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They discover the first known map of the night sky hidden in an ancient parchment


Although the original text was erased to overwrite a Christian text, advances in technology made it possible to determine that the coordinates of the stars indicated on the map coincided with those of the time of the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Nicaea.

An ancient star catalog by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Nicaea, who lived in the 2nd century BC, was discovered under some Christian texts written on parchment from the Orthodox monastery of Santa Catalina, on the Egyptian peninsula from Sinai. The discovery of the celestial map, an attempt by the Greek astronomer to map the night sky, was the merit of a group of researchers from institutions in France and the United Kingdom, the journal Nature reported on Tuesday.

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The pages of the manuscript, published by Journals for the History of Astronomy, contain the ‘Codex Climaci Rescriptus’, a series of Syriac translations of the texts of the Christian monk John Climacus dating from the 10th or 11th century after Christ. But the scribe did not use a new parchment to write the translation, but one whose content was erased in the 9th or 10th century, and which was none other than the one used more than a millennium before by Hipparchus of Nicaea to capture his celestial map. . The practice of reusing writing supports was common in the past, and these scrolls with traces of previous texts are called palimpsests


In 2012, a specialist in topics Cambridge University Biblical scholar Peter Williams asked his students as part of a summer project to read the pages of John Climacus’s Christian codex. One of his students, Jamie Klair, first identified the hints of the star catalog in a fragment in Greek that was often attributed to the astronomer Eratosthenes, who lived shortly before Hipparchus of Nicaea.

Discover the mystery under the text

In 2017, the spectral images of nine folios of the codex demonstrated the presence of a superscript text. This included myths about the origin of the stars by Eratosthenes and parts of a poem by the Greek writer Aratus entitled ‘Phenomenos’

. However, it was not until 2021 that Williams observed the presence of astronomical measurements, so contacted Victor Gysembergh of France’s National Center for Scientific Research to assess his discovery.

“It was clear immediately that we had stellar coordinates”, assured Gysembergh, who together with his colleague from the Sorbonne University in Paris, Emmanuel Zingg, deciphered the detected passage, one page long. This describes both the length and width in degrees of the Corona Borealis constellation, located in the northern celestial hemisphere.

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Likewise, the phenomenon of the movement of precession of the Earth is explained, which occurs when it rotates slowly on its own axis about one degree every 47 years, causing the position of the fixed stars in the sky to gradually change. Scientists verified, with computational tools, that the coordinates of the stars have a precession of one degree, which coincides with the observations made in the year 72 before Christ, that is, the time when Hipparchus worked.

They also used the newly discovered data to corroborate the coordinates of three other constellations (Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, and Draco) shown in another manuscript, called ‘Aratus Latinus’, and whose authorship is also attributed to Hipparchus. Finally, the researchers reiterated that the Greek mathematician Claudius Ptolemy’s star catalog was not based solely on Hipparchus’ data. Previously, Ptolemy was believed to have stolen them and claimed them as his own.

“Finally, the available numerical evidence is consistent with an accuracy of one degree of the actual stellar coordinates, which would make Hipparchus’s catalog significantly more accurate than his successor Claudius Ptolemy”, said the specialists, concluding that as imaging techniques improve, more stellar coordinates can be found to analyze.

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