All Giza Pyramids in one shot.

From the Pyramids to Stonehenge – were Prehistoric People Astronomers?

Daniel Brown  /The Conversation

Ever since humans could look up to see the sky, we have been amazed by its beauty and untold mysteries. Naturally then, astronomy is often described as the oldest of the sciences, inspiring people for thousands of years. Celestial phenomena are featured in prehistoric cave paintings . And monuments such as the Great Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge seem to be aligned with precision to cardinal points or the positions where the moon, sun or stars rise and set on the horizon.

Today, we seem to struggle to imagine how ancient people could build and orient such structures. This has led to many assumptions. Some suggest prehistoric people must have had some knowledge of mathematics and sciences to do this, whereas others go so far as to speculate that alien visitors showed them how to do it.

But what do we actually know about how people of the past understood the sky and developed a cosmology? A scientific discipline called “archaeoastronomy” or “cultural astronomy”, developed in the 1970s, is starting to provide insights. This subject combines various specialist areas, such as astronomy, archaeology, anthropology and ethno-astronomy.

Simplistic Methods

The pyramids of Egypt are some of the most impressive ancient monuments, and several are oriented with high precision. Egyptologist Flinder Petrie carried out the first high-precision survey of the Giza pyramids in the 19th century. He found that each of the four edges of the pyramids’ bases point towards a cardinal direction to within a quarter of a degree.

But how did the Egyptians know that? Just recently, Glen Dash , an engineer who studies the Giza pyramids, proposed a theory . He draws upon the ancient method of the “Indian circle” , which only requires a shadow casting stick and string to construct an east-west direction. He outlined how this method could have been used for the pyramids based on its simplicity alone.

So could this have been the case? It’s not impossible, but at this point we are in danger of falling into a popular trap of reflecting our current world views, methods and ideas into the past. Insight into mythology and relevant methods known and used at the time are likely to provide a more reliable answer.

Stonehenge sun. (Image: simonwakefield CC BY 2.0)

Stonehenge sun. (Image: simonwakefield CC BY 2.0 )

This is not the first time scientists have jumped to conclusions about a scientific approach applied to the past. A similar thing happened with Stonehenge. In 1964, the late astronomer Gerald Hawkins developed an intricate method to use pit holes and markers to predict eclipses at the mysterious monument. However, this does not mean that this is how Stonehenge was intended to be used.

Way Forward

To start understanding the past we need to include various approaches from other disciplines to support an idea. We also have to understand that there will never be only one explanation or answer to how a monument might have been aligned or used.

So how can cultural astronomy explain the pyramids’ alignment? A study from 2001 proposed that two stars, Megrez and Phad, in the stellar constellation known as Ursa Major may have been the key. These stars are visible through the entire night. Their lowest position in the sky during a night can mark north using the merkhet - an ancient timekeeping instrument composing a bar with a plumb line attached to a wooden handle to track stars’ alignment.

The benefit of this interpretation is that it links to star mythology drawn from inscriptions in the temple of Horus in Edfu . These elaborate on using the merkhet as a surveying tool – a technique that can also explain the orientation of other Egyptian sites. The inscription includes the hieroglyph “ the Bull’s Foreleg ” which represents the Big Dipper star constellation and its possible position in the sky.

The use of the two stars Megrez and Phad of Ursa Major to line up with the cardinal north direction (meridian indicated in orange) as simulated for 2562BC. Daniel Brown

The use of the two stars Megrez and Phad of Ursa Major to line up with the cardinal north direction (meridian indicated in orange) as simulated for 2562BC. Daniel Brown

Similarly, better ideas for Stonehenge have been offered. One study identified strange circles of wood near the monument, and suggested these may have represented the living while the rocks at Stonehenge represented the dead. Similar practices are seen in monuments found in Madagascar , suggesting it may have been a common way for prehistoric people to think about the living and the dead. It also offers an exciting new way of understanding Stonehenge in its wider landscape. Others have interpreted Stonehenge and especially its avenue as marking the ritual passage through the underworld with views of the moon on the horizon.

Cultural astronomy has also helped shed light on 6,000-year-old passage graves – a type of tomb consisting of a chamber of connected stones and a long narrow entrance – in Portugal. Archaeologist Fabio Silva has shown how views from inside the tombs frame the horizon where the star Aldebaran rises above a mountain range. This might mean it was built to give a view of the star from the inside either for the dead or the living, possibly as an initiation ritual.

Fieldwork at one of the passage graves in Portugal, Dolmen da Orca. Next to the stone structure is a replica tent to simulate the view from inside of the passage grave. Daniel Brown

Fieldwork at one of the passage graves in Portugal, Dolmen da Orca. Next to the stone structure is a replica tent to simulate the view from inside of the passage grave. Daniel Brown

But Silva also drew upon wider supporting evidence. The framed mountain range is where the builders of the graves would have migrated with their livestock over summer. The star Aldebaran rises for the first time here in the year – known as a helical rising – during the beginning of this migration. Interestingly, ancient folklore also talks about a shepherd in this area who spotted a star so bright that it lit up the mountain range. Arriving there he decided to name both the mountain range and his dog after the star – both names still exist today.

Current work carried out by myself in collaboration with Silva has also shown how a view from within the long, narrow entrance passages to the tombs could enhance the star’s visibility by restricting the view through an aperture.

But while it is easy to assume that prehistoric people were analytic astronomers with great knowledge of science, it’s important to remember that this only reflects our modern views of astronomy. Findings from cultural astronomy show that people of the past were indeed sky watchers and incorporated what they saw in many aspects of their lives. While there are still many mysteries surrounding the meaning and origins of ancient structures, an approach drawing on as many areas as possible , including experiences and engaging in meaning is likely our best bet to work out just what they were once used for.

Top image: All Giza Pyramids in one shot. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The article ‘ From the pyramids to Stonehenge – were prehistoric people astronomers? by Daniel Brown  was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.


Barry Sears's picture


It is a matter of discovering some true messages. I apply a larger scientific observation to the sites and our ancient teachings. For me the astrological zones are anatomical connections. 
The World rotates through the Celestial body (Nut, the Father, Ranginui) but the World was the point of investigation. By studying nature around the equator you could investigate the surrounding creative energies of the Celestial surroundings. "As above so below" so the twelve zones around the equator revealed the energy of the twelve zones of our Celestial path. Stonehenge has the design of Cancer, next Leo has the sphinx, Virgo the land of Israel. From the heads of Easter Island to the tail of the fish our ancient civilisations plotted the World body, which projected to the Celestial body. For me the twelve zones are 12 anatomical body parts that combine to form the full body. This builds a comprehension of Celestial evolution, passed onto planetary evolution, expressed through terrestrial evolution.

1. The Sumerians had fractional 'Pythagorean' trigonometry. This can be used to line up pointers to determine very accurate angular readings to any reference point (stars, celestial bodies, ships on the horizon with distance and bearing)
2. The Minoans seem to know this, the so-called 'peak sanctuaries' are practical observatories for both observing the shipping lanes and observing the stars (dual use: science and supporting trade).
3. The double axe and 'horns of consecration' are devices to assist in measurement, they are shown on iconography together. They can be used for the metrological study of time and angular position. The small double axe used for navigation on ships and for short-range signalling between ships (they are great mirrors) – about 5kms to the horizon, the large ones from peaks at altitude – about 100 kms (height dependent). The ''a' side is a flat gravity cast mirror, the 'b' side of double axes, all have markers, by knowing mid-day (shortest shadow), the month of year, the markers can be used for the offset to give an approximation of current latitude! They are made from copper, silver and gold , all greater than 95% reflective when polished. Noting how similar the words ‘Axes’ and ‘Axis’ is, the Minoans put axe marks on their buildings to make key events relating to Solstice and Equinox. Minoan ships are covered in practical devices to assist in navigation, directional vains, anemometer, etc.
There is line-of-sight between peak sanctuaries, for potentially cross-island and inter island communication across most of the Cyclades! Near instantaneous long distant communication, what an advantage (whether this was just for advanced recon of an approaching foreign fleet or more sophisticated for placing orders is unknown. Signalling mirrors would not work at night, but there is evidence of fires at these locations to do the same. How did Minos control the flow of tin (or anything else) in the Med? The fleet intercepted any plain wooden hulls (all the Minoan ships were white composite hulls as shown on the Santorini floatilla fresco). They dominated, controlled and enabled the flow of trade of valuable commodities across the entire region, spanning Africa, Europe and Asia.
4. Trade flourished around 2500-1500BCE and it is done mainly via metal producing islands in the med (easier to defend), to Iberia (producing tin) and connecting Brittany and the British Isles (also producing tin - Armetis's little hunting companion (sometimes shown above - BRITomartis: the sweet maiden of sailors). These were the trading ports which worked together to bring metal into the Med, the key ingredient to power the bronze age economy. We can probably decipher the lost language of Linear A through tongues spoken in ancient Britain, possibly Catalan (Iberia)!
5. The celestial bodies of interest are the Earth, the Moon, the Sun and Venus (which the Minoan deities embody, Mother Earth - North, Potnia Theron (Artemis) – West, her twin the Master of Animals (Apollo) – South and his consort Venus - East, respectively), and knew how all these bodies interact. The Minoans and the Phoenicians (seafaring Philistines of Minoan descent) used water bowls to study the passage of venus across the sun (in the reflection) for example, there are models, artefacts and iconography to show just this. The suns position was tracked by shadow cast. The moon by lining up reference markers, they know where everything was and exactly where it would be, they could predict eclipses, they even had devices to calculate this, with 95% success. It is the precursor to the Antikythera mechanism a millennium later. Just imagine how powerful this was in statecraft, next week the sun will turn black (if you don’t agree to this trade deal). The reason we probably have a decimalised system is probably due to the Minoans, the rest of the world is sexigesimal (base 60 - but good for division), the Minoans used both. There are proportions embedded in their buildings that show they knew and were using advanced mathematics Pi, Fibonacci sequences, their book-keeping is meticulous, they counted everything in and out of the Palace magazines and there is evidence of macroeconomic planning, supply contracts and possibly credit! Any shortfall of a commodity they needed they acquired by trade. Some of the small islands supported population well beyond what the land area would provide. They were churning out specialised high-value trade goods at a fast rate. All the great building projects (Palaces) in the med used Minoan architects, engineers and artist, almost certainly including the Egyptians.
6. The Priestess (civil servants) are trying to work out the celestial axis around which the earth wobbles due to precession (a long-term project), they wanted to understand the natural cycles of everything, including how the Universe was organised). The building markers (like stone circles) are all references to assist. A study of the stars over generations. The Phoenicians and the Minoans always show North, protected by griffins (the cone in which the earth wobbles within due to procession (backwards), it’s moving around 1.4 degrees each century. The twin snakes are referring to North, they even show the correct rotation of the Earth on Phoenician iconography. The snakes refer to the ‘shifting’ Pole star Thuban, ‘the snake’ at the time. They knew more about astronomy than they are given credit for. They had 13 months at this time, not twelve (13 cycles of the moon phases per year). All the signs of the zodiac are observed from a latitude around the Cyclades! The Minoans seeded all the thalassocracy afterwards, they were based on the knowledge derived from trade: Phoenicians, Spain, Briton.
Nicholas J. Deakin

It is worth the archaeologists referencing the pole stars over time, then one is aligned to (North) at the time, build something big to record the datum event. It is likely many cultures did this, they studied the stars the same way modern day people watch TV.

Barry Sears's picture

Nick D you have a great grasp of ancient global travel and communication. I do wish to express the idea of the ancient scientific observations of the Earth zones. To understand the order of the Celestial realm, it was realised that by studying the corresponding zones of earth, the variable creative energies could be discovered. This is why original ancient scientific exploration became so important. These are recorded around the globe once scientific research concluded the anatomical recognition. Each sign of the zodiac is about the uniqueness of the zones around the globe, these are Earthly observations and each iconic sign relates to the point of anatomy, for example the top of the head uses the horns of the ram, the bull the neck.... The circular zodiac of Denderah is a zodiac that rotates in the opposite direction to the Celestial zodiac of Nut, it also records the unusually placed sign of Cancer as it relates to the more Northern positioned site of Stonehenge and is an Earthly record. 
The Lion of Africa (the Heart land/lung region) marks it's own anatomy as the mane wraps around the torso compared to other large world cats and it was not far from here to explore the neighbours, next zone of Cancer (to the West) on the World anatomy.  
A good way to create a grid would also be to create a needle point to record the shadows, this is why the obelisks were so impressive. These would track variations in time and planetary motion variables such as precession and motion changes of the Earth towards or away from the sun.  

Hello Barry, thanks for your note. I'm unsure of the Zodiac's you refer to. I kind of get the zonal idea, i don't understand the connection with body parts you refer to though. You really need to write this up as an article. I suspect many cultures may have had a home constellation either directly overhead or on the horizon. It probably needs closer study. I found this interesting, This explains the Minoan fascination with snakes and bulls horns for example.
My interest is really in technology and classics (more a hobby). I'm still amazed at what the ancients knew and the craftsmanship, hence my interest in Minoan culture, art, science, trade and methods of making things (that are incredible). I'm less interested in some of the outer there theories and pseudoscience, more how the world was organised and what they knew. The Babylonian/Sumer fractional Pythagorean trigonometry is mind-blowingly good and actually relevant today for reducing computational complexity. I suspect someone in British Museum asked a mathematician if they could make sense of a table. A lot of things need to be rewritten, respectfully the archaeologist don't seem to know how to make things, so why they are commenting on tech I have no idea. The theories would be a lot more credible if they worked in a more cross-disciplined way. Best, Nick


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