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Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 24 September Equinox 1996

The State of Archaeo/ethnoastronomy and the Land of the Bible
by Sara L. Gardner, Univ of Arizona

The use of astronomy by the inhabitants of Palestine has interested scholars as early as the turn of this century, when their examination of biblical texts led them to make comparisons with Greek and Mesopotamian astronomy and mythology. About twenty years later mythological tablets (13th century BCE) were found at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) on the coast of Syria in 1929. The language and syntax of the Ugaritic tablets are similar to the Bible, and mythological motifs of the Ugaritic texts reflect motifs of biblical and extra-biblical texts. For example, they recorded how the gods influenced the changing seasons, and how the god of the Hebrews created the seasons in Genesis. Extra- biblical texts are used to study the development of Jewish astronomy and its calendar in the second half of the 1st millennium BCE. The list is lengthy, but the Astronomical Books of Enoch should be mentioned. They were written in the 2nd century BCE, and described the heavens as they were perceived by the ancient Jews. The ancient Hebrew literature as well as archaeological artifacts are rich in astral imaging.

Astral images began in the Chalcolithic period (4500-3300 BCE) at Teleilat Ghassul in Jordan near the Jordan River. The Ghassul Star, the image of a luminary rising above the mountains, and a faint image of a rayed sun or star behind a worshiper testify to an understanding of astronomy in this early period. Astral images continued throughout the history of ancient Palestine at many sites such as Hazor where instruments that marked the path of the sun, moon or star were depicted; for example, an altar showed a star image rising above two columns, and a stele showed the moon rising above two arms and hands that were postured as columns. The data collection of astral images from literature and artifacts is extensive, but nonetheless, this information has not been collected into a study on the practice of astronomy and/or its role in society. Nonetheless, these studies are prolific when compared to studies on the relationship between architecture and the movement of the sun, moon, and stars. Research to date has established one site, Rujim el-Hiri (Golan Heights in northern Israel), was built for the primary purpose of marking the June solstice from approximately 3000-2000 BCE, but its potential as an astronomical observatory has not been fully developed (Mizrachi 1993: 112-18).

The primary interest of biblical scholars is to establish a precise orientation of the entrances of temples to the eastern horizon, or to establish that there is not an orientation. Excavators are cavalier in their interpretations, and casually remark that the entrance of cult building or its cult object caught the rays of the rising sun--without any substantiating studies. Unfortunately, excavation records do not consistently record precise directions, either True or magnetic north (see Taylor 1993). While numerous scholars insist that orientation of temples should be studied, these calls have not mentioned what the premise for orientation should be-- beyond an assumption that the cardinal directions are somehow important.

Problems for scholarship exist beyond the collection of data and its interpretation for the land of the Bible, because it conflicts with current religious beliefs. The primary sources for data come from sacred Hebrew and Christian writings--the Torah and the Bible--and from sites mentioned in these texts. Research has in the past--and continues now--to be an exercise in proving that the modern interpretation of the Torah and the Bible is literal and written in stone, so to speak, while a few scholars approach the subject from an academic perspective and not religious. If research in archaeoastronomy in Palestine is to be initiated, it must be from a secular perspective such as Syro-Palestinian archaeology led by William G. Dever (1990). Through the combination of biblical and extra-biblical texts, astral images found on artifacts, archaeology, and astronomy the potential exists to open a new rich field of study for archaeo/ethnoastronomy as well as add another chapter in the history of astronomy.


Dever, W. G., Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990.

Mizrachi, Y., Rujim el-Hiri: Toward an understanding of a Bronze Age megalithic monument in the Levant. diss. Harvard University. Michigan: UMI Dissertation Services, 1993.

Taylor, J. G., Yahweh and the Sun: Biblical and Archaeological Evidence for Sun Worship in Ancient Israel. Sheffield: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 1993.

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