Monday, July 28, 2014

Archeoastronomy: Egypt: Stretching The Cord

Stellar Method of Determining Cardinal Points

Stretching The Cord
Navigating by the stars has been done by people for thousands of years. To find North today, people simply look for Polaris in Ursa Minor (The Little Dipper). (In the Southern Hemisphere, North would be determined by using the Southern Cross.) Since precession, which is the change in orientation of the Earth’s Axis, occurs every 26,000 years, the “North Star” changes through time. For example, during Roman times, there was no such star. However at the time of the building of the pyramids, it was Alpha-Draconis known to the Egyptians as “Thuban.”

The U.S. Army suggests that in order to go North, a person should walk towards the point on the horizon directly below Polaris. Another method is to select a circumpolar star such as Vega of Lyra, the second brightest star in the night sky. Measure the angle from the viewer to Vega’s rising and to its setting. The bisection of this angle will give the exact location for true North.

In ancient Egypt, the orientation of their buildings mattered, for the Pharaoh received his power from the Northern Stars. After his death, the soul of the Pharaoh went to the “Mooring Post” in the North by way of the Milky Way. In the ceremony, “The Stretching of the Cord” (Pedj shes), the Pharaoh determined the direction of North with the help of the Goddess Seshat.

 Several archeologists have suggested one method that the ancient Egyptians may have used for finding directions. To orient their buildings, they would have to bisect the angle of a circumpolar star. First they would erect a round wall. Then one person stood on a selected spot and looked through a “bay,” a straight pole with a forked top. As he sighted a circumpolar star such as Vega rising, a second person would use a “merklet,” a plumb line, to mark the spot. Around the circular wall at various timed intervals, they would mark the position of the star. The final marking on the wall would be the star’s setting. After measuring the angle formed by the star’s rising and setting to the first observer, the Egyptians could bisect it, and determine true North.

Kate Spence, of the University of Cambridge (U.K.), wrote that the Egyptians probably used Mizar (Eta Ursae Majoris) of the Big Dipper and Kochab (Beta Ursae Minoris) of the Little Dipper. (Both are circumpolar stars.) The Egyptians constructed a scaffold and hung a string with a heavy weight from it. This weight would point to the center of the Earth. When these two stars became aligned with the string, the line from the person, who was doing the sighting, to the string would point due north to the horizon.

From the First Dynasty to the end of the Ptolemaic Dynastry, the Pharaoh conducted the sacred ceremony, “Stretching of the Cord,” to orient the temples and tombs before building them. Facing the Goddess of Wisdom and Knowledge, Seshat, the Pharaoh stood with a hammer in one hand and a pole in the other. Holding the same items, the Goddess and the Pharaoh then pulled a cord that was wrapped between their respective poles. The Pyramid Texts described the ceremony as: “I have grasped the stake…I take the measuring cord in the company of Seshet. I consider the progressive movements of the stars. My eye is fixed upon the Bull’s Thigh [Ursa Major]. I count off time…and establish the corners of the Temple.” This is how the Pharaoh determined North from whence came his power, and to where his soul traveled.

Works Used.

Aveni, Anthony, “People and the Sky,” Thames & Hudson: N.Y, 2008.

 Belmonte, Juan Antonio; Molinero, Miguel Angel and Miranda, Noemi, “Unveiling Seshat: New Insights into the Stretching of the Cord Ceremony,” In Search of Cosmic Order: Selected Essays on Egyptian Archaeoastronomy, Juan Antonio Belmonte and Mosalam Shaltout, eds., Cairo: Supreme Council of Antiquities Press, 2009, 197-212.

 Houlding Deborah, “Time, The Egyptians and the Calendar,” Heritage of the Stars, 2003,, .

 Magli, Giulio, “Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy,” Copernicus Books: N.Y., 2009.
 Stecchini, Livio, “Methods of Finding Cardinal Points,” World Mysteries, 2004,, .

Orientating Egyptian Pyramids,” World Mysteries, 2004,, , .

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