Nabta Playa

Is This the Ancient Source of Egyptian Cosmology?

“People living more than seven thousand years ago may have possessed technical knowledge in astronomy and physics more advanced than our current understanding of the same subjects.” —Robert M. Schoch, Geologist, 2002


In 1972, a group of archaeologists were crossing the Egyptian desert, tracking by compass in an area known as Nabta Playa, when they arrived at the shores of a long extinct lake. Stopping for a break, they noticed potsherds at their feet. Intrigued, they returned later to investigate. Following several seasons of digging, they realized that what they had assumed were merely outcroppings of rock were in fact an enigmatic circle of standing megalithic stones. Years later, in March of 1998, a team led by anthropologist Fred Wendorf of Southern Methodist University, one of the original discoverers, officially announced discovery of the site. Wendorf’s team presented their research in Holocene Settlement of the Egyptian Sahara, in 2001.

Nabta Playa is located in Nubia, west of Abu Simbel in Egypt’s Western Desert, and it is the only known megalithic stone circle in Egypt. The circle is formed from fifty-five Nubian sandstone slabs of varying sizes, enclosing an area of about twelve feet (four meters). The circle of standing stones, according to the stellar alignments, dates at least as far back as six thousand years, and may be the first evidence of ancient sky watching in Egypt. Nabta Playa shows that the story of Egyptian sky watching is much older than we thought.

The western Egyptian desert is totally dry today, but this was not always the case. There were several humid periods in the past that saw levels of annual rainfall of nearly twenty inches (500 mm). This fact is also related to the work of Robert Schoch and the water weathering of the Sphinx, indicating its much older age based on past levels of rainfall. The most recent period of more rainfall was during the last interglacial and early last glaciation periods, stretching between 130,000 and 70,000 years ago. Around 10,000 BCE the area around Nabta flooded seasonally, creating a lake that was surrounded by grasslands that attracted Neolithic nomadic tribes. The area would have been a savanna, a large open grassland with widely spaced trees, that supported animals such as extinct buffalo and large giraffes, and varieties of antelope and gazelle. Around 7,500 years ago the researchers saw a notable change in the culture of the peoples of Nabta Playa that exhibited a degree of social organization not previously seen in ancient Egypt, as far as we know.

The stone circle at Nabta Playa has two pairs of stone slabs. There are six upright slabs set along two lines. There is also an east-west alignment that connects one megalithic structure with two stone megaliths that are about a mile away. There are two other geometric lines that involve about a dozen additional stone monuments that lead both northeast and southeast from the same megalith, and there are other large megalithic stones nearby. The overall design and potential significance of the site is larger than the stone circle.

During the seasons of digging, Wendorf’s team unearthed numerous cultural artifacts that were carbon dated to the Holocene period around 10,000 BCE to 3000 BCE, although most of the dates clustered around 6000 BCE, when the climate was much wetter. Because other stone configurations were present in the area, Wendorf’s team dug down through twelve feet of sediment to bedrock, expecting to find burials. What they discovered instead were strange and unexplained carved sculptures and etchings in the bedrock that had been buried intentionally.

According to researcher Kim Malville of the University of Colorado, his colleagues, and the excavators of the site, who have authored articles and scientific abstracts, some of these slabs seem to organize in a series of what they call “gates” that may have served as a calendar, using the sky. Astronomical calculations indicate that alignments pointed to stellar constellations that are known from ancient Egyptian writings. Six stones in the center run northeast-southwest, marking summer solstice, which would have been the beginning of the rainy season. According to Malville and Wendorf, the most important alignments were to Dubhe in the Plough, the ancient Egyptian constellation of Meskhetyu, and Sirius, the ancient Egyptian Sopdet, when this bright star rose before the Sun at summer solstice and heralded the annual flood.

Meanwhile, NASA physicist Thomas Brophy, who holds a Ph.D. in physics and has worked with the NASA Voyager Project, the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, and the Japanese Space Program, had also been studying the site. After designing his own astronomy software that would be adequate to the task, he analyzed the alignments and published his conclusions in 2002 in the book The Origin Map. His book has a foreword by Robert Schoch, Ph.D. and an afterword by the late John Anthony West.

According to Brophy and his colleague P. Rosen, if Sirius is identified in the alignment, it would have to have been 8,000 years ago. Brophy and Rosen’s work indicates another alignment with the helical (before the Sun) rising of Orion’s Belt at the spring equinox, and the other three center stones showed Orion’s “head” as it rose. Readers of Atlantis Rising will be familiar with the sky-ground link between this asterism in Orion and the three main pyramids of Giza that was identified by Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert in their book The Orion Mystery.

Brophy has proposed that the alignments corresponded with a date of around 4800 BCE or 16,500 BCE. He suggested a connection between the southernmost alignment of stones and Sirius with a date of around 6088 BCE. He also proposed that the larger stones set at various distances to the stone circle were also aligned to center stones and other stars in Orion, setting a date of around 6270 BCE. Brophy demonstrates a truly amazing linkage to the vernal equinox helical risings of six stars in Orion that only occur once in approximately 26,000 years of the precessional cycle. And not only do the center stones in the circle align with other megaliths at various distances, but the distances on the ground show the actual distances to these stars. Finally, he proposed that the table rock that was uncovered was a map of the Milky Way galaxy at around 17,500 BCE and that the stars mapped Orion at around 16,500 BCE.

Malville and Wendorf have a more conventional approach that the three northernmost alignments point to Arcturus, the brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere, a fourth alignment links with Sirius and Alpha Centauri, the brightest and third brightest stars at that time, while a fifth alignment points to Alnilam in Orion’s Belt. They note that it is difficult to be certain of astronomical alignments because of the shifting of sand and significant damage to the stones in the thousands of years since they were erected. They point out that there is no evidence of settlements outside the Nile Valley before 9000 BCE. However, that same argument was used to discredit the age of the Sphinx, but now Gobekli Tepi and Catalhoyuk in Turkey have challenged traditional views about earlier settlements and cultural context.

Malville and Wendorf believe that Nabta Playa became an important ceremonial and cultural focal point for the Neolithic people of the Sahara between 6100 and 5600 BCE. People came from miles around to perform sacrifices, evidenced by the presence of hearths, but did not settle in the area. They believe that around 4800 BCE the stone circle was erected to mark the summer solstice, and further megalithic structures followed until around 3600 BCE. The rich burials of the Gebel Ramlah cemetery nearby are dated with a reasonable degree of certainty to around 4400 BCE, and it is these prehistoric herdsmen who Malville and Wendorf consider to be the likely builders of the stone circle and associated megalithic structures.

But the situation is more complex. John Anthony West has commented that only in the last few decades have we gained enough astrophysical ability to comprehend the advanced knowledge that is encoded at Nabta Playa. Another stunning aspect to this unfolding story is Brophy’s belief that the carvings in the uncovered bedrock appear to be a scaled map of the Milky Way, indicating the position, scale, and orientation of the Sun and the spiral arms. Brophy used Wendorf’s accurate diagrams and maps and concluded that the central point of the sculpture was directly above and correctly placed the Sun on the galactic map. Even more startling is Brophy’s discovery that a sight line of one of the megaliths was in correct relation to the Galactic Center and its spring heliacal rising around 17,700 BCE.

If Brophy is right, it’s difficult to imagine that nomadic, Neolithic herdsmen possessed the knowledge, or had the need, to design a complex that showed distances to stars in Orion or carve a map of the galaxy and encode it with such sophisticated astronomical knowledge, and then bury the map with sand. Nabta Playa appears to be much more than a circle of standing stones that mark seasonal alignments, and there may be layers of meaning that were buried in successive periods.

Nabta Playa is at the southern end of the country, called Upper Egypt by the ancient Egyptians, since the Nile flows from south to north from its source in central Africa, so the site is at the root of Egypt. The enigmatic site may hold the key, the conceptual blueprint, to what became the massive ground plan of Giza with the three main pyramids mirroring Orion’s Belt. The complex might also contain an overarching cosmology whose theme persisted throughout Egyptian history.

The intentionally buried carvings and sculptures could be a message in stone from the distant past, encoding technical knowledge that was a legacy of Atlantis, or somewhere else. Nabta Playa may contain advanced knowledge that was lost in a great cataclysm. If survivors of a cataclysm suspected the event was triggered cyclically, they may have tried to send a warning across time. Graham Hancock suggested a similar idea relative to the intentionally buried stone circles at Gobekli Tepe and their stellar alignments.

John Anthony West often remarked that ancient Egypt was a legacy culture from an advanced civilization that came long before. He believed Egypt’s origins stretched back nearly 30,000 years. We are also reminded of the mystery of the Dogon of Mali and their sophisticated knowledge of Sirius and its dark companion. Their fascinating knowledge may also be a legacy.

The haunting question that remains: “Why Orion?” What is the symbolic significance of this part of the sky that the ancient Egyptians took such care to create lasting sky-ground connections? Stepping out of the realm of traditional science is the legend that long ago in the epoch Zep Tepi, the “first time” Osiris (Orion) and Isis (Sirius) came from the sky and brought their wisdom to Earth, creating the Egyptian civilization.

It’s always wise to keep an open mind—Troy was once only a legend. What seems certain is that as our technology advances our paradigm of the past keeps shifting and widening, radically altering our formerly narrow view of “history.” Perhaps one day we will reclaim the truth of our past.

(For more, read “Nabta Playa’s Prehistoric Astronomers” by Thomas Brophy, AR #91, January/February, 2012.)

By Julie Loar