The Remarkable Science of Ancient Astronomy

The Remarkable Science of Ancient Astronomy
Course Trailer
Stonehenge and Archaeoastronomy
1: Stonehenge and Archaeoastronomy

Why were the motions of the Sun, Moon, and stars so important to ancient people? Investigate key astronomical directions noticed by all cultures. Then embark on your study of Stonehenge, seeing how it gave birth to the field of archaeoastronomy and to some very curious modern theories....

31 min
The Real Stonehenge
2: The Real Stonehenge

In the popular mind, Stonehenge was built as a sophisticated astronomical calculator presided over by priestly astronomers called Druids. But is this view dating from the mid-1960s correct? Address the evidence, and survey the archaeological record to discover the most probable function of Stonehenge....

30 min
Alignments at Maes Howe and Newgrange
3: Alignments at Maes Howe and Newgrange

Explore Neolithic tombs and monuments across Europe, discovering an array of alignments toward astronomical events. Start with two sites that are similar to Stonehenge in their clear orientation to the winter solstice: Maes Howe in the Orkney Islands, and Newgrange in Ireland....

29 min
Astronomy of Egypt's Great Pyramid
4: Astronomy of Egypt's Great Pyramid

Study the astronomical significance of Egypt's Great Pyramid. How did its builders achieve such phenomenal accuracy in the pyramid's alignment to the cardinal directions? Were its air shafts intended to point at stars of special importance? Also evaluate modern claims for the mystical power of pyramids....

29 min
Chaco Canyon and Anasazi Astronomy
5: Chaco Canyon and Anasazi Astronomy

Travel to Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, where the Anasazi culture practiced sky-centered rituals a thousand years ago. Look for evidence of their astronomical knowledge, examine their many "sun daggers," and probe the controversial pictograph thought to depict the Crab Nebula supernova explosion in 1054 AD....

28 min
Ancient Cosmologies and Worldviews
6: Ancient Cosmologies and Worldviews

Consider the astronomy-based world views of different ancient cultures and how they answered the three big questions: Where did the world come from? What is the nature of the universe? What is its fate? Survey the beliefs of the Greeks, Chinese, Australian aborigines, and other groups, seeking common elements....

29 min
Meteorite Worship and Start of the Iron Age
7: Meteorite Worship and Start of the Iron Age

Witnessing a meteor fall must have been a strange and awe-inspiring experience for people long ago. Travel around the world to places where meteorites were worshiped and also used as a source of iron, which was rarer than gold before the smelting technology of the Iron Age....

30 min
Eclipses, Comets, and Omens
8: Eclipses, Comets, and Omens

Since no human can touch the sky, any unexpected celestial event must be a divine omen. Reenter this primordial state of mind, seeing eclipses and comets the way they were perceived before the advent of modern science. In the course of this investigation, discover why comets became more feared than eclipses....

29 min
The Star of Bethlehem
9: The Star of Bethlehem

For centuries, astronomers have struggled to find an explanation for the Star of Bethlehem, recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. Professor Schaefer focuses on a recent theory that has taken scientists and biblical scholars by surprise, due to its success at solving problems that plagued all previous proposals....

29 min
Origins of Western Constellations
10: Origins of Western Constellations

The human propensity for pattern recognition and storytelling has led every culture to invent constellations. Trace the birth of the star groups known in the West, many of which originated in ancient Mesopotamia. At least one constellation is almost certainly more than 14,000 years old and may be humanity's oldest surviving creative work....

32 min
Chinese and Other Non-Western Constellations
11: Chinese and Other Non-Western Constellations

Study the constellation patterns of ancient China, which influenced those of India and Arabia. Professor Schaefer dates the origin of the Chinese star groups called lunar lodges, and he samples southern constellations conceived by cultures in South America, and Australia....

30 min
Origins and Influence of Astrology
12: Origins and Influence of Astrology

Astrology grew up hand in hand with astronomy. Focus on the different astrological traditions in Mesopotamia, China, India, and Mexico. Also trace the spread of astrology through the Mediterranean world. As an example, study the auspicious horoscope of Octavian, who became Emperor Augustus....

31 min
Tracking Planet Positions and Conjunctions
13: Tracking Planet Positions and Conjunctions

Until the invention of the telescope in 1610, astronomy was mostly the study of the sky positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets. Learn the extraordinary precision attained by ancient astronomers in their observations. Discover why they prized this knowledge, and also uncover a lost great discovery of the Babylonians....

31 min
Ancient Timekeeping and Calendars
14: Ancient Timekeeping and Calendars

For ancient people, keeping track of the time of day and year required a detailed understanding of the motions of the Sun, Moon, and stars. See how different cultures solved this problem. Also learn how to use a handy astronomical measuring device called the astrolabe....

31 min
The Lunar Crescent and the Islamic Calendar
15: The Lunar Crescent and the Islamic Calendar

Delve into the surprisingly tricky problem of deciding when a lunar month begins-usually determined by the first sighting of a crescent Moon after new Moon. Professor Schaefer describes his algorithm for calculating this event and then applies it to dating the crucifixion of Jesus....

29 min
Ancient Navigation: Polynesian to Viking
16: Ancient Navigation: Polynesian to Viking

In the era before compasses and GPS, precise direction-finding was possible only through knowledge of the sky. Learn how the Polynesians found islands across thousands of miles of open ocean, and how the Vikings solved the very different challenge of navigating the North Atlantic....

29 min
Breakthroughs of Early Greek Astronomy
17: Breakthroughs of Early Greek Astronomy

Between 600 and 200 BC, Greek astronomers went from being flat-Earthers to full proto-scientists with reasonable models and distances for the Solar System. How and why did this revolution happen? Focus on the achievements of Thales, Aristarchus, Eratosthenes, and Aristotle....

31 min
The Genius of Hipparchus
18: The Genius of Hipparchus

Considered the greatest astronomer of the ancient world, Hipparchus created a thousand-star catalog and discovered precession, the eons-slow rotation of the fixed stars around the ecliptic. Did this remarkable discovery give birth to the Mithraic religion, which rivaled Christianity?...

31 min
Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism
19: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism

In 1901, divers off a Greek island discovered a corroded bronze artifact composed of interlocking gears. Later analysis and X-ray imaging show it is an astonishingly versatile astronomical computer. Professor Schaefer identifies a probable date when it was built and two likely candidates for its brilliant designer....

29 min
How the Antikythera Mechanism Worked
20: How the Antikythera Mechanism Worked

Learn to operate the Antikythera mechanism, the glory of ancient astronomy. Modern models show how a simple turn of the crank could reveal the day of the year, phase of the Moon, possible eclipse dates, the cycles of ancient games, and other information. Probe the historical impact of this device....

28 min
Achievements and Legacy of Ptolemy
21: Achievements and Legacy of Ptolemy

Ptolemy has been called the greatest astronomer of antiquity. But was he? Evaluate his reputation by focusing on his star catalog, celestial coordinate system, and magnitude scale. Then gauge the extent of his influence over later astronomers, which lasted over a thousand years....

30 min
Star Catalogs from around the World
22: Star Catalogs from around the World

The genius of Greek astronomy is epitomized by the star catalogs of Hipparchus and Ptolemy. Professor Schaefer recounts his exciting discovery of a star chart apparently influenced by Hipparchus's lost catalog. Close by comparing Greek star catalogs with those of China and the Arab world....

30 min
How Ancient Astronomy Ended
23: How Ancient Astronomy Ended

Review the state of astronomy in 1500. Then chart the revolution sparked by Copernicus's heliocentric theory of the Sun and planets. Learn how Copernicus was the last of the ancient astronomers, succeeded by the founders of modern science, including Tycho, Kepler, and Galileo....

30 min
Ancient Astronomy and Modern Astrophysics
24: Ancient Astronomy and Modern Astrophysics

Finish the course by seeing how ancient records of eclipses and supernova explosions have refined our modern understanding of Earth-Moon dynamics and stellar processes-proving that today's cutting-edge astrophysicists owe a great debt to astronomers who watched the skies long ago....

32 min
Bradley E. Schaefer

In olden times, everyone lived in close contact with the skies, so the kings and common folk would appreciate the many practical, symbolic, and philosophical applications of ancient astronomy.

ALMA MATER

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

INSTITUTION

Louisiana State University

About Bradley E. Schaefer

Bradley E. Schaefer is Distinguished Professor and Alumni Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Louisiana State University (LSU). He earned his undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees in Physics, both from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a research astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and a professor at Yale University, before joining LSU, where his teaching has earned him the Alumni Professorship and the Distinguished Faculty Award. He has over 200 publications in refereed journals. Starting in the mid-1990s, Professor Schaefer joined the Supernova Cosmology Project, led by Saul Perlmutter. This group found that the expansion rate of the universe is accelerating, propelled by an unknown dark energy. As one of the discoverers of dark energy, Professor Schaefer received a share of the Gruber Cosmology Prize in 2007 as well as a share of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics in 2015. In 2011, Perlmutter was a co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics for leading this work. In addition to his cosmology research, Professor Schaefer has written numerous articles on the history of astronomy, including frequent pieces for Sky & Telescope. He is on the editorial boards of both Archaeoastronomy and the Journal for the History of Astronomy, and he has served on the editorial board for Culture and Cosmos.

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