Celestial Geometry: The astronomical knowledge of ancient civilisations

Many ancient and even prehistoric monuments and temples around the world show an amazingly sophisticated understanding of the heavens. They reflect this sacred knowledge in celestial alignments – to the eternal cycles of the sun, moon, stars and planets. Ahead of its paperback publication on 2nd April, we’re taking a closer look at Celestial Geometry by Ken Taylor.

Ceremonies performed at sites such as Stonehenge in England or Teotihuacan in Mexico are now lost to us. But the time-worn stones and structures remain, and experts in ancient astronomy (or archaeoastronomers) have studied how their sightlines relate to astronomical phenomena such as midwinter or midsummer sunrise or the rising of the Pleiades star cluster.

This knowledge of astronomical phenomena can be observed at the Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland, where the rays of the rising sun at midwinter are channeled into the heart of the mound and illuminate an intricate carving for just 15 minutes every year.

The kerbstones that decorate the exterior of Newgrange mound feature an astonishing array of carvings, the meaning of which we can only guess at today.

In common with many ancient cities, the architecture in Machu Picchu contains a variety of alignments with celestial events. The best-known astronomical feature is the granite monolith known as the Intihuatana – the Sun’s Tethering Post. At the solstices, so the legend goes, the priests tied the sun to this stone so it could not stray from its annual course. On the summer solstice (in December in the Southern hemisphere) the sun is seen to set behind Mount Pumasillo (‘puma’s claw’), a mountain associated with crop and livestock fertility and sacred even today. The entrance to the royal mausoleum, a natural cave with internal masonry and carvings that positively indicate high-status burial, was aligned to face the sunrise on the winter (June) solstice. The Intimachy, another natural cave, was modified to block out sunlight except on the 20 days surrounding the summer solstice, when the rays of the rising sun would enter and illuminate its depths.

At both equinoxes, in a spectacular lightshow, the serpent deity Kukulcan is seen rippling down the western face of the northern staircase, his head illuminated by the staircase’s base.

In Mexico, the ancient city of Chichén Itzá boasts several exciting effects at the equinoxes. The nine-tiered step pyramid Kukulcan has staircases running up the centre of each of the four sides to a two-storey temple at the top. The 91 steps of each staircase, added to the top platform (4 x 91 + 1), total the 365 days of the Mayan year. The square base of the pyramid is oriented to all four solstice directions: the northwest face is aligned to midsummer sunset; the southeast face to midwinter sunrise; and the diagonals to midwinter sunset and midsummer sunrise. What draws visitors in their thousands is an effect of light and shadow on the northern staircase at the equinoxes. The setting sun casts a shadow from the terraces of the northwestern corner of the pyramid onto the western side of the balustrade of the northern staircase. At the climax of the display, the sun illuminates a continuous zigzag running from the top of the pyramid to its base, where the balustrade terminates in the head of an enormours snake that is also bathed in sunlight. In this way the sun creates the luminous body of the divine Kukulcan – the feathered serpent.

It’s not just our ancestors who created these monuments celebrating the position of celestial objects. At 11:00AM on the 11th day of the 11th month (Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom), sunlight pierces the wall of the Armed Forces Memorial at Alrewas, Staffordshire, England. If you’re inspired to find out more, order your copy of Celestial Geometry today.

Find out more

Celestial Geometry, Ken Taylor RRP £16.99, Watkins Publishing
Released 16th April 2019

Celestial Geometry delves into the fascinating world of ancient monuments, temples and various sites across the globe which reveal our ancestors’ sophisticated astronomical knowledge. Learn about the seasons, solstices and setting of stars, solar alignments and the language of light and shadow, the drama of the eclipse and the mysterious energies of the night, and our own human alignment with the immensity of the cosmos.

In exploring such connections, in words, superb photographs and clear explanatory artworks, Celestial Geometry opens a whole universe of mystery and wonder, and a window on the inner life of ancient civilizations.

Order your paperback copy today from Amazon UK, Amazon US.

Released on 16th April 2019, available from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Waterstones, Barnes and Noble and other good book shops.