Astronomy and Rock Art

Venus Calendar rock art

Astronomy Rock Art, Negev Desert Israel.

Rock Art and its meaning israelrockart.com.

The Negev Desert rock art contains early references to astronomy that reflect the influence of the ancient Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations. These cultures held the heavens in great reverence and used observations of celestial bodies to understand and predict future events. They kept meticulous records of the movements of the sun, moon, and planets, as well as eclipses, zodiac stars, and lunar phases, believing that these entities represented powerful beings that held sway over their world.

According to archaeological research, the rock art discovered in the Negev Desert provides valuable insights into celestial phenomena and mythical narratives prevalent in their time.  These cultures expressed their knowledge of astronomy through various forms, such as burial sites, rituals, myths, and rock art.

Early Astronomy in Sumer and Egypt

Ancient religions were heavily rooted in the worship of the hidden forces of nature, which were intricately tied to astronomical cycles. According to records from Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations, the study of astronomy was still in its early stages around 1300 BC. Their observations primarily focused on the sun, moon, Venus, and stars close to the North Pole.

For the ancient people living on Earth, the stars and constellations formed astonishing celestial displays featuring human and animal figures. These displays were given a royal touch, elevating them into glamorous displays befitting their higher realm. Sumerian cylinder seals, boundary stones, Egyptian temples, and rock art are just a few examples of these astronomical abstractions. They provide us with a unique window into the ancient mind that spans thousands of years. Ancient art remains a rich source of information and inspiration, offering unparalleled insight into the thoughts and beliefs of our ancestors. Figure 1 features two illustrations from Sumer and Egypt that demonstrate their astronomical knowledge from about 1300 BC.

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

On the left side, we see the Babylonian boundary stone from 1200 BC. The top row of the image showcases the major stars or gods. Sin the Moon God is depicted as a crescent moon, the Sun God is represented by a circle with radiating lines, and the Venus/Ishtar is represented by a star.

On the right side of Figure 1, a painting from the tomb of Seti I in Egypt, dated 1300 BC, showcases the Egyptian understanding of the stars. The scene features the constellations surrounding the North Star and their relative positions in the sky.

Astronomy had a profound impact on the ancient world, shaping beliefs and practices and inspiring myths that honored the power of the stars. This influence is evident in several key aspects of ancient culture:

  1. The earliest temples were constructed with alignment to celestial bodies in mind.
  2. The first calendars were based on the cycles of the moon and stars.
  3. Festivals were held in accordance with the sun’s yearly journey.
  4. In many cultures, gods’ figures and names represented the main celestial 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. Ancient cultures were captivated by the celestial bodies and their movements in the sky. They meticulously observed the stars, sunrises, and sunsets, the phases of the moon, eclipses, and the positions of the zodiac stars. By recording the patterns of these celestial events, they were able to predict their future occurrence, leading to the creation of a calendar or clock.

This newfound understanding of the heavens allowed for the measurement of time, which was crucial for planning events and coordinating social and agricultural activities. It is believed that moon observation dates back to 20,000 years ago, well before the agricultural revolution.

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

One example of this is the ancient lunar calendar depicted in a painting from the Lascaux Caves Fig.3, which is estimated to be from 15,000 B.C. The painting shows a pregnant four-legged animal with 28 dots beneath it, that symbolizing count of the lunar cycle. On the right, there is a square with thirteen dots located beneath the depiction of a deer. This square represents the number of nights it takes for the crescent moon to reach a full moon phase. The moon cycle count, in this case, is comprised of twenty-six days, which is the amount of time the moon is visible in the sky. It is noted that the count proceeds in both directions, indicating the progression of the moon from a crescent to a full moon and back again.

Moon Calendars Rock Art, Negev Desert

The practice of tracking the moon cycle is evident in the rock art found in the Negev Desert. One notable example is depicted in Fig.4 scene 1, which shows a centipede. This rock art serves as a remarkable method of counting the monthly cycle of the moon. The centipede, with its twenty-eight legs and a square at the end, is an innovative representation of the moon cycle. Each leg represents a day in the cycle, while the square symbolizes a moonless day. For more information on this unique form of rock art, refer to the article of Rock Art Moon Calendars.

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 in Fig. 4 scene 2 illustrates two star-like engravings, each with seven rays, that serve as a means of tracking the days of the moon cycle. To employ this counting method, one places a stone on each ray starting from the left star with the moon above it. When the first star is completely filled with stones, the counting then shifts to the second star, and the process continues until the ray with a full circle, symbolizing a full moon, is reached, indicating the end of the half-moon cycle. From that point, the counting is reversed by removing a stone a day to track the progression of the moon cycle.

Venus Calendars Rock Art

The lunar calendar, which is based on the 29.5 day cycle of the moon, does not align with the seasons. This creates an annual mismatch of 11 days between the lunar and solar cycles. In ancient Sumer, this issue was resolved by interweaving the lunar months and using accurate stellar references, or cross-referencing with the Venus cycle.

Fig. 5 scene1 showcases a remarkable example of a Venus 8-year calendar counter in rock art. The wheel, with its 12 cavities, keeps track of the months by adding a stone for each passing lunar month. The 8 branches in the form of plants are used to count the years. For further information on this fascinating form of rock art, refer to the study of 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 an illustration of a simple yet effective counter for Venus’ Synodic cycle. The three sun-like symbols, with 8, 9, and 8 rays each, from left to right, keep track of the synodic calendar days. The counting process starts with the left sun, adding a stone for each passing day until it’s full. Then, a stone is added to the middle sun while the left sun is cleared. The middle sun is filled with stones until it’s full, completing a count of 72. The next step involves adding a stone to the right sun and clearing the left and middle suns. The counting process continues until the right sun is filled with stones. This final stone placement results in the calculation of 576 (8X9X8). The extra count continues (about a week) until the alignment of Earth, the Sun, and Venus.

Solar Calendars

The art of marking a solar calendar is a tricky endeavor, yet the solstice and equinox days can be determined with ease through the use of simple monuments alignments with the sun. By employing straightforward techniques, our ancestors meticulously recorded the sun’s movements. They aligned monuments and temples with the brilliant rays of the sunrise or the serene glow of the sunset on the year’s most sacred days, such as the equinox and solstice.

Fig.6 presents the findings from the Negev Desert, showing the orientation data collected from temples and maseboth alignment. The data reveals that the majority of the observed elements are aligned with the sun in four main directions, as well as the solstice and equinox days. These alignments, as depicted in Fig.6, not only recorded the orientation days but also elevated them to revered celebrations. These special days in time turned into our holy days.

These holy days marked the dispersed tribes’ pilgrimage days, serving as a time for spiritual rituals, worship, and social gatherings. These celebrations played a crucial role in weaving the social fabric of these dispersed communities by bringing the desert people together. Most notably, the spring equinox was the time for the grandest of celebrations, a time for new beginnings and the arrival of spring.

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

As astronomical knowledge progressed, following the sun’s rising and setting orientation through the year became a valuable tool for marking time. By observing the appearance or disappearance of the stars just before sunrise or after sunset, individuals were able to determine the time of year. This eventually led to the creation of the early Zodiac, which dates back to over 3000 years ago during the Babylonian era.

Winter skies Rock Art

The winter season in the desert is revered as a blessed time, where the dry and barren landscape is replenished with much-needed rain. As the rain pours down, filling the empty cisterns and watering the parched earth, the desert dwellers eagerly awaited this celestial event. This anticipation is reflected in their rock art, where they captured the stunning sky scenes of the winter season.

The winter rains were not only important for the survival of the desert people, but they also symbolized hope and renewal. After months of dryness and harsh conditions, the arrival of the winter rains brought life back to the desert, and the people celebrated this event with joy and gratitude. The rock art serves as a testament to their reverence for this season and the beauty of the winter sky.

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

The Negev rock art in Fig.7 accurately portrays the prominent winter constellations of the season. The shape of the figures, such as Perseus at the top with the pulsing star Algol between his legs, and their arrangement match the exact layout of the winter sky constellations. This serves as a testament to the skill and knowledge of the artists who created this rock art, capturing the beauty and significance of the winter sky.

Summer skies Rock Art

In stark contrast to the revered winter sky, the summer sky depicted in Fig.7 symbolizes the cursed season. The rock art shows the summer constellations roaming across the sky, portrayed as poisonous scorpions, snakes, and a massive lizard. These figures reflect the dangerous and harsh conditions that the desert people faced during the summer months. The scorching heat, lack of water, and dangerous creatures made life difficult in the desert during this time.

The summer sky, with its depiction of dangerous creatures, serves as a reminder of the challenges and dangers that the desert people faced during this season. This rock art captures the essence of the summer sky, showcasing the beauty and the challenges of this time of year.

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

If you’re searching for a precise match between the artwork in Fig.7 and the actual sky view, you may be disappointed. The depictions in the scene are largely a product of the artist’s imagination, but subtle nods to the real sky can still be seen. For instance, the central figure of the big lizard represents the constellation Bootes, which is known for its kite-like shape, its 90-degree tail, and its upright posture – all features that are present in the rock art. The square shape of the crab tail on the right is reminiscent of the constellation Ursa Major, while the lowest dot below the lizard’s tail represents the star Spica in the Virgin constellation. On the upper right corner, you can also see an outline resembling the letter M, which represents the Cassiopeia constellation.

Spring skies Rock Art

The depiction in Fig. 8 captures the central stars and celestial formations at the spring equinox. During this time, the constellations of Orion and Scorpio briefly intersect as Orion descends and Scorpio rises. This fleeting alignment can be seen in the art, with Antares, the primary star in Scorpio, on the left and the trio of stars representing Orion’s belt on the right. The presence of the ram symbol beneath the ibex, symbolizing the constellation of Aries, serves as a marker of the start of the new year in Egyptian and Greek cultures.

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

Conclusion

Astronomy has played a significant role in the cultures and civilizations of the ancient world, and in the Negev Desert of Israel. The rock art found in this region showcases the early references to astronomy and the influence of the Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations. These ancient cultures viewed the heavens with reverence and used their observations of celestial bodies to understand and predict future events. They meticulously tracked the movements of the sun, moon, planets, eclipses, zodiac stars, and phases of the moon, which they considered to be powerful beings who held sway over their world.  Early moon calendars were also created based on the observation of the moon’s phases, enabling the measurement of time and the planning of events and activities.

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.

The rock art in the Negev Desert provides an interesting source of information about the astronomical knowledge and beliefs of our ancestors. 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)

    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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