|| science ||
comet flew through ancient evenings
Sharon Begley and Ted Gideonse
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
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
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.