Archaeoastronomy in Greece: Data, Problems and Perspectives

  • Maria K. Papathanassiou
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 151)


Archaeoastronomy, as its name suggests, is the meeting point of astronomy and archaeology through the introduction of astronomical methods into the study of architectural remains. The history of archaeoastronomy in Greece begins in the last two decades of last century with the works of Heinrich Nissen,1 Sir Norman Lockyer2 and Sir Francis C. Penrose,3 who measured and studied the orientation of a number of Greek temples on the Greek mainland, the islands, the Ionian coast and South Italy. This theory dates from 1890 when Lockyer visited Greece and observed the difference in orientation between the old and the new Parthenon as well as the change in direction of the axes of other temples. He then went to Egypt and in the months ending March 1891 he measured the orientation of Egyptian temples. Knowing that some churches were orientated towards sunrise on the feast day of their patron saint, he thought the same might be true for ancient temples. According to his measurements and calculations there are six solsticial Egyptian temples, i.e. temples whose long axis was directed towards the point of the rising Sun at the winter solstice (four temples) or at the summer solstice (two temples).4


Foundation Date Local Horizon Foreign Influence Lunar Calendar Patron Saint 
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  1. 1.
    Nissen, H., 1885 “Über Tempel-Orientierung” (4th article), Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, N.F. 40, pp. 329–370. 1907 Orientation; Studien zur Geschichte der Religion,Heft 2, Weidmann, Berlin.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Lockyer, J.N., 1894 The Dawn of Astronomy; A Study of the Temple Worship and Mythology of the Ancient Egyptians,Cassell & Co. [MIT Pr. 1964]. 1909 “The uses and dates of ancient temples”, Nature, 80, pp. 340–344.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Penrose, F.C., 1892 “A preliminary statement on an investigation of the dates of some of the Greek temples as derived from their orientation”, Proc. Soc. Antiquaries (2nd series) 14, pp. 59–65. 1893 “On the results of an examination of the orientation of a number of Greek temples”, Phil. Trans. of the Royal Society (Series A) 184, pp. 379–384. 1897 “On the orientation of certain Greek temples and the dates of their foundation derived from astronomical considerations” (a supplement to the paper published in 1893), Phil. Trans. of the Royal Society (Series A) 190, pp. 43–65.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Lockyer, J.N., 1984, op cit. (Note 2), p. 78.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The brightness of the Sun moving about 1° per day on the ecliptic prevents us from seeing its neighbouring stars. The first morning after a period of disappearance we can perceive a star in the dawn near the horizon before the Sun rises, is the day of its heliacal rising.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Lockyer, J. N., 1894 op. cit. (Note 2), pp. 194, 305–313.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Ibid., pp. 46–47: “The amplitude of a body on the horizon is its distance north and south of the east and west points; it is always measured to the nearest of these two latter points, so that its greatest value can never exceed 90°chwr(133) We can say then that a star of a certain declination will rise or set at such an azimuth,if we reckon from the N. point of the horizon, or at such an amplitude if we reckon from the equator. This will apply to both north and south declinations.”Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Ibid., pp. 117–119. The change of the obliquity of the ecliptic is very small, so that in 6000 years the position of the Sun at sunrise and sunset on the horizon may vary by about 1° (pp. 123–124).Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Lockyer, J. N., 1894 op. cit. (Note 2), pp. 124, 126. Penrose, F. C., 1897 op. cit. (Note 3), p. 43.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    Penrose, F.C., 1897 op. cit. (Note 3), pp. 46, 53, 55. For example the long axis of the archaic Apollo temple at Didyma in Ionia (Asia Minor) destroyed in 494 B.C. by the Persians displays a difference of 1°45 ’ in relation to the long axis of the hellenistic temple founded in 280 B.C. on the remains of the archaic one. Hans Waltenberg and Wolfgang Gleissberg [“Das Rätsel von Didyma und seine astronomische Lösung” Sterne und Weltraum,1968 8/9, pp. 217–20.] calculated that the archaic temple was founded in about 700 B.C. and its orientation was such that the heliacal rising of a and ß Geminorum could be seen in the inner sanctuary through the two central columns of the colonnade of the front side of the temple. Because of the precession of equinoxes, in 280 B.C. it would have been necessary for the long axis of the temple under construction to be tilted by 1°45’ if the same phenomenon was to be observed in the new inner sanctuary.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    Ptolemy used for stars of the first magnitude a Sun’s depression below the true horizon of 11°, if the star and the Sun were on the same horizon (heliacal rising); if on opposite horizons (heliacal setting), a depression of 7°. For stars of the second magnitude his values of the Sun’s depression were 14° and 8°30’ respectively [Ideler, I., 1820 “Mémoire sur le calendrier du Ptolemée”, pp. 3–11 (here 10), in: Claude Ptolemée, Apparitions des fixes et annonces (trad. du grec. par M. Abbé Halma), Paris].Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    Penrose, F. C., 1897 op. cit. (Note 3), p. 45.Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    Lockyer, J. N., 1894 op. cit. (Note 2), pp. 129–131.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    Penrose, F. C., 1897 op. cit. (Note 3), pp. 46–47.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    Ibid., pp. 44, 48–50, 65. Lockyer, J. N., 1897 op. cit. (Note 2), pp. 419–420.Google Scholar
  16. 17.
    Nissen, H., 1907 op. cit. (Note 1), p. 158.Google Scholar
  17. 18.
    Ibid., p. 161. According to Nissen the orientation of other temples towards west, north and south, for which there is no early literary evidence, was also due to a foreign influence.Google Scholar
  18. 19.
    Dinsmoor, W. Bell, 1939 “Archaeology and Astronomy” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 80, pp. 95–173 (here p. 95).Google Scholar
  19. 26.
    For example in the island of Naxos there are some rocks with very ancient engraved symbols — possibly of astronomical meaning [Bardanis, Michael, 1966–67 “Elements of the astronomical knowledge of the prehistoric people of Cyclades islands” (in Greek) Deltion of the Library N. N. Glezou, 2, pp. 71–80]. It is pity that some of them are no longer in situ but have been transferred to the local Museum. They have thereby lost their importance, except as art objects, because we cannot now make measurements of their places, the distances between them, and their relations to the local horizon. As there is no official catalogue of the rocks and their original locations, the only possible way in which archaeoastronomers could discover this information would be by questioning the older inhabitants.Google Scholar
  20. 27.
    Chadwick, John, 1970 The decipherment of Linear B, Cambridge, pp. 81–100. A support to Ventris’s decipherment offers the thesis of the architect-archaeologist Tessi Sali-Axioti [1989 The Mycenean Megaron according to Linear B tablets (in Greek), Athens] in which she proves that the architectural terms on the tablets of Linear B can be fully identified with the architectural remains of Mycenean megaron (= palace) and she achieves a full representation of its construction; these architectural terms are the same as those we later find in the Homeric poems, Greek literature and architecture.Google Scholar
  21. 28.
    Nilsson, Martin P., 21950 The Minoan-Mycenean Religion and its Survival in Greek Religion, Lund.Google Scholar
  22. 29.
    The late S. Marinatos, an archaeologist, had pointed out the striking North-South orientation (with only small deviations) of the Minoan palaces in Crete [1st Greek Astron. Confer., Aug. 1971], but no one showed any interest.Google Scholar
  23. 30.
    Hesiod, Works and Days, v. 383–7,414–9,479–80,564–7,571–2,597–8,609–11,615–21, 663–5.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Maria K. Papathanassiou
    • 1
  1. 1.University of AthensGreece

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