Oldest recorded solar eclipse helps date the Egyptian pharaohs

October 30, 2017 by Sarah Collins, University of Cambridge
Oldest recorded solar eclipse helps date the Egyptian pharaohs
Credit: University of Cambridge

Researchers have pinpointed the date of what could be the oldest solar eclipse yet recorded. The event, which occurred on 30 October 1207 BC, is mentioned in the Bible, and could have consequences for the chronology of the ancient world.

Using a combination of the biblical text and an ancient Egyptian text, the researchers were then able to refine the dates of the Egyptian pharaohs, in particular the dates of the reign of Ramesses the Great. The results are published in the Royal Astronomical Society journal Astronomy & Geophysics.

The biblical text in question comes from the Old Testament book of Joshua and has puzzled biblical scholars for centuries. It records that after Joshua led the people of Israel into Canaan - a region of the ancient Near East that covered modern-day Israel and Palestine - he prayed: "Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon. And the Sun stood still, and the Moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies."

"If these words are describing a real observation, then a major astronomical event was taking place - the question for us to figure out is what the text actually means," said paper co-author Professor Sir Colin Humphreys from the University of Cambridge's Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy, who is also interested in relating scientific knowledge to the Bible.

"Modern English translations, which follow the King James translation of 1611, usually interpret this text to mean that the sun and stopped moving," said Humphreys, who is also a Fellow of Selwyn College. "But going back to the original Hebrew text, we determined that an alternative meaning could be that the sun and moon just stopped doing what they normally do: they stopped shining. In this context, the Hebrew words could be referring to a solar eclipse, when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, and the sun appears to stop shining. This interpretation is supported by the fact that the Hebrew word translated 'stand still' has the same root as a Babylonian word used in ancient astronomical texts to describe eclipses."

Humphreys and his co-author, Graeme Waddington, are not the first to suggest that the biblical text may refer to an eclipse, however, earlier historians claimed that it was not possible to investigate this possibility further due to the laborious calculations that would have been required.

Independent evidence that the Israelites were in Canaan between 1500 and 1050 BC can be found in the Merneptah Stele, an Egyptian dating from the reign of the Pharaoh Merneptah, son of the well-known Ramesses the Great. The large granite block, held in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, says that it was carved in the fifth year of Merneptah's reign and mentions a campaign in Canaan in which he defeated the people of Israel.

Earlier historians have used these two texts to try to date the possible eclipse, but were not successful as they were only looking at total eclipses, in which the disc of the sun appears to be completely covered by the moon as the moon passes directly between the earth and the sun. What the earlier historians failed to consider was that it was instead an , in which the moon passes directly in front of the sun, but is too far away to cover the disc completely, leading to the characteristic 'ring of fire' appearance. In the ancient world the same word was used for both total and annular eclipses.

The researchers developed a new eclipse code, which takes into account variations in the Earth's rotation over time. From their calculations, they determined that the only annular eclipse visible from Canaan between 1500 and 1050 BC was on 30 October 1207 BC, in the afternoon. If their arguments are accepted, it would not only be the oldest solar eclipse yet recorded, it would also enable researchers to date the reigns of Ramesses the Great and his son Merneptah to within a year.

"Solar eclipses are often used as a fixed point to date events in the ," said Humphreys. Using these new calculations, the reign of Merneptah began in 1210 or 1209 BC. As it is known from Egyptian texts how long he and his father reigned for, it would mean that Ramesses the Great reigned from 1276-1210 BC, with a precision of plus or minus one year, the most accurate dates available. The precise dates of the pharaohs have been subject to some uncertainty among Egyptologists, but this new calculation, if accepted, could lead to an adjustment in the dates of several of their reigns and enable us to them precisely.

Explore further: Partial eclipse of the sun visible across UK

More information: Colin Humphreys et al, Solar eclipse of 1207 BC helps to date pharaohs, Astronomy & Geophysics (2017). DOI: 10.1093/astrogeo/atx178

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chromakey
4.8 / 5 (4) Oct 30, 2017
30 Oct 1207 BCE? That's early, sure. This one became strange the moment it mentioned someone's Bible. So, I figured it was improbable, given all the early astronomy, that anyone would have failed to notice and be moved by solar eclipses far far earlier. Hell, you see eclipses in the iconography coming out of Sumeria and Babylon.

So how about:

"Babylonian clay tablets that have survived since dawn of civilization in the Mesopotamian region record the earliest total solar eclipse seen in Ugarit on May 3, 1375 BC. "

"By 2300 BC, ancient Chinese astrologers, already had sophisticated observatory buildings, and as early as 2650 BC, Li Shu was writing about astronomy. Observing total solar eclipses was a major element of forecasting the future health and successes of the Emperor, and astrologers were left with the onerous task of trying to anticipate when these events might occur...." (science.ksc.nasa.gov)
Nik_2213
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 30, 2017
IMHO, they've done very well to cross-match one of several interpretations of an ancient religious text to an actual event. This 'nails' the reign of those pharaohs. It also falsifies any wilder notion based on too-simple translation. The Sun's apparent motion due to the Earth's rotation DID NOT STOP. Thank you.
Whatmaze
5 / 5 (3) Oct 31, 2017
How does this qualify as the oldest recorded solar eclipse? The interpretation of the original text is a stretch at best. The authors appear to be looking for evidence to support an existing conclusion.
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (3) Oct 31, 2017
rg, The researchers involved are attempting too coordinate a number of contentious interpretations of problematic translations of conflicting (and often damaged) ancient records.

Good luck to coming up with a coherent and not too fictional, not unreasonably inaccurate, historical timeline out of that kludged up mess!

BN, I agree with your assessment of Royal propaganda. However, that commission of puffery and bombastic paeans of glorious victories is equally applied to the proto-isrealite savages. Especially as the written records were produced many centuries after the alleged events.

Then all those records went through the usual cycles of disinformation culling out embarrassing facts, deleting ideological errors and endless revisions from theological disputes.

When kings rule by divine right? To be charged with heresy resulted in execution for treason. Dissent against the State was apostasy against god.

Damned if you do and damned if you don't!
Mastoras
not rated yet Nov 02, 2017
The reading "Israel" in the Merneptah stele is not the dominant scholarly opinion. It is a highly disputed reading.

But I find most crucial a point made in a comment above, by user roygrubb. He points out that eclipses only last for a few minutes. This cant be enough time to take vengeance on their enemies.

We should also note that those claiming to read "Israel" on the Merneptah stele, read the phrase "the seed of Israel is no more". This seems to speak for a defeat of Israel. So, even if this new interpretation is correct, it cannot speak for the same battle as the Merneptah stele.

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