Astronomy and Rock Art
Astronomy Rock Art, Negev Desert Israel.
Archaeological research confirms that early astronomy references engraved on Negev Desert rock art originated in Egypt and Sumer cultures. These ancient civilizations nurtured sky observations designed to interpret events with the intent to predict the future. They tracked the sunrise and sunset, moon daily changes, eclipses, and the zodiac stars’, and planets’ appearance as if these stars are the gods watching and controlling the world. Israel being their smallest neighbor borrowed their astronomical knowledge and engraved them on Negev Desert rock art. The archaeological research shows that rock art recorded seasonal sky views and mythical tales with the intent to follow and explain nature behavior. Astronomy worship, representing nature forces as gods, is apparent in ancient earthly religious expressions, be it a burial site, a tomb, a ritual, a myth, or rock art.
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.
The stars and constellations created imaginative scenes that were recorded in Sumerian boundary stone and Egyptian temples and later as rock art. These rock art preserved their meaning and now show us the ancient ideas in vivid scenes. 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.
The right side of Fig.1 shows the star knowledge from Egypt from a painting of Pharaoh’s Seti I tomb, dated 1300 BC. This complex illustration reflects precisely the North Star region with the constellations around and their relative position 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 penetrated deeply into daily life creating unshaken beliefs and rituals that turned into myths celebrating the world’s powers, at least as the ancient envisioned them. History is full of examples of celestial influence on cultures around the world.
• The first temples were aligned to heavenly bodies.
• The first calendars were based on the lunar and star cycle.
• The festivals were celebrated in accordance with the sun.
• The gods in many cultures were derived from heavenly bodies.
Early Moon Calendars
The ancient civilizations watched the stars, tracked the sunrise and sunset, the moon’s daily changes, eclipses, and the moon and zodiac stars’ planetary positions. Observing the sky and recording star arrangements made it possible to predict their appearance. This led to calendar creation or the formation of a new heavenly clock. Measuring time progress enabled the people to manage their social and agricultural lives by coordinating events dictated by the calendar. 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.
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. Fig.4 scene1, a rock art resembles a centipede and is an ingenious way for counting the monthly moon cycle ( for more details 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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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. Celestial bodies such as the sun, moon, and stars were the focus of early astronomy. These luminaries, revered by all, represented gods in many beliefs intertwined ingredients of 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.
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
More deciphering, in a new book Rock Art in Israel, available online.
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