The oldest known star map in the world is hidden in a medieval manuscript
More than 2,100 years ago, the Greek astronomer Hipparchus mapped the stars — and for a long time, his document was considered mankind’s earliest attempt to assign numerical coordinates to stellar bodies. But despite its fame, the treatise is known to exist only through the writings of another famous astronomer, Claudius Ptolemy, who compiled his own celestial inventory some 400 years later.
Until now, that is.
Researchers believe they have found fragments of Hipparchus’ lost historical document hidden in a medieval manuscript.
“This new evidence is the most authoritative to date and provides a major advance in the reconstruction of Hipparchus’ star catalogue,” said a study of the discovery published in the journal History of astronomy last week. The discovery could shed new light not only on Hipparchus’ attempt to map the night sky through precise measurements and calculations, but also on the history of astronomy.
Hipparchus, who is also known as the father of trigonometry, is often considered the greatest astronomer of ancient Greece. Parts of his star map appear to be shown in the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, a book of Syriac texts written in the 10th or 11th century whose parchment pages have been erased for reuse (a common recycling practice at the time), but still bear visible traces its earlier form. This particular palimpsest comes from the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, although the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC now owns most of the Codex folios.
Teams from Electronic Library of Early Manuscripts in California and The Lazarus Project based on Rochester Institute of Technology discovered blurred text and measurements using many wavelengths of light, a technique known as multispectral imaging.
Researchers from the Sorbonne University and the University of Cambridge were then able to decipher the descriptions of the four constellations. Not only did this seem to reveal Hipparchus’ cartography, but the team also says the newly discovered numerical evidence is highly consistent with the real one star coordinates.
This would make Hipparchus’ catalog more accurate than Ptolemy’s much later astronomical manual the Almagest, although the researchers admit that they are working with a small sample and there could be significant errors in parts of Hipparchus’ star catalog that have not survived or have not yet been discovered. .
Scholars say the Codex Climaci Rescriptus may yet reveal even more of Hipparchus’ stellar observations.
State-of-the-art digital technologies continue to restore vital parts of cultural heritage on documents that cannot be seen by the human eye due to damage, decay or intentional erasure.
Multispectral imaging has resurrected text from the oldest known copies of the writings of the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes. It is damaged in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and exposed elements of the Dead Sea Scrolls, historically significant biblical fragments found in caves at Qumran, Israel.
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