Scientists looking to verify the date of a massive solar storm that lit up the skies and left its signature in the rings of trees over 2,000 years ago are getting help from some unlikely sources: ancient Babylonian astrologers and prophets of doom. A team of Japanese scientists recently went digging through ancient records of omens, written on stone in cuneiform, to confirm the date range of this massive solar storm. The scientists say these ancient astrologers and sky-watchers dedicated note-taking and interpretations could also be useful to predict future massive solar storms—the kind that could spell doom.
The ancient kingdoms of Babylon and Assyria in Mesopotamia—the “Cradle of Civilization”—were home to some of the first professional astronomers. These philosophers and astronomers would watch the skies and record any anomalies they saw on palm-sized stone tablets, along with predictions and whether the weird stuff showing up in the sky was a good or bad omen. These stone tablets would be signed, dated, and then sent to government officials who would use the omens to make decisions. Don’t laugh, they did pretty well. After all, it wouldn’t be called the Cradle of Civilization if it ended up completely bungled because of bad astrology.
A few millennia later, scientists can use these stone tablets to triangulate the approximate date of a supremely massive solar storm.
Scientists already had an inkling of when the solar storm took place, due to the carbon isotopes it left in tree rings. They suspected it occurred somewhere around the 7th century BCE. In a paper published in the journal Astrophysical Letters, Japanese scientists reveal how the stone tablets of ancient soothsayers helped confirm it.
After digging through records of ancient tablets, the scientists found three that looked like what they were after. The three tablets are all from the 7th or 8th century BCE and mention the sky turning red, red clouds, or a red glow. Unfortunately, none of these tablets were dated but they were all signed by a different ancient astronomer: Issār-šumu-ēreš, Nabû-aḫḫē-erıba, and Zākiru. These three astronomers all reported directly to the kings of Babylon or Nineveh. Social scientist Yasuyuki Mitsuma says:
“Although the exact dates of the observations are not known, we were able to narrow the range considerably by knowing when each astrologer was active.”
The window when all three astronomers were active is only 29 years, from 679 to 655 BCE.
This research also sets a new standard for the earliest reliable observations of an aurora by a full 100 years. The researchers say that this is a valuable new method of determining the dates of solar storms and could help predict the next big one. Mitsuma says:
“These findings allow us to recreate the history of solar activity a century earlier than previously available records.
This research can assist in our ability to predict future solar magnetic storms, which may damage satellites and other spacecraft.”
We know that there very well may be a solar storm in our future that completely knocks out the grid and sends us into a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Isn’t it more comforting knowing we’re using 2,000-year-old fortune tellers to predict it?