Secrets of the Stars

The Amazing Lost Astronomy of the Ancient Sumerians

CAPTIONS: Sumerian clay star chart (British Museum)

The decipherment of an obscure item in the British Museum has stunned archaeologists with its twenty-seven-hundred-year-old secret. The plain, four-inch-wide, baked-clay disk with peculiar line drawings and cuneiform inscription has been an inscrutable enigma from the moment it was found during the mid-nineteenth century, until final disclosure of the object’s ultimate significance only last January.

The discovery came to light amid the frangible ruins of what was for fifty years the largest city on Earth—Nineveh, splendid capital of the Assyrian Empire. Located in northern Iraq, its remains lie on the east bank of the Tigris River, across from Mosul, a city still contested between Muslim insurgents and U.S. forces after more than fifteen years. It was there, one hundred-sixty-five years ago, that the English archaeologist, Austen Henry Layard (1817–1894) was sifting through fragments of the royal library of King Ashurbanipal (668 B.C.–627 B.C.), once master of the largest empire the world had yet seen, stretching from the Caucasus in the north to Africa in the south, from the Mediterranean Sea in the west, to Iran in the east.

Throughout the rest of the nineteen-century and all of the twentieth, Layard’s curious find languished virtually forgotten on a back shelf of London’s British Museum. In 2008, the artifact’s identity was finally determined by Alan Bond, managing director of a British aerospace manufacturer (Reaction Engines, Ltd.), which develops technologies for advanced space-launch vehicles. His co-discoverer, Mark Hempsell, is a Senior Lecturer in Astronautics at Bristol University, an aerospace engineer, and President of the British Interplanetary Society from 1997 to 2000. Hempsell is currently working on the Universal Space Interface Standard, a system designed to standardize berthing, docking or attachment of satellites and other spacecraft.

He and Bond were able to clearly discern recognizable constellations—actually named by the cuneiform text—depicted on the surface of the object, thereby identifying it as a planisphere. This was a celestial map formed by projecting a sphere on a plane to form a circular star chart of the night sky as it appeared at a specific time and place. The perfectly preserved Nineveh specimen had been etched in careful detail by Ashurbanipal’s anonymous stargazer around 665 B.C., about 85 years before the overthrow and collapse of his empire.

When the British aerospace engineers engaged Reaction Engines, Ltd.’s computer simulation programs to reconstruct the ancient planisphere, they were surprised to learn that it was actually the copy of a much older stellar map from a civilization that preceded Assyria by two thousand years. It tells how a Sumerian astronomer witnessed “events in the sky before dawn on 29 June, 3123 BC,” Bond stated. “Half the tablet records planet positions and cloud cover, the same as any other night, but the other half of the tablet records an object large enough for its shape to be noted, even though it is still in space. The [Sumerian] astronomer made an accurate note of its trajectory relative to the stars to an error better than one degree. The observation suggests an asteroid over a kilometer [circa thirty-three-hundred feet] in diameter, and the original orbit about the Sun was an Aten type, a class of asteroid that orbits close to the Earth, that is resonant with the Earth’s orbit.  The in-coming angle was very low (six degrees), and this caused the asteroid to explode before it reached its final impact point. It became a fireball, around five kilometers [circa 3 miles] in diameter.”

“Another conclusion can be made from the trajectory,” added Hempsell.  “The back plume [“mushroom cloud”] from the explosion would be bent over the Mediterranean Sea, re-entering the atmosphere over the Levant, Sinai, and Northern Egypt. The ground heating, though very short, would be enough to ignite any flammable material, including human hair and clothes.”

He and Bond speculated that the asteroid “clipped a mountain called Gamskogel above the town of Längenfeld, eleven kilometers [circa seven miles] from Köfels [Austria], and this caused the asteroid to explode before it reached its final impact point. As it traveled down the valley, it became a fireball. When it hit Köfels, it created enormous pressures that pulverized the rock and caused the landslide but, because it was no longer a solid object, it did not create a classic impact crater.” (“Cuneiform Clay Tablet Translated for the First Time,” University of Bristol News, 31 March 2008)

They were referring to the Köfels Landslide, the largest geologic catastrophe of its kind in the crystalline Alps, part of the Swiss Plateau. More than seven miles of rock, some 2 cubic miles thick, suddenly collapsed from the western slope of the Opts Valley. “It involved a 2.5-kilometer [1.6-mile] horizontal displacement,” according to geologist David Bressan, “and eight hundred meters [twenty-six-hundred-and-twenty-five feet] vertical displacement of 3.2 kilometers [1.2 miles] of rock and mud along the valley floor,” damming up the Tauferberg River to create a lake more than four miles long. (Bond, Alan and Hempsell, Mark. A Sumerian Observation of the Kofels’ Impact Event. London: Writers’ Print Shop, Ltd., 2008)

Seven years after Bond and Hempsell published their findings and conclusions, the Köfels Landslide was found to have occurred, not in 3123 BC, as they argued, but much earlier, “9,800 ±100 years ago, according to radiocarbon dating of trees buried by the event. Pieces of wood recovered from a gallery driven in the Tauferberg during exploration work for a power station,” Bressan reported, “resulted in a conventional radiocarbon age of 8.710 +/-150 years BP (circa 9,800 years calibrated BP [Before Present]). This early Holocene age is supported by additional cosmogenic isotope dating of surface boulders that yielded an age of 8.889 +/-490 to 10.630 +/-570 years BP.” In other words, Nineveh’s planisphere did not, after all, document a celestial cause for the Köfels Landslide. (Bressan, David. “The Landslide of Köfels: Geology between Pseudoscience and Pseudotachylite.”)

Why then did Ashurbanipal’s astronomer, living twenty-four-hundred-and-fifty-eight years after the asteroid cited on the Sumerian star map, bother to faithfully reproduce that particular celestial event? The answer lies in the Assyrians’ own deluge story. Like virtually every other people around the world, their seminal myth described a Great Flood that destroyed some former high culture, whose leaders fled to Mesopotamia. This founding-fathers’ account was essential for government stability over time, because each successive king had to prove his linear descent from high-ranking survivors of the global cataclysm after they re-started civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Only they and their descendants were entitled to rule, because they formed the original royal families whose members created the post-deluge state.

Again, like many flood accounts elsewhere, the Assyrian version had the watery destruction of a former world preceded and even sparked by a killer comet accompanied by a deadly rain of shooting stars. The Ras Shamra inscription from the city of Ugarit tells how “the star Anat has fallen from heaven. It slew the people of the Syrian land and confused the two twilights and the seats of the constellations.” (Astour, Michael, “New Evidence on the Last Days of Ugarit,” AJA 69, July 1965, 253-58)

It seems clear, then, that a Sumerian astronomer’s original observation of 3123 BC’s devastating asteroid was preserved as long afterward as the mid-seventh century BC because it was associated with a Great Flood from which the linear ancestors of King Ashurbanipal escaped. The Assyrian planisphere’s documentation of this event coincides with a Mesopotamian phase known as Jemdet Nasr, a dark age that suddenly overshadowed Sumer’s prosperous Uruk Period, around 3100 BC.

Finland’s Timo Niroma noted how “the numerical token system dwindled. Around 3000 BC, however, there was a sudden recovery. The tokens were not only numerated again: the basis for writing was born. Also, the wheel was introduced. The great city-states Ur and Uruk were re-built.” (Niroma, Timo. “Recurring Phenomenon: The Cosmic Disaster”) The first dynasties were born and bronze production began simultaneously in Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley, where a shared process of abrupt, cultural regression was followed by dynamic rebirth within the same time frame. Although conventional Egyptologists guess construction began in 2560 BC, others conclude the Great Pyramid was completed in 3100 BC. “When it was built,” writes archao-astronomer, Bruce Scofield, Ph.D., “this greatest of ancient monuments was carefully aligned to certain stars, and some of these alignments suggest this earlier date.” (“What Really Happened in 3100 BC and Where Are We Headed Now?”

Persian tradition recounted that the Great Flood took place in 3103 B.C. Previous to that global cataclysm, the world was said to have been dominated by seventy-two solar dynasties. So, too, an Egyptian Old Kingdom story, “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor,” tells of a distant island ruled by seventy-two serpent-kings before it was destroyed by “a fire from heaven” and sank beneath the ocean. In the better-known Egyptian myth of Osiris, seventy-two conspirators murdered him.

In Britain, construction began on Stonehenge. “The outrageous suggestion that I am going to make,” states Duncan Steel, an astrobioogist at England’s University of Buckingham, “is that the Taurid Complex was producing phenomenal meteor storms between forty-five hundred and five thousand years ago, accompanied by multiple Tunguska-class atmospheric detonations, and that Stonehenge I was designed to allow the (awestruck, terrified) culture of southern England to make observations of the Phenomena and to perhaps predict their recurrence.”

The Taurid complex is a comet/meteor swarm complex, whose main body is the periodic comet Encke with an unknown number of meteoroid swarms. The Taurid complex intersected Earth around 3100 BC.

At the same time, Troy was founded on the Mediterranean shores of Asia Minor, while India’s first written language appeared in the Indus-Sarasvati Valley. An Indian epic, the Mahabharata, describes a world-age known as the Kali Yuga that opened in 3137 B.C. Massive flooding forced ancestral Austronesians belonging to an archaeological culture known as the Dawenkou in southern Shandong and Jiangsu to migrate from Taiwan to the Philippines.

“Civilization is said to have begun in China around 3000 BC with the emergence of the Yang-Shao culture,” Scofield writes. “Radiocarbon dating of Yang-Shao pottery produces dates of 3100 BC +/-100 years.” The ascent of Emperor Fu His to the throne occurred around 2950 BC. In North America, massive copper mining operations began across the Upper Great Lakes Region of Lake Superior. In Mexico, the Mayan calendar started on 12 August, 3114 BC, Peru’s late-fourth-millennium BC. Salavarry Period witnessed construction of the first South American pyramids.

Remarkably, these fundamental cultural surges all took place around the world one hundred years before the turn of the thirty-first century BC. Each was traditionally associated by its own people with a catastrophic flood, punctuated by devastating shooting stars. Astrophysicist Victor Clube and astronomer William Napier believe the Great Deluge was caused by “debris from the breakup of an extremely large object. Enveloping the Taurids, Comet Encke and these particular asteroids is a broad tube of meteoric debris [the Stohl Stream, named after their Czech discoverer, Jáh Štohl]. The mass of the meteoric material within the Stohl Stream is ten or twenty billion tons. Adding in the mass of gas and very fine dust, we find that the original body [of Comet Encke] must have been about one hundred kilometers [circa sixty-three miles] across. [Asteroid] Oljato itself is in an orbit which brought it virtually into the Earth’s orbital plane for some centuries around 3000-3500 BC.”

Clube, Napier, Steel, and Scofield belong to a growing number of cosmologists who conclude that Comet Encke collided with the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, resulting in the Stohl Meteor Streams, which formed, in turn, the Taurid meteors during the late fourth millennium BC. As evidence, they suggest the five-hundred-foot-wide Henbury crater in north-central Australia, was caused by a meteor impact around 3100 BC. Just then, an acidity spike occurred in Greenland’s Camp Century ice-core, indicating a large, sudden increase of ash-fall worldwide.

Researchers Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas state that within the last ten thousand years, the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field has abruptly changed only twice, more recently in 3150 BC, when a comet struck the Mediterranean Sea. Atlantic Ocean vulcanism generated by meteor impacts reached a peak around the turn of the fourth millennium BC, particularly in Iceland, at Mt. Heimay, and in the Azores. Worldwide, erosion values of twenty to thirty tons/kilometer before 2950 BC jumped to one hundred forty tons/km. Massive flooding was recorded for the Tigris-Euphrates and the Nile Rivers. (Knight, Christopher and Lomas, Robert. Uriel’s Machine. MA: Fair Winds Press, 2001)

In Brazil, the Amazon Basin overflowed, creating a now vanished lake, Lago Amazonicas. Florida Atlantologist Kenneth Caroli pointed out that the Nile Delta experienced “a climate deterioration circa 3090 BC. The exact sequence of the climate decline remains somewhat disputed, though it appears to have intensified in stages, punctuated by either extreme, sudden droughts or brief bursts of driving rain.” Tree rings in California’s White Mountains show that cooler, wetter conditions prevailed in the American Southwest.

A so-called “dust veil event,” indicating the abrupt appearance of massive ash in the atmosphere, is documented by tree rings in Ireland and England. There was increased cosmic dust input coincident with the widespread burning of various northern European bogs. In Antarctica, a distinct peak in sedimentation was demonstrated at Midge Lake, Beyers Peninsula, Livingstone Island, culminating around 2900 BC. A spurt in the growth rate of peat moss at Elephant Island, in the South Shetlands, peaked by 3100 BC.

These geologic and cultural-historical proofs are capped and brought together by an eyewitness, whose personal documentation of the global cataclysm has only now been revealed after the passage of more than five thousand years.

By Frank Joseph