The Milky Way’s Role in Ancient Egyptian Mythology

the sky goddess Nut, covered in stars, is held aloft by her father, Shu, and is arched over Geb, her brother the Earth god. On the left, the rising sun (the falcon-headed god Re) sails up Nut’s legs. On the right, the setting sun sails down her arms towards the outstretched arms of Osiris, who will regenerate the sun in the netherworld during the night.

Look through the names and origins of the constellations and you will soon realise that many cultures had a hand in their conceptualisation. Among them are the Egyptians who were fantastic astronomers. The movement of the sky played a vital role in ancient Egypt including the development of the 365 day year and the 24 hour day. Like many other cultures they say the Sun, Moon and planets as gods. Surprisingly though, the bright Milky Way seems not to have played a vital role. Some new research suggests that this may not be the case and it may have been a manifestation of the sky goddess Nut! 

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This Supernova Lit Up the Sky in 1181. Here’s What it Looks Like Now

A composite image of the remnant of supernova 1181. A spherical bright nebula sits in the middle surrounded by a field of white dotted stars. Within the nebula several rays point out like fireworks from a central star. G. Ferrand and J. English (U. of Manitoba), NASA/Chandra/WISE, ESA/XMM, MDM/R.Fessen (Dartmouth College), Pan-STARRS

Historical astronomical records from China and Japan recorded a supernova explosion in the year 1181. It was in the constellation Cassiopeia and it shone as bright as the star Vega for 185 days. Modern astronomers took their cue from their long-gone counterparts and have been searching for its remnant.

But it took them time to find it because they were looking for the wrong thing.

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One of the Oldest Astrolabes Has Both Hebrew and Arabic Markings

I always think of planispheres when I think of astrolabes! Navigators used these ancient devices (astrolabes not planispheres) to provide an accurate map of the stars in the sky. To use them you would match up the metal plates to the sky and you could calculate your location. Astrolabes date back to 220BC but one with Hebrew and Arabic markings was found and it is thought to have originated back in the 11th Century.

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An Ancient Stone Found in Italy is an Accurate Map of the Night Sky

Digital elevation model of the frontal face of Rupinpiccolo stone disk from an adaptation of fig. 1 of Bernardini et al. (2022). The orientation is arbitrary

You know how some constellations take a little bit of imagination to see?  Yes, Leo looks a bit like a lion and Orino a bit like a hunter but then we drift into the realms of powerful levels of imagination to be able to see Pegasus as a flying horse or Telescopium as a telescope! Even squinting or tilting your head really doesn’t make them visible. I found the same problem when looking at images of two stone disks discovered in Italy recently at the entrance to an ancient fort! Teams that have examined the stones have matched the subtle markings on them to positions of 28 bright stars in the sky! I had to really look to see it but I think they might actually be right! 

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Weekly Space Hangout: Feb 20, 2019 – Dr. Emily Holt talks Archaeology and Ancient Astronomy

Fraser Cain ( / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter ( / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier ( / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg ( / @MorganRehnberg &

Dr. Emily Holt is an Environmental Archaeologist and Anthropologist who is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Miami University of Ohio. Emily’s research focuses on human-environment dynamics in the Nuragic Culture of Bronze Age Sardinia. She directs the Pran’e Siddi Landscape Project (PSLP), an archaeological survey in south-central Sardinia, which is examining the long-term changes in settlement patterns, water use, and the socio-cultural interpretation of natural resources.

Emily is also the president of the non-profit organization Public Scholar Outreach whose mission is to support, produce, promote, and disseminate high-quality public scholarship, especially public scholarship that is peer-reviewed and public scholarship with relevance to contemporary issues. PSO’s primary initiative is to establish Dirt & Words: an online, open access channel of peer-reviewed public scholarship about the human past.

Today, Emily and Fraser will be discussing how ancient cultures understood astronomy, a topic she recently discussed with Paul Sutter on his Space Radio broadcast.

You can follow Emily on Twitter: @Emily_M_Holt

To learn more about her ongoing research, be sure to visit her website ERRANT: letters from an itinerant archaeologist here:

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Prehistoric Cave Paintings Show That Ancient People Had Pretty Advanced Knowledge of Astronomy

The Lascaux Shaft Scene. Credit: Alistair Coombs

Astronomy is one of humanity’s oldest obsessions, reaching back all the way to prehistoric times. Long before the Scientific Revolution taught us that the Sun is at the center of the Solar System, or modern astronomy revealed the true extend of our galaxy and the Universe, ancient peoples were looking up at the night sky and finding patterns in the stars.

For some time, scholars believed that an understanding of complex astronomical phenomena (like the precession of the equinoxes) did not predate the ancient Greeks. However, researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and Kent recently revealed findings that show how ancient cave paintings that date back to 40,000 years ago may in fact be astronomical calendars that monitored the equinoxes and kept track of major events.

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Mysterious Greek Device Found To Be Astronomical Computer

The Antikythera Mechanism may be the world's oldest computer. Image: By Marsyas CC BY 2.5
The Antikythera Mechanism may be the world's oldest computer. Image: By Marsyas CC BY 2.5

Thanks to a decade worth of high-tech imaging, the use of the ancient device called the Antikythera Mechanism can now be confirmed. The device, which was discovered over a century ago in an ancient shipwreck near the Greek island of Antikythera, was used as an astronomical computer.

Archaeologists long suspected that the device was connected to astronomy, but most of the writing on the instrument was indecipherable, which left some question. But a thorough, decade long effort using high-tech scanning methods has revealed much more of the text on the instrument.

The Antikythera Mechanism has about 14,000 characters of text on its mangled, time-weary body. Since its discovery over 100 years ago, very little of that text was readable, only a few hundred characters. It hinted at astronomical use, but detail remained frustratingly out of reach.

Now, the team behind this effort confirms that the mechanism was an astronomical calendar. It showed the position of the planets, the position of the Sun and Moon in the zodiac, the phases of the Moon, and it also predicted eclipses.

According to the team, it was like a teaching tool, or a kind of philosopher’s guide to the galaxy.

A 2007 recreation of the Antikythera Mechanism. Image: I, Mogi, CC BY 2.5
A 2007 recreation of the Antikythera Mechanism. Image: I, Mogi, CC BY 2.5

The characters were engraved on the front and back sections of the device, and on the inside covers. Some of the writing was very small, only about 1.2 mm (1/20th of an inch) tall. The device itself was about the size of an office box file. It was contained in a wooden box, and was operated with a handle crank.

At the time that it was found, the device was largely an afterthought. The real find at the time was luxury glassware and ceramics, and statues made of bronze and marble found at the shipwreck by sponge divers. But the device attracted attention over the years as different scholars hypothesized what the mechanism was for and how the gears worked.

Professor Mike Edmunds, of Cardiff University, is the Chair of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project. He said, “This device is just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind. The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly right. The way the mechanics are designed just makes your jaw drop. Whoever has done this has done it extremely carefully.”

In fact, a device of this complexity did not appear anywhere for another thousand years.

The device itself is incomplete. The fragments that were found came from a shipwreck discovered in 1901. That ship was a mid-1st century BC ship, a large one for its time at 40 meters (130 ft) long. It’s hoped that additional fragments of the device can be found by architects visiting the original shipwreck. But event though it’s incomplete, most of the inscriptions are there, as are 20 gears that displayed planets.

According to the team responsible for imaging the text on the device, almost all of the text on the device’s 82 fragments has been deciphered. It remains to be seen if any other surviving fragments, if found, will contain more text, and if that text will shed any more light on this remarkable device.