|| science ||

When the comet flew through ancient evenings

By Sharon Begley and Ted Gideonse

From Newsweek, March 24, 1997

STANDING AMID THE ruins of ancient Troy in 1871, archeologist Heinrich Schliemann felt an almost sensual link to the Greek heroes who had fallen at what he later called the "sacred and sublime" killing field that Homer celebrated in the Iliad. Domenico Fontana, too, touched the past when, in 1594, he happened upon the buried remains of Pompen, perfectly preserved since A.D. 79 by the hardened lava of Mount Vesuvius. Walking where the ancients walked and touching what the ancients touched, archeologists have long been privileged to experience a palpable connection to the lost ages of mankind. Now, bleary-eyed in their predawn vigils, comet watchers, too, are sensing that bond.

For many of them, the enchantment of Hale-Bopp is not that it brings astronomers information about the farthest fringe and the oldest era of the solar system. And the reason they have been rousing themselves before sunrise has not been to see what is - let's be honest - just a bright blur suspended in the constellation Andromeda. The appeal, rather, is this: the last human eyes to behold Hale-Bopp were eyes that saw the Great Pyramids at Giza when they were young, that looked up from a trading caravan in Akkad when the currency of the Mideast was not oil but the cedars of Lebanon. "When we see something that no [one] has seed for 4,000 years," says MIT astronomer, essayist and novelist Alan Lightman, "we feel a connection to those distant ancestors, a connection to our distant past."

Distant indeed. When the comet last swung by Earth - astronomers calculate that it was in 2213 B.C. - the grandeur of Rome and Athens lay centuries in the future. The Mayans, Incans and Aztecs were yet to be. The plow was just coming into widespread use in Europe, where settled agriculture was still a novelty and cities unheard of. In the Illinois River Valley, hunter-gatherers returned to the same site their ancestors had been visiting since 7500 B.C., to exploit the nut harvest. In Alaska the nomadic Inuit followed the migratory rhythms of the caribou and musk ox. Elsewhere, though, the roots of civilization were sinking in. Along the Indus River of what is now Pakistan, engineers had mastered multistory dwellings and even sewage systems, while in Egypt the Great Pyramids had already endured 400 years of sandstorms. At Troy, giant stone walls protected the owners of ornate carnelian, gold and lapis lazuli jewelry. But for all the differences in political, technological and economic sophistication among the peoples of 2213 B.C., anthropologists suspect they shared one trait. "An inauspicious sign was interpreted as the divinities trying to tell us something," says anthropologist C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky of Harvard University. And what were they trying to say? "The gods were angry.

As soon as astronomers calculated that Hale-Bopp last visited 4,210 years ago, archeologists scurried to scrutinize steles, hieroglyphics and Chinese oracle bones for some sign that ancient civilizations had noted the apparition. The result: not a shred of evidence that anyone observed the last coming. But researchers blame that on the skimpiness of the historical record rather than the obliviousness of our ancestors. Now scientists are taking a more roundabout route to determining the comet's role in history. Heirs to a century's worth of stunning archeological finds that shed new light on the dawn of civilization, they are re-examming long-forgotten finds in an attempt to wring new answers from the old relics. Namely, how did ancient peoples react to the comet? And - going out on a limb - how did it change the course of history?

Unexpected apparition: Any culture that had mastered agriculture - and by 2213 B.C. that included China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, northern Peru and the Indus Valley - kept an eye on the sky in order to foretell the coming of spring and the advent of the first frost, the flooding of the Nile or the season of the monsoon. But some ancient peoples also viewed heavenly movements as the direct cause of changes on Earth. If the fate of a civilization was written in the stars, then any ruler worthy of his power had to read them. "In Egypt, Babylonia, the Indus and China," says Lamberg-Karlovsky, "rulers legitimized their rule [through astronomical knowledge]. This system was damn near universal."

What varied was exactly how a civilization interpreted an unexpected apparition like Hale-Bopp. And that depended on both the society's religious beliefs and its political structure. In Egypt, for instance, Hale-Bopp's appearance coincided with the sixth dynasty, toward the end of the Old Kingdom, when the royal capital was Memphis, near Cairo. Best known for its artistry and monumental architecture, this period saw the construction of the Great Pyramids of Giza (Khufu's was built about 2575 B.C.) as well as the necropolises - burial places of kings, their families, viziers and favored courtiers - at Giza, Saqqarah, Meydum, Dahshur and Abusir. Pepi II, who reigned for 94 years after ascending to his father's throne at the age of 6, was king. Although scorned by later scribes for caring more for the dead than for the living, and thus spending vast resources on necropolises, Pepi failed to get his pyramid right. His complex at Saqqarah was structurally unsound. After his death, in 2152 B.C., an earthquake damaged the great tomb, creating a need for a supporting wall.

The gods' power: The Egyptians worshipped the sun, moon and stars, in that order, and believed that the myriad unnamed stars arcing across the celestial vault were the souls of the dead, taking up eternal residence among the deities. Given this cosmology, they likely viewed comets and meteors as manifestations of the gods' power, says Egyptologist James Allen of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In writings on pyramid walls, dated at about 2600 B.C., "the dead king is described as crossing the night sky like the god Sewentju," says Allen. "This could refer to a comet," although a meteor is also possible. In either case, the Egyptians noticed when there was something new under - or next to or above - the sun. They likely viewed these celestial visits not as portents of doom, however, but with curiosity, wondering what the gods were up to, but not necessarily worrying that the end was nigh, says Allen. The reason: in Egypt the king was a supreme being in his own right. If the frisky sky deities got angry, the mighty pharaoh was trusted to intervene.

The belief that the ruler held his people's lives and deaths in his hands was manifest in Egypt's sprawling hereditary bureaucracy. This professional class (vocational schools trained the chosen for the army, the treasury and the palace itself) collected taxes, managed the harvest, maintained the irrigation system and - its signature achievement - organized immense public-works projects, such as the building of the pyramids and irrigation canals. Villagers worked their fields nine months of the year, paying taxes in the form of crops. But during the three months when the flooding of the Nile kept farmers from farming, they were dragooned into work brigades. Thousands quarried limestone at Tura, southeast of modern Cairo, transported it to Giza and cut stones on site. Others dug granite from the outcroppings at Aswan for the facings of some of the Giza pyramids; the rock was hauled on sledges to the Nile and shipped upriver on barges. At the construction site, laborers used ramps and embankments to raise the huge blocks and levers to position them.

It all demanded tight organization, inventory control and a deft knack for personnel, since all the laborers got for their trouble was the crops they had paid the government, as taxes, in the first place. Sometimes that wasn't enough. Egyptian wall writings record that some laborers went on strike and others occasionally failed to show up at the appointed irrigation ditch.

By the time of Pepi's reign, Egypt had established trade routes up the Nile to obtain panther skins, incense, ivory and other luxuries from African kingdoms. Laborers employed by the state dug turquoise from mines in Sinai and smelted copper in Nubia. Lustrous jewels and iridescent metals were fine for gracing the bodies of royals and their viziers, but what a land cursed with almost no decent trees really needed was a reliable source of timber. There was one nearby: the cedars of Lebanon. The rulers of the Old Kingdom established trade with Byblos, a port on the Lebanese coast, and the fragrant wood was shipped to Egypt. In such a rigid, hierarchical society, an unexpected visitor like a comet would have been seen as a manifestation of the gods. The strength of the bureaucracy would have only increased: ordinary Egyptians would have felt even more certain of the power of the deities, says the Metropolitan Museum's Allen, and hence their earthly embodiment, the pharaoh.

Elsewhere in the ancient world, the power of the state, and the divinity of rulers, was a lot shakier. The Chinese had the most to worry about. The comet year fell just before the founding of the xia dynasty in 2205 B.C. At this time China was poised between the late Neolithic period - the Stone Age - and the early Bronze Age. It was a turbulent time. Warlords of small states fought each other incessantly: excavations have found well shafts from this period filled with bodies, apparently killed in conflict. Did the sight of the comet so unnerve the warlords that they were easy marks for Yu, the conqueror who a few years later swept through northern China, achieving the first legendary (though tenuous) unification of the civilization? Or did they simply look back on it, alter Yu the Great's juggernaut, and point to Hale-Bopp as the portent that forecast their fate?

Already China had a long tradition of skywatching. The 60-year calendar cycle, based on celestial observations, dates from about 2600 B.C. "Hale-Bopp's pass most certainly would have been noticed," says archeologist Robert Murowchick of Harvard. "Archeological evidence of astronomical knowledge during this late Neolithic period is rare, but astronomical events were certainly a concern of rulers of the Bronze Age. Events like eclipses were frequently seen as sign of coming disaster, and presumably comets would have inspired the same reaction."

That was particularly so because the Chinese viewed heavenly changes, such as phases of the moon, "as not just indicative of, but as the actual cause of terrestrial change" like seasons and storms, says China scholar David Pankenier of Lehigh University. For this reason Chinese astronomers labored mightily to make even rare events, such as eclipses, as predictable as sunrises. They were desperate to know what was in store for Earth. "But comets, unlike eclipses, were never domesticated," says Pankenier, "and thus would have been seen as awe-inspiring, even fearsome." Especially for a ruler. He was believed to derive his mandate from the heavens themselves. Unexpected celestial events were interpreted as warnings from above that a ruler had lost touch with the heavens, and thus his political legitimacy was in danger.

Urban revolution: The Akkadians of Mesopotamia, in what is now southern Iraq, had no need to crane their necks to look for portents. They found clues to the future in marks on the livers of slaughtered sheep, says Assyriologist Benjamin Foster of Yale University. The Akkadians practiced an early version of church-state separation in other ways, too. Far from considering their ruler a deity like the mother goddess Ishtar, they regarded any such assertion as blasphemy punishable by the wrath of the real gods. When King Naram-suen claimed divinity, the priests got their revenge by enshrining him in legend as the king whose forces were soundly defeated by rampaging mountain tribes.

At the time of Hale-Bopp, Mesopotamian villagers were surging into newly established cities like Akkad, in the world's first urban revolution. The rise of cities coincided with the mastery of metallurgy. Demand for rich bronze ornaments and durable weapons fostered the emergence of specialized, full-time craftsmen, as well as merchants to transport the requisite tin and copper from mines into the cities. They were the first middle class. They made Akkad an international trading post and turned its government policies to the service of moneymaking. A visiting Sumerian described the city as teeming with "monkeys, huge elephants, water buffaloes, beasts of faraway regions jostl[ing] each other in the broad avenues noble dogs, lions, mountain ibexes and sheep with long wool... Its harbor where the ships moored astonished and astounded." The rulers of Akkad-Shar-kall-sharri at the time of Hale-Bopp - were as obsessed as any Buchananite with free trade: they sent agents to police the caravan routes and prevent (literal) highway robbery. They also kept local potentates from erecting that rudimentary barrier to free trade known as a road toll.

In the Indus Valley of prehistoric Pakistan, the Harappan, too, were in the midst of an urban revolution. Their greatest city was Mohenjo-daro, built on artfficial mounds above flood line. (The calculations weren't perfect, however: the city was rebuilt at least nine times due to catastrophic inundations.) Unlike the urban centers of Egypt and Mesopotamia, this was a planned city: the main avenues (30 feet across) ran north-south, and east-west lanes (15 feet wide) intersected at perfect right angles. At these junctions stood little one-room structures, hinting at the presence of night watchmen. The city had bazaars, as well as artists' quarters where bead makers, cotton weavers, coppersmiths and other artisans peddled their wares. Potters' shops turned out red stoneware painted with black flower designs or geometric patterns. A great granary stored corn, evidence that a powerful government was able to demand agricultural surplus to redistribute to urban dwellers and pay civic employees.

Otherwise, archeologists know little about the Harappan rulers, except that they were not deffied potentates as in Egypt or hereditary royals as in Akkad. More likely, they were powerful priests. In such a society, even one with the engineering sophistication evident at Mohenjo-daro, the comet would have been seen as a warming, a sign of the heavens' displeasure. Did the caravans halt in their tracks, their drivers too frightened to continue, until the sky was restored to normal? Mcheologists have been excavating the city only since the 1950s, and the residents' religious beliefs remain pretty much a mystery. About all scholars know so far is that since no great temples have been found, people likely worshiped at private family altars. And there are hints that a proto-Hinduism was taking hold, with a male god similar to Shiva as the focus of worship.

At the time of the comet, Mohenjo-daro was just 200 years away from its peak of power, when it would have 40,000 residents. Neither ornate palaces nor sumptuous shrines graced the utilitarian city. Private houses - often with staircases and a thick ground floor to support a second story - were laid out around inner courtyards.

The chief concession to luxury was the Great Tank, or bathhouse. Fed by a well, the 39-foot-by-23-foot pool was surrounded by a colonnade and, beyond it on three sides, a series of small rooms. The pool was a marvel of engineering, kept water-tight by bricks set in mortar above layers of asphalt, mud brick, clay and more brick. The drain was wide enough - two feet across and eight feet high - for cleaners to work inside. The Great Tank was apparently for the public: across the street stood a two-story building with eight 9-foot-by-6-foot rooms, each with a bath and a drain. Archeologists suspect that these were the baths for priests, or at least for the country-club set, who preferred to bathe in private. The obsession with ritual ablutions also extended to private homes. Each had its own well; a toilet emptied through earthenware pipes into a drainage system that ran beneath every part of the city. From scattered brick manholes, sanitation workers cleaned the drains, leaving piles of debris for archeologists to mull over.

Mohenjo-daro, of course, is no more, and Mesopotamia has not been a dominant civilization for centuries. The Indus Valley empire began its decline about 1700 B.C. Egypt, soon after Hale-Bopp, fell into the chaos that would end only with the establishment of the New Kingdom in 2046 B.C. In Akkad the death of Shar-kall-sharri at the hands of his courtiers ushered in a period of infighting among four competitors for the throne. China rose, and Troy, a stop on the caravan routes across the Mediterranean, fell, consumed in a devastating fire. "A periodic comet like Hale-Bopp is a giant pendulum clock in the sky," says MIT's Lightman. "Every swing is not a few seconds, but many human civilizations rising and falling. This makes one aware of our brevity and smallness in the face of the cosmic." So, too, does it make one wonder whose eyes will behold Hale-Bopp the next time around, millenniums hence, and whether - and what - they will think of those of us who gazed up at it in our own ancient evenings.