Ancient Eclipse Records

The records of early civilizations are littered with references to eclipses. This should not be a surprise, in that only the most notable events in any year, or decade, or even century, will have been remembered by later generations and recorded for posterity in some way. The sorts of things passed down to us would be human signposts such as the births and deaths of kings, and the great battles and wars in which they were involved, plus unusual natural phenomena like disastrous floods and earthquakes and the appearances of bright comets and eclipses. The mass media of today are swamping us with the trivialities of life; the documents of the past, painstakingly chiseled into rock or inked onto papyrus scrolls, were limited to only the most prominent events.

One of the great early civilizations was that of the Babylonians, and their knowledge of astronomy is especially notable (see Figure 1-10). The ebbs and flows of that people, and the changes that occurred in the lands around the mighty Tigris and Euphrates

FIGURE 1-10. Ancient Babylonian astronomers discuss the appearance of a comet, as the Moon rises in the east. They developed a comprehensive understanding of eclipse cycles.

rivers, greatly affected humankind's eventual understanding of eclipses. The Babylonians scratched their records into clay tablets and these have proven a unique repository of information for studies of ancient eclipses.

It was not only the Babylonians who were interested in eclipses. Elsewhere other civilizations were in awe of such events. In China, India, Arabia, ancient Greece, and medieval Europe, eclipses were seen and not forgotten; their dates and characteristics were written down and stored, invaluable records to be translated much later and put to disparate scholarly uses.

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