Hidden in a Medieval Manuscript Is the Oldest Star Map Ever Discovered

Hipparchus’ famous book on the night sky is partially visible in multispectral imaging of an ancient Greek palimpsest.

Hipparchus, a Greek astronomer, drew a chart of the stars more than 2,100 years ago, and for a very long time, it was thought that this was the first attempt by humans to give celestial bodies numerical coordinates. Even so, the treatise was only made public through the writings of another well-known astronomer, Claudius Ptolemy, who created his own celestial inventory almost 400 years later.

At least up to now.

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According to researchers, a mediaeval manuscript contains pieces of the lost historical text of Hipparchus.

According to a report on the discovery that appeared this week in the journal History of Astronomy, “This new evidence is the most authoritative to date and allows substantial progress in the reconstruction of Hipparchus’ Star Catalogue.” The discovery could provide fresh insight into the development of astronomy as well as Hipparchus’ endeavour to map the night sky using exact measurements and computations.

Often regarded as the best astronomer of ancient Greece, Hipparchus is also renowned as the father of trigonometry. A portion of his star chart is thought to have appeared 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 time), but still display vestiges of their original form. While the majority of the Codex’s folios are currently in the possession of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, this specific palimpsest originated from the Greek Orthodox Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Multispectral imaging, a process that uses a variety of light wavelengths, was used by teams from the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library in California and the Lazarus Project at the Rochester Institute of Technology to expose the hidden text and measurements.

The descriptions of four constellations were subsequently deciphered by researchers from the University of Cambridge and the Sorbonne. Not only did this appear to reveal Hipparchus’ cartography, but the research team also claims that the newly discovered numerical data is strongly congruent with actual stellar coordinates.

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While 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 uncovered yet, this would make Hipparchus’ Catalogue more accurate than Ptolemy’s much later Almagest astronomy handbook.

According to researchers, additional details about Hipparchus’ star observations may still be found in the Codex Climaci Rescriptus.

Looking backward

Without opening it, scientists were able to read a 300-year-old sealed letter.
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Modern digital technologies keep finding important cultural artefacts on records that have been damaged, deteriorated, or purposefully erased, making them invisible to the human sight.

Ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes’ writings have been resurrected through the use of multispectral imaging. It has exposed portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, important biblical fragments found in Qumran, Israel, and disclosed the contents of scrolls destroyed in Mount Vesuvius eruption-related damage.

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