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Calendars and Years: Astronomy and Time in the Ancient Near East.

Calendars and Years: Astronomy and Time in the Ancient Near East. Edited by JOHN M. STEELS. Oxford: OxBow Books, 2007. Pp. vii + 167. $50 (paper). [Distributed by The David Brown Book Co., Oakville, Conn.]

This interesting yet slim tome appears, at first, to provide the specialist in astronomical techniques of antiquity with yet another volume of new and original interpretations, especially non-orthodox ones. The work, however, is extremely limited and restricted to just seven scholars whereas, at least in the field of Egyptology, many more could have been included. I shall review the Egyptian material in extenso concluding with some pertinent comments in regard to the editor's own useful study on a Mesopotamian question.

Sarah Symons presents a revisionist chapter in which the researches of Otto Neugebauer and Richard A. Parker are rejected. At the outset it must be stated that this approach is sometimes very salutary, except that all too often younger scholars see the necessity of refuting past experts, especially brilliant researchers such as Neugebauer. Hence, it was with a degree of trepidation that I read her selection titled "A Star's Year: The Annual Cycle in the Ancient Egyptian Sky" (pp. 1-33). She rejected the "paired rising and setting theory" of the decanal stars and attempted to provide a new hypothesis in order to explain the out-of-date records on the coffins in question. What is significant is that she, too, saw the weaknesses in Christian Leitz's Altagyptische Sternuhren (Leuven: Peeters, 1997), a work subject to my criticisms published in CdE 74 (2000): 296-300, but a study that Symons ignored. On the other hand, whereas I agree with the author that the exactitude argued by Neugebauer and Parker may have been overstressed, and that "[f]actors other than slippage of the Egyptian civil year against the observable sky" were undoubtedly present, it remains the case that the two American scholars clearly indicated the imprecise nature of the ancient Egyptian visually based records in the final pages of their Egyptian Astronomical Texts I (Providence and London: Lund Humphries, 1960).

Yet Symons seems not to have combed the large body of crucial secondary literature on this matter. I was thus disappointed that, if only because of her strong challenge to Neugebauer and Parker, she avoided a raft of important Egyptological articles and chapters in books. I will cite only the following works of Ronald Wells: "The Goddess Nut, Pharaoh's Guarantor of Immortality," Varia Aegyptiaca 10/2-3 (1995): 205-14; "The Mythology of Nut and the Birth of Ra," SAK 19 (1992): 305-21; and "Re and the Calendars," in Revolutions in Time: Studies in Ancient Egyptian Calendrics, ed. Anthony Spalinger (San Antonio: Van Siclen Press, 1994), 1-37.

Of equal significance was the life-long endeavor of Pierangelo Mengoli, whose crowning work is the little-known Astronomica Egizia (Budrio, 2006). In addition, one can cite these studies also ignored by Symons: "La clessidra egizia del Museo Barracco," VO 6 (1986): 193-209; "Some Considerations of Egyptian Star-Clocks," Archiv der Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften 22-24 (1988): 1127-50--a very useful work--and "La cleissidra di Karnak: L'orologia ad acqua di Amenophis III," OA 28 (1989): 227-71. In addition, owing to Alexandra Von Lieven's sumptuous publication of P. Carlsberg I and related texts, Grundriss des Laufes der Sternes: Das sogenannte Nutbuch (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2007), some additional caveats must be placed on the Symons chapter.

One is left with the feeling that Symons has not proven her case. On the one hand she demands scientific exactitude and correctly notes that Neugebauer and Parker often argued for a conclusion that is "impossible to prove conclusively" (p. 20). Yet the same can be said with regard to her counter-hypotheses. I fail to see that she has demonstrated with certainty that the conclusions in Egyptian Astronomical Texts I were, for the most part, inaccurate.

Leo Depuydt's contribution (pp. 35-81) attempts to establish a detailed basis of Egyptian chronology by setting up a lengthy series of "milestones." Once more I found his reasoning too demanding of the ancient phenomena. To be frank, we cannot even be sure of any Sothic date, irrespective of where that star was seen. Why, as well, spend a lot of time attempting to work with synchronisms with Mesopotamnia (Assyria, Babylonia, etc.) where no exact reconstruction is yet possible and where the synchronism depends upon historical connections rather than mathematical ones? Inherent and often hidden problems relating to the Egyptian dates are rarely brought up by Depuydt as dilemmas or conundrums. At what time, for example, did the Egyptians consider their day to begin: sunrise or morning twilight? The choice will lead to differing absolute chronologies.

How can the shorter regnal years of Horemheb--argued now to be maximally fourteen instead of the earlier assumed twenty-seven--be incorporated into the New Kingdom chronology? This is yet another question that still remains problematical, despite Rolf Krauss's recent commentary, "Astronomical Chronology," in In Search of Cosmic Order: Selected Essays on Egyptian Archaeoastronomy, ed. Juan Antonio Belmonte and Mosalam Shaltout (Cairo: Supreme Council of Antiquities, 2009), 145. Finally, was all of the expenditure of time and activity worth the result when Depuydt in the end states that this chapter "does not present much that is new" (p. 74)? A more concise and astronomically inclined analysis might have proven to be more acceptable to sceptics such as myself.

One important Assyriological contribution in this collection that deserves comment in some detail is that of John Steele, "The Length of the Month in Mesopotamian Calendars of the First Millennium BC" (pp. 133-48). The author rehearses important information with regard to the actual naked-eye problem in lunar astronomy as well as the numerous non-empirical means of determining the month's duration in Mesopotamia. Hence, there is a connection between this useful analysis, one that I found highly suggestive for future research in Egyptology, and Lis Brack-Bcrnsen's "The 360-Day Year in Mesopotamia" (pp. 83-100). Nonetheless, I feel that both scholars could have covered the native ancient Egyptian material as well, especially with regard to the assumed "truncated Egyptian year" of 360 days.

I was somewhat surprised to see that Ronald Wells' contribution to Steele's edited volume of an earlier date. "The Role of Astronomical Techniques in Ancient Egyptian Chronology: The Use of Lunar Month Lengths," in Absolute Dating: Astronomy and Mathematics in the Ancient Near East (Munster: Ugarit Verlag, 2001) 459-72, was avoided. In that analysis Wells used three important studies of the physicist Bradley E. Schaefer: "Astronomy and the Limits of Vision," Vistas in Astronomy 36 (1993): 311-61: "Lunar Crescent Visibility," Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 37 (1996): 759-68; and "The Heliacal Rise of Sirius and Ancient Egyptian Chronology," Journal fir the History of Astronomical 31 (2000): 149-55. Add William Liller, "Refraction Near the Horizon," Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 102 (1990): 796-805.

All of these studies, especially those dependent upon Schaefer's "Moonwatch" sightings, are extremely pertinent to the actual difficulties in human-eye astronomy relating to the presence or absence of the moon's tiny sickle. Moreover, as Schaefer revealed, human errors often creep into the observed phenomena and, even worse, moons may be "seen" (or not), when the reverse is actually the case. I recommend. his "Lunar Crescent Visibility" as a desideratum to all students of ancient lunar astronomy. From the Egyptian side I cite my own chapter, "Under the Moon of Earth," in Revolutions in Time (pp. 61-83). wherein the Egyptian data of a similar nature are examined.

Finally, let me conclude this review by praising once more, but in a different context, the research of Alexander Jones. His small contribution, "On Greek and Stellar and Zodiacal Date-Reckoning" (pp. 149-67), is a carefully argued and cohesive study on dating and astronomy that deals with the Greek parapegma and their implications. The reader should be aware that Jones' chapter is more of a summary of previous investigations than one providing much new.

This volume should definitely form part of the library of students of ancient science. If I have spoken more highly of the Mesopotamia-oriented chapters than of the Egyptian ones, this is because I found the approaches, data, and reasoning in them superior to those reflecting my own field. Yet one ends up feeling that, if more Egyptologists had been included, this book could have been far more encompassing. After all, astronomical matters have a special place in Egyptology.

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Author:Spalinger, Anthony
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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