We modern humans like to think we have all of the big ideas, although a few hours of watching cable news should dispel that rumor. Historians and archeologists know that ancient cultures had big ideas too – we just don’t always know how to interpret them. For example, about 3,200 years ago, stonemasons near what is now the village of Bogazkale in central Turkey, carved rock reliefs in a temple sanctuary which have baffled researchers for about 3,199 years. A new interpretation finally deciphered them and they depict a couple of really big ideas – a map of the universe and a calendar. Feeling humble yet?
“The rock-cut reliefs of 64 deities in the main chamber of Yazilikaya, a Hittite rock sanctuary associated with Hattusa, the Hittite capital in central Anatolia, can be broken into groups marking days, synodic months and solar years. Here, we suggest that the sanctuary in its entirety represents a symbolic image of the cosmos, including its static levels (earth, sky, underworld) and the cyclical processes of renewal and rebirth (day/night, lunar phases, summer/winter).”
Yazılıkaya, which is Turkish for “inscribed rock,” was a holy site of Hattusa, the capital city of the Hittite Empire. Rediscovered by French historian and archaeologist Charles Texier in 1834, it shows over 90 figures of gods, animals and monsters that have defied interpretation. An international team of researchers led by Eberhard Zangger, president of the Luwian Studies Foundation in Zurich, Switzerland, conducted a new analysis of the 13th century BCE carvings (pictures here) and published the results in the Journal of Skyscape Archaeology.
“They used the Open Air Temple as an open-air calendar and clock that shows important astronomical dates with unfailing accuracy. And the same calendar works flawlessly even today.”
Working with archaeologist and astronomer Rita Gautschy, Zangger identified twelve underground gods representing twelve lunar months, 30 male gods representing the 30 days of the lunar month, and 19 female goddesses representing the 19 years corresponding to the Methon cycle during which the solar and lunar years align. Every 19 years, an extra month would be added to the lunar calendar to keep it in sync with solar year – a pretty big idea. However, the other wall depicted the biggest idea of all – the cosmos.
“Static levels and celestial cyclics are emphasized in the sanctuary – each relief is associated with this system. We interpret the central panel with the supreme deities, at the northernmost end of Chamber A, as a reference to the northern stars, the circumpolar sphere and the world axis. Chamber B seems to symbolize the underworld.”
The supreme deities were carved in the north on the stone map, so they’re associated with the circumpolar region of the northern sky which never dips below the horizon. Other images are associated with deities representing the earth and the underworld. The Hittites were no slouches – their empire lasted from 1680 BCE to 1178 BCE – but little is known about them since their history is written in cuneiform texts or in diplomatic and commercial correspondence with other empires at the time. Prior to that, the only other reference to them was in the Old Testament. Since the depiction of the cosmos used gods rather than stars, it’s not exactly an astronomical chart, but it definitely illustrates an awareness of it by the Hittites.
Here’s a big idea – it’s obvious we still have a lot to learn about ancient history and ancient big ideas.