Ancient Astronomy

Many ancient cultures were interested in the changing night sky.

Basic types of ancient observatories:

British Isles

  1. Stonehenge

    One of about 900 megalithic circles in the British Isles. (also Avebury)

    Consists of several concentric circles built in three periods, beginning about 2800 BC.

    The largest stones weigh 50 tons, and were transported from many miles away.

    Viewed from the center, the sun rises over the heel stone at the summer solstice. (This was first noted in modern history in 1771.)

    Gerald Hawkins (in the 1960's) found many other alignments which were verified by computer. He claimed that it could also be used to predict eclipses.

    There were some errors, some doubts, and reinterpretations (about 4000 years ago, the sun would have risen to the left of the heel stone.)

    Much is not understood, such as the Aubrey Holes - how many markers were used? How often and how far were they moved? When were they calibrated?

    Click here to see information on Stonehenge from the book How the Shaman Stole the Sun.

  2. Newgrange

    British Isles

    Underground chambers (tombs) with passageways which point to the rising sun at Winter Solstice. Window allows light to enter at sunrise on the first day of winter.

American Indian alignments

  1. Sun Dagger

    See video by this name.

    Anasazi Indians of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico constructed a spiral rock carving on Fajada Butte.

    At noon on the summer solstice, a dagger of sun penetrates the center of the spiral.

    On the autumnal equinox, a sun dagger passes through the center of a small spiral on the left, and another passes on the edge of the large spiral. At the Winter Solstice, a big sun dagger passes on either side of the large spiral.

    Discovered in 1977.

    Also marks a 19-year lunar cycle. (The spiral has 19 rings.)

  2. Cahokia Mounds

    Cahokia Mounds in southern Illinois near East St. Louis has a circle of postholes interpreted in 1970 as an astronomical indicator of summer solstice sunrise, winter solstice sunrise, and equinox sunrise.

    The mound-building Indians in the Mississippi Valley region began about 3000 years ago, and there were several cultures, and three successive groups of Indians there. There is much conjecture about their circles, but little organized study.

  3. Big Horn Medicine Wheel

    The Big Horn Medicine Wheel in the Big Horn Mountains near Sheriden, Wyoming was interpreted in 1974 as an indicator of summer solstice sunrise and sunset, with other alignments for the rising of certain stars (Aldebaran, Rigel, and Sirius).

    Built about 1050 AD. Has 28 spokes, and is about 90 ft in diameter.

    About 50 similar circles exist. The oldest is in Canada (built about 2500 BC - the age of the Egyptian pyramids, for comparison).

    The alignments presented by these stone circles are controversial; they could be due to chance. There is no evidence that they were astronomical in design. Why were they interested in those 3 particular stars?

Central America

  1. Caracol Tower

    Located at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico, the Caracol Tower was built about 1000 AD. It has some solstice and equinox alignments, and also some star alignments. More interesting are the apparent alignments with Venus (one of their "gods"). Mayan tablets also mention the rising of Venus. The alignments make sense in light of the written records.

  2. Aztec ruins

    Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan, eastern Mexico; festivals ocurred at the equinoxes.

    See the rising sun at the equinox between two temples. (Temple of the Moon and Temple of the Sun.)

Eqyptian alignments

  1. Temple at Karnak

    Certain alignments correspond to summer solstice sunset and winter solstice sunrise.

  2. Pyramid of Khufu at Giza

    Shafts from the King's chamber point to:
    1. Location of Polaris 5000 years ago
    2. Former position of Orion's belt
    The significance of these things is in thier mythology.

    The pyramid is also aligned perfectly N-S and E-W.

Chinese alignments

A tower was built in 1270 AD to measure the sun's shadow.

The shadow of the tower was shortest at noon, and the very shortest at the summer solstice. (Markers on the ground locate shadow positions.)

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This page was created by Pamela J. W. Gore
DeKalb College
January 28, 1996