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Egyptian Astronomy


WHILE we are very well informed about Greek and Babylonian astronomy, almost nothing was known of an Egyptian calculating astronomy until very recently. This situation, however, has been completely altered by the discovery and investigation of a number of Demotic texts. In the beautiful collection of Egyptian papyri belonging to the Carlsberg Foundation in Copenhagen, A. Volten found an astronomical text in the Demotic language which he and I have recently edited1. We were able to show that the text deals with a simple scheme for calculating the beginnings of the months depending on a period of 25 Egyptian years (one Egyptian year being 365 days, this is almost exactly equal to 309 synodical months2). This text belongs to such a late period as Antoninus Pius (c. A.D. 150), it is true; but there are several good reasons for assuming that the same methods were already in use in the Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1800 B.C.3). Thus we know the method by which the Egyptians predicted the phenomena of the moon.

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  1. Neugebauer, O. und Volten, A., "Untersuchungen zur antiken Astronomie IV. Ein demotischer astronomischer Papyrus" (Pap. Carlsberg 9). "Quellen u. Studien zur Geschichte d. Mathematik, Astronomie u. Physik", Abt. B, 4, 383–406 (1938).

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  2. Cf. also "Almagest", 6, 2 (ed. Heiberg, 1, 464).

  3. Cf., for example, the calendar of temple duty from Kahun, Z. aegypt. Sprache u. Altertumskunde, 37, 92 ff. (1899).

  4. Brugsch, H., "Nouvelles recherches sur la division de l'année des anciens égyptiens, suivies d'un mémoire sur des observations planétaires consignées dans quatre tablettes égyptiennes en écriture démotique" (Berlin, 1856)

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  5. Tablet A (Tablet III of Brugsch), Rev. iii, 29 to 33, and Rev. iv, 30 to Rev. v, 2. The order in which Brugsch arranged the tablets has proved to be incorrect.

  6. Published (but only in part): "Demotische Papyrus aus den Kgl. Museen zu Berlin" (ed. W. Spiegelberg, Leipzig u. Berlin, 1902).

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NEUGEBAUER, O. Egyptian Astronomy. Nature 143, 115–116 (1939).

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