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21 January 2012
Cave in Croatia yields oldest-known astrologer's board

A research team has discovered what may be the oldest astrologer's board - used to depict a person's horoscope - in the Nakovana cave famous for its conspicuously phallic stalagmite, overlooking the Adriatic Sea in Croatia.
     Dating back more than 2,000 years, the surviving portion of the board consists of 30 ivory fragments inscribed with signs of the zodiac in a Greco-Roman style. They include images of a crab (Cancer), twins (Gemini) and fish (Pisces). The fragments were discovered next to the phallic-shaped stalagmite, amid thousands of pieces of ancient Hellenistic (Greek style) drinking vessels.
     "This is probably older than any other known example," says Alexander Jones, a professor at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, adding, "We have a lot of [Greco-Roman] horoscopes that are written down as a kind of document on papyrus, or on a wall, but none of them as old as this."
     Jones and Stasho Forenbaher, a researcher with the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb, reported the discovery in the most recent edition of the Journal for the History of Astronomy.
     In 1999, the team was digging near the entrance of the cave, well known to people at the nearby hamlet of Nakovana who simply call it 'Spila' (the cave).
     What no one knew at the time was that the cave had another section, sealed off more than 2,000 years ago. Forenbaher's girlfriend (now his wife) burrowed through the debris, discovering a wide low passageway that continued nearly 10 metres. Forenbaher described going through the passageway as "The unique King Tut experience, coming to a place where nobody has been for a couple of thousand years. There was a very thin limestone crust on the surface that was cracking under your feet when you went in, which meant that nobody walked there in a very, very, long time."
     When the archaeologists investigated they found the phallic-shaped stalagmite, numerous drinking vessels that had been deposited over hundreds of years, and something else. "In the course of that excavation these very tiny bits and pieces of ivory came up," said Forenbaher. "What followed was years of putting them together, finding more bits and pieces, and figuring out what they were."
     Archaeologists are not certain how the board came to the cave or where it was originally made. Radiocarbon testing shows that the ivory dates back around 2,200 years, shortly before the appearance of this form of astrology. The signs would have been attached to a flat (possibly wooden) surface to create the board.
     "There is definitely a possibility that this astrologer's board showed up as an offering together with other special things that were either bought or plundered from a passing ship," Forenbaher said. He pointed out that the drinking vessels found in the cave were carefully chosen. They were foreign-made, and only a few examples of cruder amphora storage vessels were found with them.
     The phallic-shaped stalagmite appears to have been a centre for these offerings. "This is a place where things that were valued locally were deposited to some kind of supernatural power, to some transcendental entity or whatever," says Forenbaher.

Edited from New York University (January 2012), LiveScience (16 January 2012)

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