Lost for Centuries: Scientists Discover Texts From an Ancient Astronomical Catalog

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Lost for Centuries: Scientists Discover Texts From an Ancient Astronomical Catalog

Written over 2000 years ago, the Hipparchus Star Catalogue is the oldest known attempt to determine the precise position of fixed stars.

Even for the most Cartesian of minds, old grimoires often contain sought-after mysteries, such as the fragments of a lost astronomical treatise called the Hipparchus Star Catalogue. The Greek astronomer Hipparchus wrote it between 170 and 120 BC, making it the first documented effort to pinpoint the exact location of fixed stars by associating them with numerical coordinates.

This text was previously only known through the works of Claudius Ptolemy, another ancient astronomer who compiled his own catalog about 400 years after Hipparchus. The descriptions of four constellations from Hipparchus’ Star Catalogue have recently been deciphered by researchers from the Léon Robin Center for Research on Ancient Thought (CNRS/Sorbonne University) and their British colleague from Tyndale House in Cambridge.

Detail of f. 53v, beginning of first column of undertext (color image; yellow tracings based on full set of multispectral images). Courtesy of Museum of the Bible Collection. © Museum of the Bible, 2021. Image shared under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license, 2022. All conditions apply. Spectral imaging by the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library and the Lazarus Project of the University of Rochester.

This discovery comes from the Codex Climaci Rescriptus ‒ a book made up of parchments that were erased and then rewritten, also known as a palimpsest. In the past, this Codex contained an astronomical poem in ancient Greek with, among elements of commentary on the poem, fragments of Hipparchus’ Catalogue. This palimpsest text, erased in medieval times, has been revealed through multispectral imaging by teams from the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library, the Lazarus Project, and the Rochester Institute of Technology.

The fragments of the Star Catalogue are the oldest known to date and bring major advances in its reconstruction. Firstly, they refute a widespread idea that Claudius Ptolemy’s Star Catalogue is merely a “copy” of Hipparchus’ as the observations of the four constellations are different. Furthermore, Hipparchus’ data are verified to the nearest degree, which would make his catalog much more accurate than Ptolemy’s, even though it was composed several centuries earlier.

For the research team this major discovery sheds new light on the history of astronomy in antiquity and on the beginnings of the history of science. Above all, it illustrates the power of advanced techniques, such as multispectral imaging, whose application on illegible palimpsests could save numerous lost texts on philosophy, medicine, or horticulture from oblivion.