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Margaret Wendall: The Ramesside Starclock

Margaret Wendall: The Ramesside Starclock

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Published by: Gérôme Taillandier on Jun 23, 2013
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I’ve been attempting for some time to discern which stars might be represented on what are commonly known

as the “Ramesside Star Clocks.” The monuments studied include two sets of diagrams on the tomb of Ramesses VI (A and B, 1148-1138 BCE, Dynasty XX), the tomb of Ramesses VII (C, 1138-1137 BCE, Dynasty XX), and the tomb of Ramesses IX (D, 1130-1111 BCE, Dynasty XX). All these tombs are located in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, at 26.25° north latitude. The primary sources I studied are Egyptian Astronomical Texts, Vol. II: The Ramesside Star Clocks, by Otto Neugebauer and Richard Parker (Brown University Press, 1964), and “Astronomical and Astrological Inscriptions on Ancient Egyptian Monuments” by Heinrich Brugsch, translated in serial format by Joseph Miller in Griffith Observer (Griffith Observatory, 1978-1980). Part 18 of the Griffith Observer series is devoted to the Ramesside star clocks. The star clocks are diagrams of the positions of stars relative to the overhead meridian at thirteen positions on twenty four dates during the year, the first and sixteenth days of each of the twelve Egyptian months. The epacts — the “five days outside the year” — are not counted, and there is no table for the end of the 360-day Egyptian year. The star clocks begin at the top row of hieroglyphics and the accompanying star in the grid. The hieroglyphic give the Egyptian month and date, the name of a star and its position relative to the body of the astronomer’s assistant, such as “over his heart.” Each row of hieroglyphics then begins with the hour of the night, followed by the star name and position. The diagram shown here differs from most in that it only has twelve rows for the hours. In it, either the first row is for the first hour, and the end of twilight is not counted, or there is a row missing, for the second row states that the information is for the second hour of night. There are many discrepancies in the diagrams of the four tombs being studied. Just for the one star we know with reasonable certainty, Sirius, we find the following:

The Ramesside Star Clocks

Sirius shows up in two positions in Table 3 for Hour 11 in the tomb of Ramesses VI. This is similar to the star in hour four of the chart above, and could possibly have been noted because of the importance of the star and the fact that a star will cross the meridian at slightly different times in different years due to the length of the day which is not exactly 24 hours. The Egyptians observed the heliacal rising of Sirius at different times in reference to the Sun in each of the years of a leap year cycle. The right ascension of the overhead meridian in the above data is based on twilight beginning and ending when the Sun is depressed 12°. The dates are two days prior to those given by Neugebauer

and Parker for the epoch 1500 BCE . They present a valid argument for the Egyptians having used this earlier date, even though the tombs were constructed in the twelfth century BCE, namely, the Egyptian religion was relatively static and change of any kind was unwelcome. The overhead meridian for each of the twelve hours of night was determined by dividing the period between the end of evening twilight and the start of morning twilight, based on the Sun’s depression, by twelve. The observer’s latitude of 26.25° north latitude, and obliquity of the ecliptic were considered in the calculations. The overhead meridian at midnight, the end of hour six, was checked against the right ascension of midnight at vernal equinox. I calculated the position of Sirius in 1500 BCE to have been 04h11m18.5s right ascension, 62.83 decimal degrees, -18°10’37" declination. In his article, ”The Earliest History of the Constellations in the Near East and the Motif of the Lion-Bull Combat,” in Journal of Near Eastern Studies (Vol. XXIV, No. 1-2, 1965), Willy Hartner presented several planispheric sky maps for the year 4000 BCE. To double check my own work on proper motion and precession, I duplicated Hartner’s work within a second of arc, and my maps show the stars in the same positions. Therefore, I am confident that my coordinates for Sirius in 1500 BCE are reasonably accurate. Any discrepancy between my figures and Hartner’s would be greater the further back one goes in time. By using the methods described above, I have five “hits” out of six positions for Sirius in the Ramesside star clocks. There are several reasons why I don’t have all six “hits.” First, the means of observing used by the Egyptians led to errors. The means used to determine the end of an hour was a water clock with variations depending on the seasons. An “hour” of night was longer in winter than in summer. Observations were done by an astronomer using a plumb line to measure the position of a star over the body of an assistant - over his left shoulder, his heart, etc., as shown in the diagram on page one. The astronomer sat facing the north pole, which was not marked by a bright star in 1500 BCE. I question whether any two individuals could have sat in exactly the same position for each of the times measured in the twenty four diagrams, or 312 sightings. Next, the extant star clocks are in tombs, not in what might pass for scientific documentation. Jerome Lettvin in “The Gorgon’s Eve” (Technology Review, Vol. 80, No. 6, 1978, made the observation that the Egyptians had some truly scientific astronomical equipment, but the documentation was like a Dr. Seuss book. There are many noticeable errors in various examples we have of The Book of Coming Forth by Day, such as entire sections that have been omitted. The artists who painted the diagrams of the Ramesside star clocks may have made outright errors because they were artists, not astronomers, or they could have even painted nice designs without any regard for accuracy. (I believe the former, not the latter, is the case.) The purpose of the star clocks was to guide the deceased on his path toward immortality. However, the star clock illustration which appears in many places has an error: there should be thirteen rows for the hours, and there are only twelve. All of this must be reckoned with in order to have the star clocks work as they should. I’ve begun to decipher them. Breaking the “code” of Sirius was the first step. The next step is to determine which stars fit into which asterisms, and these are undoubtedly unfamiliar to us. Fortunately, there is some help available. Richard Hinckley Allen in Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning (Dover, 1963), provides the following hints: • Sahu = Orion • Sent, Set, Sothis = Sirius • Hippopotamus (Reret?) = part of Draco • Thigh = Ursa Major (or Cassiopeia) • Deer = Cassiopeia • Mena, Menat = contains Arcturus and Antares and covers over one fourth of the sky • Many Stars = Coma Berenices • Arit= δ Andromedae • Fleece = some stars in Aries • Goose (Bird?) = α Arietis. • Khu/Khau= Pleiades • Cynocephalus = Ara • Servant, or Jackal = Pegasus • Two Stars = Castor and Pollux • Lute Bearer, or Repa = Spica.

borders of Ophiuchus, Scorpio and part of Aquarius; and places “Necht” a giant, near Draco, perhaps our Hercules. Totally unidentified, although Allen mentions them, are “Mena’s Herald” and “Mena’s Follower,” and he mentions a lion, indicating that it isn’t our Leo. In other parts of his work, Allen also mentions that our star Capella is Ptah, Spica is Khem (χem, Min), Perseus is Khem (Qam, or Egypt), and Canopus is Kahi-Nub (the Golden Earth). Virginia Lee Davis, in “Identifying Ancient Egyptian Constellations” (Archaeoastronomy, No. 9. 1985, pp. S102-S104), gives practically the same identifications as Allen, but adds the idea that the Milky Way, not the celestial equator or the ecliptic was the dividing line between northern and southern stars in Egyptian astronomy. I have found other evidence for this. Mena, or Menat, is called a “northern constellation” because all of it is north of the Milky Way even though Antares is in the southern celestial hemisphere. All of these ideas must be reckoned with in order to have the star clocks work for each of the twenty-four dates they cover. I am continuing my work on this project and will present updates when I am able. In the meantime, if any reader has a suggestion, it would be welcomed, and will be given proper recognition. Margaret Wendall - Copyright (c) 1992, 1999, MW

A map for the epoch 1500BCE showing the position of the star Sirius.

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