Archaeologists excavating at the famous Inca site of Machu Picchu in Peru have discovered the remains of an astronomical observatory.
The Peruvian-Polish team cleared away an unexcavated building of the well-preserved Inca retreat, now the most popular destination in the country, and found that the stones of the structure have astronomical alignments.
The team used 3D laser scanning to map the building, dubbed “El Mirador”, so as to get precise locations and alignments. They found that the edges of many stones lined up with important celestial events on the horizon of the surrounding Yanantin mountain peaks.
The Inca were well-known as astronomers who took careful note of the movements of the heavens in order to plan their agricultural and religious calendars. This was common in many ancient civilizations and the field of archaeoastronomy, which studies who ancient societies examined with the sky, is a growing field of research.
The Polish researchers have been working at Machu Picchu since 2008 and have been focusing on the site’s archaeoastronomical significance. They presented their findings earlier this month at the International Conference of the Societe Europeenne pour l’ Astronomie dans la Culture in Athens.
At the Roman necropolis in Carmona, Spain, visitors are led to the popular “Elephant’s Tomb,” a large underground chamber that gets its name from a crude sculpture of an elephant found there.
Now archaeologists are saying it may not be a tomb at all, but rather a temple to one of the ancient world’s most mysterious religions. A team from the University of Pablo de Olavide, Seville, has analyzed the structure and says it was once a mithraeum, an underground temple for the god Mithras.
Mithraism centered on secret rites centered on the mystical slaying of a bull was one of the most popular faiths in the last years of paganism. Several mithraeums are scattered about Europe, including in London, Mérida, and along Hadrian’s Wall.
The archaeologists point out that its general shape, with a columned, three-chambered room leading to an area for altars, is the same as other mithraeums. They also found astronomical alignments. Sunlight would hit the center of the chamber during the equinoxes, and during the winter and summer solstices, the sun would light up the north and south walls respectively. As the sun shines through the window during the spring equinox, Taurus rises to the East and Scorpio hides to the West. The opposite occurred during the autumn equinox. Taurus and Scorpio figure prominently in the religion’s astrological symbolism, with the God Mithras slaying a bull as a scorpion stings the animal’s testicles.
It was only later that the temple was turned into a burial chamber, researchers say.
Carmona is less than 20 miles from Seville and is a popular day trip from there.
[Top photo courtesy Daniel Villafruela. Bottom photo courtesy Henri de Boisgelin.]
This odd stone may look like an unusual product of nature, but it’s actually a monument from about 4,000 years ago called a menhir. Archaeologists have long debated what menhirs were for, perhaps boundary markers or gravestones or something else. Now experts are saying this one, at Gardom’s Edge in the Derbyshire Peak District, England, may be a prehistoric calendar.
Archaeoastronomers, who study astronomical alignments in ancient monuments, studied the stone and found that where the sun hit the slanted side may have acted as a marker for seasons. Other prehistoric remains are nearby, including the mysterious carvings shown below.
Local Bronze Age people are believed to have kept their herds in the higher hills during summer and moved to the warmer valleys when winter set in. This handy calendar would have told them when to move their herds. While the researchers say this sundial may be unique, some other megalithic monuments have astronomical alignments, the most famous being Stonehenge. Megalithic monuments such as stone circles and menhirs can be found all over the British Isles and make for some interesting stops while hiking. Trails such as the Ridgeway Trail pass by several.
The Peak District is one of England’s most beautiful natural spots and Gardom’s Edge is a favorite spot for rock climbing.
[Images courtesy artq55 via flickr]
The Emperor Hadrian is one of Rome’s most famous emperors, ruling at the height of the Empire from 117-138 AD. His villa just north of Rome is a popular tourist attraction, yet some Italian researchers have discovered what countless visitors never noticed: the buildings are aligned with astronomical events.
On the summer solstice (June 21 this year) light passes through an opening above a doorway and shines on a niche in the opposite wall. The niche probably contained the statue of some deity. This sort of light effect has been found in other ancient sites. Another building is aligned both to the summer and winter (December 21 this year) solstices, during which the light shines through a row of doors.
The effects may have been part of the worship of Isis. Originally an Egyptian goddess, a popular mystery religion grew up around her in the Roman Empire.
Hadrian’s other famous monument, Hadrian’s Wall, is also the site of a recent discovery. At the fort of Vindolanda, dozens of circular huts have been discovered that don’t look like anything the Romans built. In fact, they look like the huts of the tribes living north of the wall in Scotland, outside the direct influence of the Roman Empire. These may have been homes for refugees from friendly tribes fleeing common enemies, perhaps during the invasion of Scotland by Emperor Septimius Severus (ruled 193-211 AD) or the homes of temporary workers who lived along the wall and served the Romans.
For more on Hadrian’s Wall and a hike you can take along the entire length, check out my series on hiking Hadrian’s Wall.
[Photo courtesy Jastrow]
On Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix is one of America’s most enduring ancient mysteries–a giant adobe structure called Casa Grande. It was erected by the Hohokam, a people who built towns where Tucson and Phoenix are today and who turned the desert green with an extensive system of irrigation. Ironically, the modern city of Phoenix was founded by American settlers who cleared out the prehistoric Hohokam canals and reused them for their own farms.
Casa Grande was a settlement between these two centers of population and was at its height 150 years before Columbus “discovered” America. At its center was a four-story building unlike anything else in the prehistoric southwest. Nobody knows for sure why the Hohokam civilization died out shortly thereafter, and nobody knows the purpose of Casa Grande. The late archaeoastronomer Dr. Ray White believed that Casa Grande’s windows were a prehistoric observatory that marked important times in the calendar such as the solstice and the equinox.
This mysterious building became the nation’s first archaeological preserve in 1892 and a national monument in 1918. Archaeologists have since realized the monument doesn’t protect many outlying areas of the site, and now Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (Dem-1st District) has proposed House Resolution 5110 to protect 415 more acres. The move has the support of local archaeologists as well as the influential newspaper The Arizona Republic. The expansion was initially proposed by Kirkpatrick’s Republican predecessor Rep. Rick Renzi.
It’s a gutsy move at a time of belt tightening and threatened park closures, so it will be interesting to see if a destination on the itinerary of so many southwestern road trips will get the funds to expand its boundaries.