Old Astronomical Mystery Finally Solved!

11 May, 2012 - In 1977, a group of archaeologists unearthed several precious relics from an ancient tomb.

For 35 years, researchers wondered about the nature of the devices and now the old archaeological mystery has finally been solved.

The relics were discovered in the tomb of Xiahou Zao, the 2nd Marquis of Ruyin of the Western Han dynasty. Scientists named a piece of lacquerware "lacquerware of unknown name", for no one has been able to identify it.

After more than two years cooperative study with experts from the Anhui Museum and the Fuyang Municipal Museum, SHI Yunli, professor from the Department of the History of Science and Scientific Archaeology, University of Science and Technology of China reveals that the instruments discovered in the tomb are in fact a gnomon with template and an equatorial device for the positional measurement of celestial bodies.

They are among the oldest instruments for astronomical measurement that can still be seen in the world.

The gnomon with template is a typical instrument used by ancient Chinese astronomer in determining the advent of different seasons with the gnomon shadows cast on the template by the midday sun.

It consists of a vertical pole and a level template laid in south-north direction at the foot of the pole.

The gnomon with template from the tomb of XIAHOU Zao has two symmetric and foldable parts.

As being fully set up in the south-north direction, the midday sun will cast the shadow of a vertical tablet in the northern half onto three fixed positions on the template respectively on the days of the Summer Solstice, the Vernal/Autumnal Equinoxes, and the Winter Solstice.

Replica of the Gnomon with Template from the Tomb of XIAHOU Zao (Image by SHI Yunli)

According to SHI Yunli, "geographically, this type of gnomon with template can only be used on the given latitude, and the one from the tomb of Xiahou Zao fits just right with the region between the capital of the dynasty Chang'an and the fief of the Marquis of Ruyin Fuyang."

The edges of the two overlapping disks are marked respectively with the complete degrees of a celestial circle, and the names and degrees of each of the 28 lunar lodges.

A Replica of the Equatorial Device from the Tomb of XIAHOU Zao (Image by SHI Yunli)

Previous studies have suggested that they may make either an astrological tool similar to the two cosmic disks for divination from the same tomb, or a kind of astronomical instrument, but both theories are in need of definite evidence. The new study shows that the disks are actually two components of one astronomical measuring instrument.

Mounted on top of a "lacquerware box" unearthed from the same tomb, they form a complete device good for the equatorial observation fitting just right with the geographical latitude of Fuyang.

This is once again proof of who sophisticated ancient astronomers were.


See also:
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