|29 April 1999
A 5000-year old Moon map
Dr Philip Stooke of the University of Western Ontario in Canada spends most of his time preparing maps of asteroids based on spacecraft observations, but he has also prepared detailed maps of the Moon. Recently, he began looking for the oldest recorded moon map in old manuscripts and history books as well as the records of excavations of the Neolithic sites of the British Isles Then he found one, carved into a rock in one of Ireland's most remarkable prehistoric tombs at Knowth, County Meath.
Knowth consists mainly of a large mound surrounded by 17 smaller ones. The mound contains two rock-lined passage tombs, one facing east, the other west. The lunar map, carved into the stone that forms the end wall of the eastern passage, has three sections, similar, but oriented differently.
Stooke believes they were carved in different orientations because they depict the apparent rotation of the disk of the full moon as it crosses the night sky. No doubt the carvings represent the moon, he says. If you place the drawings over a picture of the full moon, at least a dozen points of correspondence are immediately obvious.
Before this discovery, the oldest map of the Moon was by Leonardo da Vinci, drawn about 1505. The Knowth map is at least 10 times older.
The people who carved this moon map were the first scientists, says Dr Stooke. They knew a great deal about the motion of the moon. They were not primitive at all.
The passage tomb at Knowth is estimated to be about 5,000 years old; investigations at the site almost 20 years ago showed that at certain times moonlight could shine down the eastern passage of the tomb. Remarkably, the moonlight would also fall on the Neolithic lunar map. During excavations, the stone in question was named Orthostat 47. Its right-hand section contains a series of arcs.
It's a fascinating story, which I would consider with some caution, says Prof. Charles Orser of Illinois State University, editor of the International Journal of Historical Archaeology. There are many instances in the realm of fantastic archaeology where people see what they wish to see. On the other hand, it is possible that the people at Knowth simply drew a picture of the moon. It shouldn't be surprising: they looked up in the same fashion as us.
Sources: BBC News, Discovery Online
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