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Ancient Egypt

Pyramids Lined up with the Stars

by Dr David Whitehouse, 15 November 2000

Ancient Egyptian astronomers aligned the pyramids due north by using two stars which circle the celestial polar point.

Around 2500 BC, each star was about ten degrees from the celestial pole which lay directly between them. When one star was precisely above the other in the sky, astronomers could find a line which pointed due north. But the alignment was only true for a few years. Before and after that time, the stars deviated from the north-south line and anyone using the stars to plot a direction would have made errors.

And it is these mistakes which convinced a British Egyptologist in 2000 that they could be used to estimate very accurately when the pyramids were built. The theory offered by Kate Spence of the University of Cambridge suggests that the Great Pyramid at Giza was constructed within ten years of 2480 BC.

This meant that even the most modern dating theories for the ancient Egyptians were about a century out when it came to the 4th Dynasty, with Khufu's death usually being placed at 2566 BC. The theory also contradicted another, far more controversial one, which dated the alignment of the pyramids to stars which were correctly positioned in 10,500 BC. A similar date has been offered for the building of the Sphinx (see There was a Second Sphinx via the sidebar link).

'Indestructible' stars

Spence developed her theory while trying to explain the deviations in the alignment of the bases of many pyramids from true north. She believes the ancients may have used a pair of fairly bright stars, which in 2467 BC lay precisely along a straight line which included the celestial pole. It was known that the ancient Egyptians were extremely interested in the night sky, particularly the circumpolar stars.

These circle around the North Pole, and as you can always see them, the Egyptians always referred to them as 'The Indestructibles'. As a result, they became closely associated with eternity and the king's afterlife. So that after death, the king would hope to join the circumpolar stars - and that's why the pyramids were laid out towards them.

Ancient astronomy

The north-finding stars were Kochab, in the bowl of the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor), and Mizar, in the middle of the handle of The Plough or Big Dipper (Ursa Major). An Egyptian astronomer would have held up a plumb line and waited for the night sky to slowly pivot around the unmarked pole as the Earth rotated.

When the plumb line precisely intersected both stars, one about ten degrees above the invisible pole and the other ten degrees below it, the sight line to the horizon would aim directly north. However, Earth's axis is unstable and wobbles like a gyroscope over a period of 26,000 years. Modern astronomers now know that the celestial north pole was exactly aligned between Kochab and Mizar only in the year 2467 BC.

On either side of this date, the ancient astronomers trying to find true north would lose some accuracy. Writing in the journal Nature, Kate Spence showed that the orientation errors of earlier and later pyramids faithfully track the slow drift of Kochab and Mizar with respect to true north.

And because the error in the Kochab-Mizar alignment can be readily calculated for any date, the error in each pyramid's orientation corresponds to a period of several years. Owen Gingerich, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts, welcomed the findings, stating that 'Spence has come up with an ingenious solution to a long-standing mystery'.



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