V021 7 March 2002

An Egyptian Star-map

Ove von Spaeth
Independent Scholar, Denmark

The astronomical knowledge of the ancient Egyptians turns out to be surprisingly broader than previously imagined. According to a new analysis, the world's oldest star-map seems to contain information of an actual celestial event of its time. This recent discovery uncovers the earliest exact scientific description of an otherwise rare but not unknown celestial phenomenon.

This 3,500 year old star-map which decorates one of the ceilings in the tomb of the great Senmut (or Senenmut) near Luxor (Thebes), apparently demonstrates a previously unknown aspect of the astronomical situation in Egypt around 1,500 BC. This revelation is the result of investigations, the full report of which was published in the International Journal of the History of Science Centaurus (Ove von Spaeth, "Dating the Oldest Egyptian Star Map," vol. 42:3 (2000) : 159-179).

Senmut's Star-map. Drawing of the northern panel.

The map's configurations, which previously have been considered mostly as mythological displays, are now disclosed to be an accurate depiction of a rare gathering of planets in well-defined celestial positions. The information contained in the map refers to a specific point in time. The re-evaluation of this and subsequent maps gives birth to new perspectives: by introducing these new reference points in time, the appropriate chronology for the epoch in question, which otherwise has been much disputed, can now be dated with considerably greater precision than heretofore possible.

The well-known Egyptian star map in question was worked out by Senmut, who was the vizier to queen Hatshepsut and also the calendar registrar of Egypt, during the 18th dynasty (16th c. BCE). The recently decoded material can be objectively proven, based on modern astronomical calculations, to depict important astronomical circumstances. It has now become clear that the map of Senmut neither depicts an arbitrary gathering of planets in the sky nor is it a copy of a pattern eventually made by Senmut's predecessors.

Since this stellar-map describes a planetary conjunction (i.e. a close encounter of the planets) where a unique pattern of the positions of the planets are concentrated within a defined sector of the sky, it therefore contains information unmistakably related to a fixed point in time, which it has been possible to calculate as May 1534 BCE. According to the analysis, this dating is additionally supported by the map's record of a simultaneous solar eclipse. Modern astronomical methods confirm this interpretation with great precision: accordingly, the map of Senmut must be acknowledged as one of history's oldest recorded scientific achievements.

Subsequently produced Egyptian star-maps seem to confirm this discovery. Created under the reign of several pharaohs, during 300 years or more after the first map, they exhibit Senmut's principle of depicting a planetary conjunction. This seems to be a now forgotten tradition since these younger star-maps occur only in the reign of those pharaohs, such as Ramses II, where actual conjunctions of the relevant type appeared in the Egyptian sky.

The study concludes as follows:

The Senmut map depicts an exceptional event in the sky. This seems to have produced a prototype for all later pictures of similar celestial events - but with one exception: In the first depiction, in the time of Senmut, Mars is retrograde in the west when the other planets assemble around Sirius in the east.

So far has been demonstrated:

l. The Senmut maps contain a cosmological and astro-mythological expression not only as decoration - as hitherto assumed - but also as a picture of a particular and unique situation in the sky.

2. This configuration of the sky can be exactly dated: 1534 BC. Furthermore one particular day can be identified if the solar eclipse is included as indication.

In addition the star maps may contribute to a better dating of their creator Senmut and also of the contemporary Egyptian pharaohs - at least accurate to within a decade.

Author's Web Page: www.moses-egypt.net

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