Pharoahs used monuments as launch pads to the afterlife, says scientist
Monday May 14, 2001
November 15, 2000, Cambridge University Egyptologist Kate Spence says that by analyzing the relative position of Earth and two stars, she has dated the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza — one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World — to within five years of 2478 B.C.
That means the Great Pyramid is 4,478 years old — or 75 years older than one commonly accepted estimate.
Her estimate comes from her proposed solution to another mystery: How did the ancient Egyptians align their pyramids so that two sides ran so precisely north-south?
She suggests that they used a pair of stars found in the Little and Big Dippers.
But because Earth wobbles on its axis, those two stars would have given different indications for "north" over the centuries. So by calculating when that pair of stars would have been in a northern alignment, Spence says she can figure out when the pyramids were built.
In Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, Spence says the two-star method could explain the various degrees of inaccuracy in the orientation of pyramids built at different times.
Today’s north star, Polaris, was in the wrong position in those days to help the pyramid builders. Spence instead employs the stars Mizar, found in the Big Dipper’s handle, and Kochab, in the bowl of the Little Dipper.
When the pyramids were built, these stars circled nightly around a point over the North Pole. So, when one star appeared directly over the other, the Egyptians could have used a plumb line to find north, Spence says.
Science editor Tim Radford argued, from evidence of the orientation of the pyramids - always to the northern pole star - and from the names given to estates to finance funerary cults, and the shape of the pyramids themselves, that they could be seen as launch pads for the pharaoh's journey to the afterlife among the stars.
"Circumpolar stars are a very good metaphor for the afterlife because when viewed, they never seem to set: they simply rotate around the pole star. They are the undying stars, or in Egyptian terminology, the Indestructibles, a perfect destination for the soul of the dead king," he told a Bloomsbury archaeological summer school at University College London.
Pyramid structures extend from the north of Egypt to the Sudan, and they were built over thousands of years. "Where are all the steps that led up to pyramid building?" he asked. "We stand marvelling at these monuments and they seem to have appeared almost from nowhere, but clearly something like that cannot be put up overnight without the infrastructure in place."
This infrastructure included royal command of the economy, systematic taxation, a body of experience in public works and increasing mastery of stone as a building material. There had also to be religious or political motivation. Dr Wilkinson traced the rise of a professional civil service in seals, documents and grave inscriptions dating back almost to 3,000BC, and the continuing evidence of Egyptian belief not only in an afterlife, but in death itself as a journey.
There were further clues in the names, which were crucially important in ancient Egyptian culture. One pyramid was explicitly called "the gleaming". Another was called "the pyramid that is a star". From the 1st dynasty onwards - long before the pyramids were built - kings had founded estates to finance their tomb cults: one of these was explicitly called "Horus (that is, the king) rises as a star".
"What clearer exposition could we have of the ideology surrounding a king's afterlife than that?"
Tombs of the first dynasties were concealed by mounds of earth, seen as symbols of rebirth or resurrection. The first pyramid - the step pyramid at Saqqara, built in the 3rd dynasty - had its altar to the north, and the ramp down into its subterranean chambers started from the north face.
"It can also be seen as a ramp from the burial chamber," he said. "Because if you stand in the burial chamber underneath, and look up this entrance ramp, you are looking at the northern sky. And this is perhaps a launch pad for the king's spirit, to eject him straight to the northern stars where he hopes to spend his afterlife."
Fourth dynasty pyramids - including the Great Pyramid and others on the Giza plateau - were very carefully oriented towards the stars. Could they have been modelled on stars?
"What does a star look like in three dimensions? We could only know that if we had a star that has fallen to Earth for us to look at. A meteorite, perhaps, a shooting star that has literally come down to Earth."
Abstract: The Guardian