2,600-Year-Old Greek Wine Cup May have Oldest Depiction of Constellations
An ancient Greek wine cup long thought to depict a random assortment of animals in a hunting scene, may actually have the earliest known depictions of star constellations, a new study shows. The cup may provide clues regarding ancient knowledge of astronomy in Greece.
The wine cup, which is currently on display at the Lamia Archaeological Museum, dates back to 625 BC, and was originally discovered near a temple in the acropolis of Halai, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Thebes, Greece. The piece of pottery, which is known as a skyphos, depicts a bull, a snake, a hare or small dog, a large dog, a scorpion, a dolphin, and a panther or lion.
The remains of the acropolis of Halai, Greece. (Halai.arts.cornell.edu)
According to a news report in Live Science, the animal scenes captured the attention of John Barnes, a classical archaeology doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri, who immediately noticed that the animals correspond to patterns of stars.
“My dad raised me on astronomy, and to me, the snake, rabbit and dog together looked like constellations,” Mr Barnes told Live Science. “That group jumped out at me.”
While depictions of hunting scenes are common in ancient Greek art, Mr Barnes said that the combination of a dolphin with a land animal is odd, and representations of scorpions were usually only used on shield emblems. The atypical scene led him to believe the drawings were showing star constellations.
In a study published in the journal Hesperia, Barnes suggests that the bull corresponds to Taurus, the snake represents the constellation of Hydra, the rabbit is Lepus, the dog is Canis Major or Canis Minor, the scorpion is Scorpius, the dolphin is Delphinus, and the lion is Leo.
Furthermore, Barnes maintains that the animals are arranged according to their seasonal associations, with the bull representing autumn, the rabbit and dog corresponding to winter, the dog (again) and the scorpion are spring, and the dolphin and lion signify summer.
‘Allegory of Summer’ by Jerzy Siemiginowski-Eleuter (Wikimedia). The lion, symbolizing the constellation of leo (and summer), is seen in the sky.
“If my proposal is correct, not just constellations but seasonal groupings, then that might suggest that they did in fact demarcate [set the boundaries] of the seasons of the year by associations with constellations,” said Barnes. “That's something we know they did later and had pretty good reason to suspect they also did in this more archaic period, but we hadn't been able to show it yet.”
Featured image: A two-handled wine cup may hold some of the earliest Greek depictions of the constellations. Here, a bull, snake, rabbit/small dog and large dog decorations. (John Barnes)