The Remarkable Science of Ancient Astronomy

Course No. 1866
Professor Bradley E. Schaefer, Ph.D.
Louisiana State University
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Course No. 1866
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers The true, remarkable feats of ancient astronomers and why comets were more feared than eclipses.
  • numbers Discover the most extraordinary artifact in all of ancient science.
  • numbers Learn about the probable nature of the Star of Bethlehem.
  • numbers Unveil the purpose of Stonehenge.
  • numbers Reveal the origin of constellations.
  • numbers Find out why comets were more feared than eclipses.

Course Overview

In a world without artificial lights, the night sky was ablaze with over a thousand stars, whose patterns illustrated stories people had heard since childhood. Thus, ancient people viewed the sky differently than we do. Skywatching was crucial to daily life, since the motions of the heavens served as timekeeper, calendar, compass, and almanac for planning when to plant and harvest. The perfect regularity of celestial cycles was the only guaranteed aspect of life and inspired a wide range of religious and philosophical views, as different cultures struggled to grasp the unseen forces that govern the cosmos.

For eons, this was humanity’s experience of the Sun, Moon, planets, stars, and transient phenomena such as meteors, comets, and eclipses. And although the expert observers of that era didn’t realize it, their meticulous records and conjectures were laying the foundation for modern science.

Richly interdisciplinary, the subject of ancient astronomy encompasses archaeoastronomy, which is the study of how ancient monuments are oriented to the sky, but it also includes cosmology, mythology, mathematics, celestial mapping, astrology, divination, timekeeping, calendars, navigation, and ancient technology, among other fields. It is part science, part history, part archaeology, part cultural anthropology, and part detective story, since progress in the discipline depends on an astute reading of clues to unravel the complex relationship of ancient people with the sky.

If you’ve ever wondered how the ancient world saw the stars, The Remarkable Science of Ancient Astronomy investigates each of these disciplines to give you unprecedented insight into the understanding of our first astronomers. In these dazzling and provocative 24 half-hour lectures presented by Professor Bradley E. Schaefer, a professional astronomer and multi-award-winning educator at Louisiana State University, you will see the sky like never before.

Designed for learners of all ages and backgrounds, these lectures are a visual delight, filled with clear and insightful graphics. For example, familiar Western constellations are contrasted with the very different systems of other cultures, and the star patterns of the Babylonians and Chinese are shown in detail not available elsewhere. Plus, animations demonstrate the celestial alignments of ancient monuments as well as the workings of ingenious devices such as the armillary sphere, astrolabe, and incomparable Antikythera mechanism.

Among the astronomical marvels of the ancient world are some celebrated puzzles that have generated many theories:

  • Stonehenge: This impressive prehistoric monument in southern England has an obvious alignment with sunrise on the summer solstice, but dozens of other celestial alignments have been suggested. Are they chance or intentional? And was the summer solstice the real focus of rituals at the site?
  • Great Pyramid of Giza: Ancient Egyptians built their largest pyramid oriented to the cardinal points—north, south, east, and west—with an accuracy of one-twentieth of a degree. This is astounding precision that would be challenging even with today’s GPS equipment. How did they do it?
  • Star of Bethlehem: In the Gospel of Matthew, the magi searching for the birthplace of Jesus came from the east, following a star “at its rising”; that is, in the east. This seeming contradiction is one of several astronomical problems with the passage, which may have found a recent surprising solution.
  • Antikythera mechanism: Discovered in 1901 aboard an ancient Roman shipwreck, this badly corroded bronze tool eventually proved to be an astonishingly versatile astronomical computer, arguably the most remarkable artifact in all of ancient science. Intriguing clues point to the identity of its designer.

Solve Age-Old Mysteries of the Sky

Professor Schaefer is a noted astrophysicist involved in cutting-edge research on the fate of the universe. His other passion is understanding how his long-ago predecessors observed and perceived the cosmos. In The Remarkable Science of Ancient Astronomy, he takes you inside a worldview that knew nothing of telescopes, stars, or galaxies, yet was able to chart and predict the movements of the heavens. He puts modern theories about ancient astronomy to the test, separating the reasonable from the improbable; and he paves exciting new ground with his own detailed analyses addressing age-old mysteries. He particularly relishes working from scattered evidence to pinpoint when ancient observations and maps were made, including:

  • Chinese constellations: The phenomenon called precession of the equinoxes is like a carbon-dating tool for ancient astronomy. Professor Schaefer applies this 26,000-year wobble in the Earth’s axis of rotation to Chinese star groups, called lunar lodges, establishing that the system is about 5,000 years old.
  • Birthplace of Greek astronomy: Focusing on star lore surviving from a lost work by the Greek astronomer Eudoxus, Dr. Schaefer establishes a range of latitudes and dates corresponding to Eudoxus’s source. It turns out that he was almost surely using 800-year-old data from Mesopotamia.
  • Farnese Atlas: Atlas shoulders the celestial globe in this famous Roman copy of a vanished Hellenistic sculpture. Noting the implied positions of stars in the constellations, Professor Schaefer argues that the original must have utilized the long-lost star catalog of the great Greek astronomer Hipparchus.
  • Crucifixion of Jesus: The first sighting of the crescent Moon after new Moon marks the start of the month in the Jewish calendar. Professor Schaefer’s model for predicting lunar crescent visibility narrows down the possible dates for the crucifixion of Jesus, based on this data and clues in the New Testament.

See the Heavens the Way the Ancients Did

One of the rewards of studying the ancient world is witnessing how it has a direct bearing on our own time, for example in our inheritance of Greek philosophical ideas, Middle Eastern religions, and Roman political institutions. This is no less true in astronomy.

As you will learn in The Remarkable Science of Ancient Astronomy, observations made centuries ago, even without the aid of our advanced instruments, can be exceptionally valuable. Detailed eclipse data compiled by Babylonian, Greek, Chinese, Arab, and medieval European astronomers gives today’s scientists important insights into the changing dynamics of the Earth-Moon system. The English astronomer Edmund Halley used old data on comet sightings to discover that one particular comet, later named in his honor, returns to the inner Solar System at roughly 75-year intervals. And the complex physics of catastrophically exploding stars, called supernovae, is clarified by knowing exactly when the remnant cloud observed today originally detonated—information best supplied in centuries-old astronomical records.

Moreover, the experiences of the ancient skywatchers are open to everybody. You can travel to some of the many archaeoastronomy sites worldwide and see for yourself how their alignments work. You can watch an eclipse, or see a meteor shower, or track a planet moving against the stars, or invent your own set of constellations, or sight the thin crescent Moon low in the west. After learning all that a pair of eyes and patience can do (no equipment required!), you will appreciate the sky as our ancient ancestors did, as a spectacle that is endlessly entertaining, instructive, and awe-inspiring.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Stonehenge and Archaeoastronomy
    Why were the motions of the Sun, Moon, and stars so important to ancient people? Investigate key astronomical directions noticed by all cultures. Then embark on your study of Stonehenge, seeing how it gave birth to the field of archaeoastronomy and to some very curious modern theories. x
  • 2
    The Real Stonehenge
    In the popular mind, Stonehenge was built as a sophisticated astronomical calculator presided over by priestly astronomers called Druids. But is this view dating from the mid-1960s correct? Address the evidence, and survey the archaeological record to discover the most probable function of Stonehenge. x
  • 3
    Alignments at Maes Howe and Newgrange
    Explore Neolithic tombs and monuments across Europe, discovering an array of alignments toward astronomical events. Start with two sites that are similar to Stonehenge in their clear orientation to the winter solstice: Maes Howe in the Orkney Islands, and Newgrange in Ireland. x
  • 4
    Astronomy of Egypt's Great Pyramid
    Study the astronomical significance of Egypt's Great Pyramid. How did its builders achieve such phenomenal accuracy in the pyramid's alignment to the cardinal directions? Were its air shafts intended to point at stars of special importance? Also evaluate modern claims for the mystical power of pyramids. x
  • 5
    Chaco Canyon and Anasazi Astronomy
    Travel to Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, where the Anasazi culture practiced sky-centered rituals a thousand years ago. Look for evidence of their astronomical knowledge, examine their many sun daggers," and probe the controversial pictograph thought to depict the Crab Nebula supernova explosion in 1054 AD." x
  • 6
    Ancient Cosmologies and Worldviews
    Consider the astronomy-based world views of different ancient cultures and how they answered the three big questions: Where did the world come from? What is the nature of the universe? What is its fate? Survey the beliefs of the Greeks, Chinese, Australian aborigines, and other groups, seeking common elements. x
  • 7
    Meteorite Worship and Start of the Iron Age
    Witnessing a meteor fall must have been a strange and awe-inspiring experience for people long ago. Travel around the world to places where meteorites were worshiped and also used as a source of iron, which was rarer than gold before the smelting technology of the Iron Age. x
  • 8
    Eclipses, Comets, and Omens
    Since no human can touch the sky, any unexpected celestial event must be a divine omen. Reenter this primordial state of mind, seeing eclipses and comets the way they were perceived before the advent of modern science. In the course of this investigation, discover why comets became more feared than eclipses. x
  • 9
    The Star of Bethlehem
    For centuries, astronomers have struggled to find an explanation for the Star of Bethlehem, recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. Professor Schaefer focuses on a recent theory that has taken scientists and biblical scholars by surprise, due to its success at solving problems that plagued all previous proposals. x
  • 10
    Origins of Western Constellations
    The human propensity for pattern recognition and storytelling has led every culture to invent constellations. Trace the birth of the star groups known in the West, many of which originated in ancient Mesopotamia. At least one constellation is almost certainly more than 14,000 years old and may be humanity's oldest surviving creative work. x
  • 11
    Chinese and Other Non-Western Constellations
    Study the constellation patterns of ancient China, which influenced those of India and Arabia. Professor Schaefer dates the origin of the Chinese star groups called lunar lodges, and he samples southern constellations conceived by cultures in South America, and Australia. x
  • 12
    Origins and Influence of Astrology
    Astrology grew up hand in hand with astronomy. Focus on the different astrological traditions in Mesopotamia, China, India, and Mexico. Also trace the spread of astrology through the Mediterranean world. As an example, study the auspicious horoscope of Octavian, who became Emperor Augustus. x
  • 13
    Tracking Planet Positions and Conjunctions
    Until the invention of the telescope in 1610, astronomy was mostly the study of the sky positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets. Learn the extraordinary precision attained by ancient astronomers in their observations. Discover why they prized this knowledge, and also uncover a lost great discovery of the Babylonians. x
  • 14
    Ancient Timekeeping and Calendars
    For ancient people, keeping track of the time of day and year required a detailed understanding of the motions of the Sun, Moon, and stars. See how different cultures solved this problem. Also learn how to use a handy astronomical measuring device called the astrolabe. x
  • 15
    The Lunar Crescent and the Islamic Calendar
    Delve into the surprisingly tricky problem of deciding when a lunar month begins-usually determined by the first sighting of a crescent Moon after new Moon. Professor Schaefer describes his algorithm for calculating this event and then applies it to dating the crucifixion of Jesus. x
  • 16
    Ancient Navigation: Polynesian to Viking
    In the era before compasses and GPS, precise direction-finding was possible only through knowledge of the sky. Learn how the Polynesians found islands across thousands of miles of open ocean, and how the Vikings solved the very different challenge of navigating the North Atlantic. x
  • 17
    Breakthroughs of Early Greek Astronomy
    Between 600 and 200 BC, Greek astronomers went from being flat-Earthers to full proto-scientists with reasonable models and distances for the Solar System. How and why did this revolution happen? Focus on the achievements of Thales, Aristarchus, Eratosthenes, and Aristotle. x
  • 18
    The Genius of Hipparchus
    Considered the greatest astronomer of the ancient world, Hipparchus created a thousand-star catalog and discovered precession, the eons-slow rotation of the fixed stars around the ecliptic. Did this remarkable discovery give birth to the Mithraic religion, which rivalled Christianity? x
  • 19
    Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism
    In 1901, divers off a Greek island discovered a corroded bronze artifact composed of interlocking gears. Later analysis and X-ray imaging show it is an astonishingly versatile astronomical computer. Professor Schaefer identifies a probable date when it was built and two likely candidates for its brilliant designer. x
  • 20
    How the Antikythera Mechanism Worked
    Learn to operate the Antikythera mechanism, the glory of ancient astronomy. Modern models show how a simple turn of the crank could reveal the day of the year, phase of the Moon, possible eclipse dates, the cycles of ancient games, and other information. Probe the historical impact of this device. x
  • 21
    Achievements and Legacy of Ptolemy
    Ptolemy has been called the greatest astronomer of antiquity. But was he? Evaluate his reputation by focusing on his star catalog, celestial coordinate system, and magnitude scale. Then gauge the extent of his influence over later astronomers, which lasted over a thousand years. x
  • 22
    Star Catalogs from around the World
    The genius of Greek astronomy is epitomized by the star catalogs of Hipparchus and Ptolemy. Professor Schaefer recounts his exciting discovery of a star chart apparently influenced by Hipparchus's lost catalog. Close by comparing Greek star catalogs with those of China and the Arab world. x
  • 23
    How Ancient Astronomy Ended
    Review the state of astronomy in 1500. Then chart the revolution sparked by Copernicus's heliocentric theory of the Sun and planets. Learn how Copernicus was the last of the ancient astronomers, succeeded by the founders of modern science, including Tycho, Kepler, and Galileo. x
  • 24
    Ancient Astronomy and Modern Astrophysics
    Finish the course by seeing how ancient records of eclipses and supernova explosions have refined our modern understanding of Earth-Moon dynamics and stellar processes-proving that today's cutting-edge astrophysicists owe a great debt to astronomers who watched the skies long ago. x

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Video DVD
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  • Download 24 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 560-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 560-page printed course guidebook
  • Illustrations and photographs
  • Ancient Astronomy Timeline
  • List of Constellations

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Your professor

Bradley E. Schaefer

About Your Professor

Bradley E. Schaefer, Ph.D.
Louisiana State University
Bradley E. Schaefer is Distinguished Professor and Alumni Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Louisiana State University (LSU). He earned his undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees in Physics, both from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a research astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and a professor at Yale University, before joining LSU, where his teaching has earned him the...
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The Remarkable Science of Ancient Astronomy is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 53.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing, informational, educational! Learned so much! And in a very logical and clear way - it was ‘school’ without school because it was so very interesting.
Date published: 2020-08-03
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Aaah! Was hoping to get some new information - nada. Completely ignored the New World. Very disappointing.
Date published: 2020-06-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from a remarkable journey This course has been a rich journey of discovery as I knew next to nothing about the subject in advance. Prof. Schaefer displays an immense knowledge of history, across the globe, which helped me understand the role astronomy in developing cultures. By the same token, the mysteries of the ancient astronomers remain unlocked as their primary orientation was spiritual. There is much room for advacement as sophisticated modern calculations gradually reflect the purposes and methdology of the Creator. A great introduction.
Date published: 2020-06-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Unnecessarily combative Much to learn from this series of lectures, but the professor seems inordinately bent on refuting Gerald Hawkins's theories. His dismissive tone detracts from what would be legitimate criticisms if approached more factually.
Date published: 2020-06-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating information It’s intriguing to discover how people from long ago worked out the science they did, considering what they had to work with.
Date published: 2020-05-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great insights to the past Half way way through and cant wait to finish. Reveles the importance of astrology to ancient rulers. It was the science of the time for both the east and west
Date published: 2020-05-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great overview of ancient astronomy. Great overview of ancient astronomy. I recommend this course to anyone interested interested the topic.
Date published: 2020-04-20
Rated 3 out of 5 by from It wasn't what I was expecting It wasn't what I was expecting--------------------
Date published: 2019-07-12
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