Astronomy and Rock Art
Astronomy Rock Art, Negev Desert Israel.
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The early astronomy references found in the rock art of the Negev Desert were influenced by Egypt and Sumer’s cultures. These ancient civilizations observed the skies religiously in order to interpret events and predict the future. With reverence, they tracked sunrises, sunsets, the moon’s daily changes, eclipses, the zodiac stars’, and planets’ movements as if stars were gods above that governed their world. Their nearest neighbor, Israel, borrowed their astronomical knowledge and engraved it on Negev Desert rock art. Archeological findings indicate that rock art depicted 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
In ancient cultures, religion was based on the worship of nature’s hidden forces closely related to astronomical cycles. Early evidence of astronomy, from Sumer and Egypt, evidences that in 1300BC, sky and star knowledge were still in their infancy. Their observations centered primarily on the Sun, Moon, Venus, and stars near the North Pole.
Stars and constellations were portrayed as figures that created impressive scenes. They appear in Sumerian cylinder seals, boundary stones, Egyptian temples, as well as rock art. Ancient art provides us with insight into ancient ideas. As an example, the left side of Fig.1 left side, represents the knowledge of stars in Ancient Babylonia from the 1200 BC boundary stone. We see the main 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.
Fig.1 right side, shows a painting from the tomb of Seti I, dated 1300 BC, which illustrates Egyptian star knowledge. 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 the 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. There is evidence 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.
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. 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.
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 the 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 passed. The 8 plant branches count the years. (for more details see Venus Calendars Rock Art).
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 to each days 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 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 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. 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
REFERENCES (CITED WORKS)
- Avner Uzi, Studies in the material and spiritual culture of the Negev and Sinai populations, during the 6th-3rd millennia B.C, Jerusalem, 2002.
- Golan, A., (1991)Myth and Symbol, Symbolism in Prehistoric Religion
- Hartner, W. 1965. “The Earliest History of the Constellations in the Near East and the Motif of the Lion–Bull Combat
- Marshak, A. 1991 The Roots of Civilization: of Man’s First Art, Symbol and Notation”
- Rotblum (2019) Rock Art in Israel
- Ward, W. H. (1910), The Seal Cylinders of Western Asia
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