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Inside Egypt's oldest known example of a tomb aligned with the winter solstice. Source: University of Malaga

Oldest Egyptian Tomb is Aligned with the Winter Solstice

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Precisely oriented to the rising sun of the winter solstice, researchers have found a tomb in the necropolis of Qubbet el-Hawa ( Aswan) that registered the entire solar cycle related to rebirth. Believed to be the resting place of a governor of the city of Elephantine, Heqaib-ankh, who lived around 1830 BC when the XII Dynasty ruled Egypt, the tomb is the oldest example found to date with this specific orientation to the sun.

The Tomb of Heqaib-ankh and the Necropolis of Qubbet el-Hawa

The tomb was built to catch the rays of the rising sun in such a fashion that the place where the statue of the governor was meant to be installed was flooded with light. This discovery was made by researchers from the University of Malaga (UMA) and the University of Jaen (UJA) and has been published in the journal Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry .

Inside the tomb of Heqaib-ankh, Qubbet el-Hawa, Egypt. (Joyanes-Díaz, M. et al/Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry/ CC BY 4.0)

Inside the tomb of Heqaib-ankh, Qubbet el-Hawa, Egypt. (Joyanes-Díaz, M. et al/ Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry / CC BY 4.0 )

A UMA press release states that the tomb is assigned the number 33 in the necropolis of Qubbet el-Hawa and was possibly built by Governor Heqaib-ankh. Heritage Daily reports that Qubbet el-Hawa is located on the western bank of the Nile opposite the city of Aswan. Qubbet el-Hawa was used to inter dead nobles and priests from the Old and Middle Kingdoms of ancient Egypt. The XII dynasty is said to have constituted the pinnacle of the Middle Kingdom, a period stretching from roughly 2030 BC to 1650 BC, including the reigns of the XI, XII, and XIII Dynasties.

According to Phys.org, the tomb was excavated by archaeologists from the UJA between 2008 and 2018. Since that time, it has been studied by researchers with different specializations. Professor of Architecture at the UMA, Lola Joyanes, has been associated with the project since 2015 and from 2019 she has pursued an independent line of research. She has closely studied the tomb’s architecture and landscaping, particularly by using drawing and photogrammetry.

Geometric scheme of sunlight on the façade and access door, corresponding to winter solstice and summer solstice. (Joyanes-Díaz, M. et al/Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry/ CC BY 4.0)

Geometric scheme of sunlight on the façade and access door, corresponding to winter solstice and summer solstice. (Joyanes-Díaz, M. et al/ Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry / CC BY 4.0 )

Applying Old and New Technology

For their study, the researchers from UMA employed a specific software called Dialux Evo that can reproduce the position of the sun with respect to the horizon in ancient times. Once the period of the tomb’s creation was identified, they were able to conclude that the Egyptians were capable of calculating the position of the sun and the orientation of its rays to build their monuments.

The tools used to calculate the perfect orientation of this tomb were very basic. In fact, a simple two-cubit pole, around a meter long, a square, and some robes sufficed to enable the Egyptian architect to achieve the precise orientation of the burial tomb and the position of the governor’s statue.

Symbolically Setting the Governor on the Path for Resurrection

Without the use of any sophisticated instruments, the architect was able to design the tomb such that, “[it] perfectly registered the whole solar cycle, related to the idea of rebirth. While the winter solstice meant the beginning of the sunlight victory over darkness, the summer solstice generally coincided with the beginning of the annual flooding of the Nile , hence both events had an important symbolism linked to the resurrection of the deceased governor,” a researcher from the UMA said, according to Heritage Daily .

Plan of the tomb with a geometric diagram of the path of sunlight at each sunrise between the winter (WS) and summer (SS) solstice. The numbers indicate each of the months of the three seasons, Akhet, Shemu and Peret. The upper horizontal line marks the 3 weeks that make up the two months before and after the winter solstice, during the sowing season or Peret. (Joyanes-Díaz, M. et al/Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry/ CC BY 4.0)

Plan of the tomb with a g eometric diagram of the path of sunlight at each sunrise between the winter (WS) and summer (SS) solstice. The numbers indicate each of the months of the three seasons, Akhet, Shemu and Peret. The upper horizontal line marks the 3 weeks that make up the two months before and after the winter solstice, during the sowing season or Peret. (Joyanes-Díaz, M. et al/ Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry / CC BY 4.0 )

Not only did the architect achieve a precise orientation, but he was also able to design a tomb with a volume that did not match any previously built tomb. This was the inference reached in a previous paper published by the UJA in 2020.

Designing Monuments in Alignment with the Sun

Thus, as the UMA press release states, quoting the researchers involved in the study, “This study shows that the Egyptians were capable of calculating the position of the sun and the orientation of its rays to design their monuments. Although Qubbet el-Hawa tomb 33 is the oldest example found so far, it will surely not be the only one.”

Meanwhile, this study has revealed the remarkable degree of precision with which the ancient Egyptians were able to calculate the movement of heavenly bodies using the simplest of tools, and the extent to which their lives (and afterlives) were aligned with natural cycles.

Top image: Inside Egypt's oldest known example of a tomb aligned with the winter solstice. Source: University of Malaga

By Sahir Pandey

References

Heritage Daily. 2022. New research reveals oldest Ancient Egyptian tomb orientated to winter solstice . Available at: https://www.heritagedaily.com/2022/11/new-research-identifies-reveals-oldest-ancient-egyptian-tomb-orientated-to-winter-solstice/145270.

Joyanes-Díaz, M. et al. 2022. Solar Geometry and the Organization of the Annual Cycle Through Architecture and the Funerary Landscape in Qubbet El Hawa . Available at: https://zenodo.org/record/6815469.

Phys.org. 2022. Researchers discover Egypt's oldest tomb oriented to winter solstice . Available at: https://phys.org/news/2022-11-egypt-oldest-tomb-winter-solstice.html.

UMA press release.2022. Descubren la tumba orientada al solsticio de invierno más antigua de Egipto . Available at: https://www.uma.es/sala-de-prensa/noticias/descubren-la-tumba-orientada-al-solsticio-de-invierno-mas-antigua-de-egipto/.

Comments

I’d rather agree with Pete, they could simply track the shadow of a pole during at least one year, or If it so happens that there was an unobstructed horizon to the east or to the west, mark the extreme southern bearing of either sunrise or sunset.

Pete Wagner's picture

It’s a bit funny that they think the ancients used any calculations to figure out sun angles.  No, they were surely smarter than that, doing it the easy, normal way (for those times), setting up a sun dial, basically just a plumb pole – noting/marking the extreme positions, that you do initially, and validate them every year.  Nobody would ever know if it slightly changes, and something that small wouldn’t matter for the architecture.  Let’s not project our modern complicated, silliness onto them.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

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