Astronomy and Rock Art

Rock Art Astronomy news. Venus Calendar rock art

Astronomy Rock Art, Negev Desert Israel.

The early astronomy references engraved in Negev Desert rock art originated in Egypt and Sumer. These ancient civilizations observed the sky in an attempt to interpret events and to predict the future. They tracked the sunrise and sunset, the moon’s daily changes, eclipses, and the zodiac stars’, and planets’ appearance as if these stars were the gods that controlled their world. Israel being their smallest neighbor borrowed their astronomical knowledge and engraved them on Negev Desert rock art. According to archaeological findings, rock art depicted seasonal sky views and mythical tales in an attempt to observe and explain nature’s behavior. Ancient earthly religious expressions, such as a burial place, a tomb, a ritual, a myth, or rock art, all demonstrate astronomy worship.

Early Astronomy in Sumer and Egypt

Ancient religion in early cultures was based on worshiping nature’s hidden forces tightly connected to astronomical cycles. Celestial bodies such as the sun, moon, and stars were the focus of early astronomy. The evidence of early astronomy knowledge, from Sumer and Egypt, shows that sky and stars knowledge, in 1300BC, was still in infancy. They focused mainly on the Sun, Moon, Venus, and the stars around the North Pole.

Imaginative scenes were created by the stars and constellations that were recorded in Sumerian boundary stones, Egyptian temples, and rock art. Pre-historic art teaches us ancient ideas in vivid images that also preserve their meaning. For example, the left side of Fig.1 shows the star knowledge in old Babylon representing the main deities and their symbols on a boundary stone dated 1200 BC.  On the top row we see the main stars or gods, Sin the Moon God in the form of a crescent, the Sun God as a circle with radiating lines, and the Goddess Venus/Ishtar, represented as a circle with an eight-pointed star.

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 from Pharaoh’s Seti I tomb, dated 1300 BC, which also illustrates Egyptian star knowledge. The complex illustration depicts the constellations surrounding the North Star alongside their relative placement in the sky. The painting is cleverly staged so the lines (added by the author) between the North Star and the figures at the bottom that create a marking to the season’s constellations.

Astronomy influenced the ancient world profoundly, shaping beliefs and rituals that led to myths that celebrated the powers of the world, at least as imagined by the ancients. Many cultures have been influenced by celestial influences throughout history.

• 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 watched stars, tracked sunrises and sunsets, moon’s daily changes, eclipses, and the zodiac stars’ planetary positions. By observing the sky and recording star arrangements, it became possible to predict their appearance. The result was the creation of a calendar or the creation of a new heavenly clock. Through the measurement of time progress, people were able to plan events and coordinate their social and agricultural lives. There is evidence that moon tracking began 20,000 years ago, long before the agricultural revolution. In Fig.3, we see an example of an ancient lunar calendar;  a painting from the Lascaux Caves dated 15,000 BC. The twenty-eight dots, painted under the pregnant four-legged animal, show a count of a 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 of 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.    In Fig.4 scene1, a unique rock art depicts a centipede and is an ingenious way of counting the monthly moon cycle (for more information, see Rock Art Moon Calendars). This strange-looking creature has twenty-eight legs with a square at the end. Each leg marks a day in a moon cycle, while the square serves as the moonless day counter.

Archaeology news. Moon calendars Negev Desert, early astronomy rock art engraving research news
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

Fig.4 scene2, a rock art shows two star-like engravings with 7 rays each that count the moon days. In this counting scheme, a stone is added for each day, and when the first star fills with stones the count continues to the lower star. The counting proceeds until it reaches the full circle (meaning full moon), which marks the completion of the half-moon cycle, and then the counting sequence 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 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 passed. The 8 plant branches count the years.   (for more details see  Venus Calendars Rock Art).

Archaeology research news. The Venus cycle calendars , early astronomy 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 suns 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 for each ray until full. Then a stone was added to the middle sun with clearing the left sun. The process continues filling the rays in the middle sun, which completes the count of 72. 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 important days, such as the equinox and solstice. These alignments, see Fig.6, recorded the seasons changing days that later turned to 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. Many of the rock art is probably engraved these days as a tribute and memory for future generations. 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 the 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 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 research. 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 research. 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 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 crab tail shape, on the right, hints of Ursa Major. The lowest dot in the scene is the star Spics in the Virgin constellation. On the upper right side, you can see the outline of the Cassiopea constellation.

Spring skies Rock Art

The rock art in Fig.8 depicts the main stars and constellation 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 research. 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. The 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, 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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