... I go out at night and paint the stars.
June 28, 2009 10:30 AM   Subscribe

Preserved in the cave excavations of Mogao and listing 1,339 stars the Dunhuang Star Chart is the oldest graphical star atlas known to exist. Dated to between 649 and 684 AD, it features two sections. The first consists of 26 diagrams of asterisms (including a recognizable Big Dipper and Orion) and the second contains 12 star maps each showing a 30 degree east-west section of sky in cylindrical projection plus an azimuthal projection circumpolar map. Star positions are accurate to within 1.5 degrees and it includes some stars in the southern sky.

Previously 1,2,3. Via APOD.
posted by Mitheral (10 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting that their eyes saw the same shape in The Big Dipper as our culture does. I note they didn't find a Little Dipper, however...

And some of the other constellations and star patterns are recognizable to my modern stargazing eye, as well. Fascinating. I'd not heard of this before. Thanks!
posted by hippybear at 10:42 AM on June 28, 2009

I find it amazing to think that people 1,500 years ago on the other side of the world to me were also looking up at the sky and going, "cool."
posted by chorltonmeateater at 11:37 AM on June 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

I find it amazing to think that people 1,500 years ago on the other side of the world to me were also looking up at the sky and going, "cool."

The War on Drugs was still a long time off.
posted by codswallop at 12:38 PM on June 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Thak you . See also Celestial Navigation Before 1400
posted by adamvasco at 1:08 PM on June 28, 2009

Great post. Thanks!
posted by homunculus at 6:11 PM on June 28, 2009

Nice post, and I really liked looking at the photo of the ancient Chinese star chart.

It's worthwhile to note that Chinese (and Greek, Indian, etc.) astronomy have long histories that date back many thousands of years. One of the oldest extant astronomical records is the Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa from 7th century BCE Babylonia, which contains records dating back to around 1600 BCE or so. The Chinese also kept detailed records of eclipses and novas since at least the 4th century BCE.

None the less, this Dunhuang star chart is the oldest record which actually has those familiar constellations and star charts. In the picture, you can clearly recognize Orion. Cool!
posted by math at 6:30 PM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Further link: A video and enlarged pictures.
posted by adamvasco at 12:29 AM on June 29, 2009

Full resolution images of all the charts are available on the IDP link if you select the Large Image link top centre of the preview image.
posted by Mitheral at 12:34 AM on June 29, 2009

I went to the Mogao caves a couple of years ago. They are pretty spectacular. Here you are in the most barren of deserts and there are these tiny little doors in the side of the cliffs. Into the dark little corridores you clambor and inside are these massive rooms carved out over centuries by monks. The walls are covered in tiny, hand pained and gilded painings. Buddhas rise hundreds of feet from the cave floor. Sometimes you enter and you are at a toe, a toe taller than you. Sometime you enter and you are on a little balcony that is a buddha's belly button.
posted by Pollomacho at 4:59 AM on June 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm impressed they have Southern Hemisphere stars. How did they get those from 34°N? Sailing expeditions somehow recording the stars and returning with them? But how did they get the right apparent position to record on a 34° star chart? Put another way, how is it possible to tell that the stars on the chart are from the Southern Hemisphere?

I'm less impressed with the "within a few degrees". The angular width of the Moon is .3-.5 degrees, so we're talking 2-3 moon-widths of error at a minimum. With that much slop to play with, you could almost arrange any group of dots into a constellation.
posted by DU at 5:25 AM on June 29, 2009

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