The Oldest Star Map Ever Discovered Was Hiding in a Medieval Manuscript

Fragments of the famous treatise on the night sky by astronomer Hipparchus have been discovered using multispectral imaging of an ancient Greek palimpsest.

Hipparchus, a Greek astronomer, charted the stars more than 2,100 years ago. For a very long time, this was thought to be humanity’s first attempt to give celestial bodies numerical coordinates. Nevertheless, despite its reputation, the treatise was only made public through the writings of Claudius Ptolemy, another well-known astronomer who created his own celestial inventory some 400 years later.

That is, up until now.

A mediaeval Greek manuscript may include pieces of Hipparchus’ lost historical writing, according to researchers.

This week, a report on the discovery was published in the journal History of Astronomy. It states that “this new material is the most authoritative to date and allows substantial progress in the reconstruction of Hipparchus’ Star Catalogue.” The discovery may reveal fresh information on the development of astronomy as well as Hipparchus’ endeavour to map the night sky using exact measurements and calculations.

Many people believe that Hipparchus, who is often referred to as the father of trigonometry, was the best astronomer in classical Greece. His star chart seems to have made an appearance in the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, a book of Syriac writings from the tenth or eleventh century, whose parchment pages were wiped so they could be reused (a customary recycling process at the period), but nevertheless show clear signs of their original form. The majority of the folios of the Codex today belong to the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, however this specific palimpsest originally came from the Greek Orthodox Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Using a process known as multispectral imaging, teams from the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library in California were able to decipher the hidden measurements and text.

Following that, scientists from the Universities of Cambridge and Sorbonne were able to interpret the descriptions of four constellations. This not only appeared to show Hipparchus’ cartography, according to the study, but the newly discovered numerical proof is also strongly congruent with actual stellar coordinates.

Although the researchers acknowledge they are working with a small sample and that significant errors could exist in parts of Hipparchus’ Star Catalogue that haven’t survived or been discovered yet, this would make Hipparchus’ Catalogue more accurate than Ptolemy’s much later Almagest astronomy handbook.

The Oldest Star Map Ever Discovered Was Hiding in a Medieval Manuscript

The Codex Climaci Rescriptus, according to the researchers, may yet hold further information about Hipparchus’ star observations.

Taking a look back in time
300-Year-Old Sealed Letter Read by Scientists Without Opening
Ancient atlases reveal that Machu Picchu once went by another name.
Modern digital technologies keep finding important pieces of cultural material on records that are hidden from view by damage, degeneration, or intentional erasure.

The text from the earliest manuscripts of works by the Greek mathematician Archimedes has been revived via multispectral photography. It has disclosed portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, historically significant biblical fragments found in Qumran, Israel, and unveiled secrets of scrolls damaged in the Mount Vesuvius explosion.

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