Today, astronomy is the key needed to unlock the biggest mysteries in the Universe. Modern technology and advanced telescopes allow us to observe phenomena in space, and by applying our models and theories we can get insights to extraordinary events that happen throughout space. It gives us a scientific understanding of ourselves and puts of existence into a bigger perspective.
But what role did astronomy play before technology and research pulled us up to this elevated level of understanding? Did astronomy ever have any practical value to humans, or was it always -in one way or another- a fuel to philosophical or existential questions?
The answer is, as you might have guessed, yes. Astronomy did indeed have practical value in ancient times, and today we are going to explore exactly what is was used for.
Ancient Times: Before Medieval Times (And The Renaissance)
When writing “Ancient times”, we refer to the period that starts some thousands years BCE (“Before Common Era”) to 476 CE (after year 0). Life during this period varied greatly across countries – from the grandeur of ancient Egypt, where monumental pyramids and intricate hieroglyphs were crafted, to the mathematical and philosophical brilliance of classical Greece.
Ancient times typically are set to end at 476 CE with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, which marked a historic transition into the Middle Ages. Despite limited technological advancements compared to the modern world, these ancient societies thrived, creating impressive cultural legacies that continue to captivate and inspire us today. Societies were in other words indeed sophisticated and highly developed back then, and hence ‘ancient’ should not be equated with ‘simple’ or ‘less curious’ than those of today.
Astronomy was important during ancient times. Societies excelled in agriculture, trade, and architecture, often aligning their grand structures with the movements of celestial bodies. Religion played a central role, with gods and celestial events like eclipses holding deep significance. Let’s take a closer look.
The Night Sky As Foundation For Calendar And Travel Navigation
The perhaps most obvious use of astronomy is for keeping track of time. Tracking the Sun’s position on the sky can give an accurate measure of time, as seen in the so-called sundial (photo) that was discovered to be first used in Egypt ca. 1,500 BCE. By allowing a small ray of light to reach a diagram, the angle of the ray would indicate the exact time of day. There are different speculations on the purpose of the early dial, and some of them includes keeping track of work hours and knowing when to pray.
The location of celestial bodies was not only important when tracking work hours or following a prayer schedule. The night sky was crucial for navigation, too. Travel navigation was an extraordinary challenge that relied on the observation of the natural world, in particular stars, the moon and Sun. With no GPS or detailed maps, ancient travelers -especially sailors- had to turn to the sky for guidance. The ancient Greeks, for example, would around 250 BCE use Little Bear / Ursa Minor as a key navigation constellation, several hundreds of years after even the Odyssey described Homer using Ursa Major to navigate his travels (the Odyssey is a great story, by the way!).
The stars were in many ways a celestial GPS, providing a reliable tool of determining direction and location. By tracking the positions of key stars such as Polaris, the North Star, in the Northern Hemisphere (and even earlier the constellation Draco due to the Earth’s wobble), sailors could find their way across the oceans.
They also paid close attention to the Sun’s path, which helped them determine East from West during the day. Ancient sailors would note the angles and heights of celestial bodies above the horizon, enabling them to pinpoint their location.
These methods are a testament to the advanced observational skills and ingenuity of ancient navigators, allowing them to explore and trade over long distances and helping to connect the diverse cultures of the world.
The Crucial Role Of Astronomy In Farming
This may come as a surprise, but astronomy played a key role in the development of agriculture.
Much like in travel navigation, the stellar constellations and stars location on the night sky would indicate the seasons and where the Earth was in its yearly cycle. This allowed humans to plan seed and harvest that would yield not only more food but also a more reliable and sustainable source of calories than hunting animals and gathering berries only. The agriculture society developed around 10,000 BCE which eventually replaced the hunter gatherer societies.
In regions with predictable flooding, like the Nile River in Egypt, early agricultural communities relied on annual flooding to enrich the soil for farming purpose some 5,000 BCE. Elsewhere, other water systems were designed to channel water to parched fields. The planning for the flooding and hence the enrichment of soil would provide a more reliable food production. As surplus food became available, it led to population growth, the rise of cities, and the development of complex societies.
Agriculture, in many ways, was the cornerstone of ancient cultures. Farming wasn’t merely a means of survival; it was the foundation upon which advanced civilization was built, and it surely marks humanity’s capacity to develop and harness the land’s resources and, in some ways, shape its own destiny.
Architecture And Astronomy
Architectural planning in ancient times proved a deep understanding of geometry, aesthetics, and astronomy. Civilizations like the Egyptians and Greeks demonstrated a profound connection between architectural design and the night sky. They used celestial observations to align their buildings and monuments with the movements of the heavens.
As perhaps the most famous example from around 2,500 BCE, the pyramids of Egypt, particularly the Great Pyramid of Giza, are aligned with incredible precision. The sides are directed North/South and East/West within a fraction of a degree! There is an entire theory to describe this orientation and it centers around the famous Orion constellation.
Astronomical alignments were common. Incorporating celestial elements into architectural planning wasn’t merely about aesthetics; it often had religious and cultural significance. These architectural marvels continue to inspire awe and admiration, highlighting the remarkable achievements of ancient societies in fusing their knowledge of the natural world with their artistic and engineering capabilities.
Stories, Myths And Beliefs Were Born From The Night Sky
The night sky was often seen as a celestial theater, with stars, planets, and celestial events like eclipses acting as divine actors on this celestial stage.
Astronomy played a pivotal role in shaping religious calendars, rituals, and myths. The movement of the Sun, Moon, and stars often marked significant religious festivals and ceremonies. For example, the alignment of Stonehenge in the United Kingdom with the solstices hints at its role in celebrating the changing of seasons – another very practical implementation of astronomy in ancient societies.
The night sky was a source of wonder and awe. It indeed gave humanity a sense of spiritual connection in addition to being of practical use. Many ancient religious texts and myths incorporated celestial elements as these celestial bodies seemed to bridge the gap between the Earthly and the divine. Practical or not, astronomy always played a central role in the development of humanity.
Let’s keep it that way.