skies Rock Art

The rock art in Fig.8 depicts the main stars and constellations at the vernal equinox. At the season’s arrival, the constellations Orion and Scorpion appear together for short time during the season change, when Orion sinks the constellation Scorpio rises so that they meet only at the beginning of spring. On left, we see Antares the main star in the Scorpio constellation, and on the right, we see the three stars of the Orion constellation belt. The Ram symbol under the ibex,  constellation Aries, marks the arrival of the Year at Spring, in the Egyptian/Greek tradition.

rock art astronomy springtime constellations Negev Desert Israel
Fig. 8  Spring sky view, the stars of Antares and Orion constellations, Negev Desert rock art


Ancient religion in early cultures was based on worshiping nature’s hidden forces tightly connected to astronomical cycles. Shining stars such as the sun, moon, and planets were the focus of early astronomy. These luminaries, revered by all, represented gods in many beliefs, a fundamental ingredient in the ancients’ spiritual lives. The genetic coding of astronomy is entrenched in every living creature be it human, animal, or plant. They are derivative of life’s basic rhythms; our clock, day and night, and seasons are all by-products of basic astronomy. Life follows the astronomical cycle governing the agricultural, religious, and ritual times regulating our life patterns. No wonder, the ancients assumed the sun, moon, and stars were the rulers of their world.

People always danced before their gods, danced to attract their attention, danced in their shapes, or danced to show their admiration. Understanding the sun, moon, and stars’ cyclical movements was the foundation of astronomy and astrology.


    1. Avner Uzi, Studies in the material and spiritual culture of the Negev and Sinai populations, during the 6th-3rd millennia B.C, Jerusalem, 2002.
    2. Golan, A., (1991)Myth and Symbol, Symbolism in Prehistoric Religion
    3. Hartner, W. 1965. “The Earliest History of the Constellations in the Near East and the Motif of the Lion–Bull Combat
    4. Marshak, A. 1991  The Roots of Civilization: of Man’s First Art, Symbol and Notation”
    5. Rotblum (2019) Rock Art in Israel
    6. Ward, W. H. (1910), The Seal Cylinders of Western Asia

More deciphering, in a new book Rock Art in Israel, available online.

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