One of the “mysteries” of Easter Island is the question of how the large statues, called moai, were transported from the one quarry where they were made to their points of display upon the ceremonial platforms, or ahu, all around the island. This series has already explored some basics on: the physical nature of Rapa Nui (Easter Island); the ahu and moai; and the carving of moai in the Rano Raruku quarry. We turn now to the moving of moai.
How Easter Islanders could effectively move hundreds of huge monolithic creations without modern conveyance is a long-debated topic. Lacking metals when Europeans arrived, the Rapanui (native Easter Islanders) were a Stone Age culture—that is not a denigration, but the reality of isolated life in that remote volcanic place.
Data which made the original transport problem and proposed solutions more vexing: some 300 ahu are found all around the island, at distances up to nine miles from the Rana Raraku quarry. The largest moai transported to ahu were nearly 10 meters (almost 33 ft) tall and weighed around 75 metric (82 US) tons. The calculated “Statistically Average Moai” (dubbed SAM by Jo Ann Van Tilburg and her Easter Island Statue Project)1 is 4.05 m (13.2 ft) tall and weighs in at 12.5 metric (13.78 US) tons. Easter Island was devoid of trees of any significant size (for use as levers or rollers) when first seen by European explorers. There is no evidence the wheel was known or utilized by Rapanui in prehistory. They also did not have draft animals (nor any native land mammals at all).
To make it more interesting, the collected cultural memory (ethnography) is unanimous that the moai—imbued with the mana of the deceased ariki (chiefs) they represented—actually “walked” from the quarry to their ahu. All of this is fuel for the “Ancient Aliens” people and one does not have to look far online to find extraterrestrial origin theories for the moai. But such theories only develop and take root because of a widespread assumption: that ancient people lacked the capacity to solve problems we find daunting. Our inability, from a modern perspective, to conceive of working solutions for ancient problems encourages a disbelief which, coupled with cultural elitism, is a recipe for latent racism in which “primitive” becomes “savage” or even worse.
One part of the transport solution has been known since 1914, when Katherine Routledge recognized the traces of several tracks radiating from Rano Raraku quarry and deduced they were for moai. Indeed, excavation has confirmed they were built as roads with a standard surface design. Moai can be found lying about along those paths, apparently abandoned when they broke—or fell—during transport.
Several “experimental archaeology” efforts have attempted to show how the moai were moved.2 Some of these have assumed the statues were transported horizontally—laying down—with both supine (face up) and prone (face down) positions posited. But abandoned statues lie (none were found standing) along the moai roads in both prone and supine positions. Further, many moai on roads are not broken, suggesting they were abandoned because they fell from a vertical position during transport.
The most recent, and in my mind most convincing, reconstruction of moai transport on Easter Island proposes a system not requiring huge amounts of timber, manageable by a relatively small number of workers, and even satisfies the oral tradition of “walking” moai.3 Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo noted that moai have a low center of gravity, a significant forward lean (in examples at the quarry or in transport), appear to be slimmed down in the final finishing at their ahu, and have a D-shaped footprint with the straight side at the back. Based on this they proposed a system of rocking and stabilization by three teams pulling on ropes attached to the head or neck of the moai.
Rocking to one side on the D-shaped base will cause the opposite side to pivot forward. The low center of gravity and guy-ropes held from behind keep the statute from falling over. When it rocks back past vertical in the opposite direction, the moai will pivot forward on the other side. In this way, the statue can be “walked” forward with coordinated rather than brute effort. See the results (preceded by a review of other theories) in this clever National Geographic video.
While the word moai is combined in the names of certain wooden statues—notably the emaciated male figures called moai kavakava—term used alone applies particularly to the monolithic statues of Easter Island. “Monolithic” means consisting of a single stone and in archaeological contexts usually implies significant size.
Dating of megalithic monuments is fraught with difficulty, but it seems that the moai were carved, moved, and installed on ahu over a lengthy period sometime between 1100 and 1680 (a generation before the arrival of Europeans). Most researchers posit a somewhat shorter range within those extreme dates.2 While the most famous statues appear nearly identical in widely circulated pictures, there is a clear development of moai style and size over the period of their construction. Old moai reused as fill in later ahu construction or expansion demonstrate as much.
Volcanic rock—the only stone available on Easter—comes in many forms with varying qualities. A few statues are made from hard basalt (hard, fine-grained lava) or red scoria (dense, highly pitted lava) stone, but the vast majority of moai (and all that clearly stood on ahu) were carved from tuff. Tuff is compacted and consolodated volcanic ash. It is usually easily carved but the surface hardens with exposure to air. An excellent source of pinkish-gray tuff is found in and around the rim of the crater called Rano Raraku. The quarry there is the very near exclusive source of moai associated with ahu on Easter Island, and nearly half of known and cataloged moai are still found at Rano Raraku. This can be seen by the concentration of red moai symbols in my map:3
Rano Raraku is the “place with all the heads” and the source of most recognizable photos of moai. This is because hundreds of statues were created there and still awaited transport for placement on ahu when that whole process ceased (a “mystery” to be covered in a subsequent post). Moai left in upright positions in pits were gradually buried by erosion to various heights, most often with only the head exposed. The effect today is that of an abandoned sales lot, like some bizarre version of those concrete statue places found outside cities in seemingly every part of the world today—and oddly similar to a statue “factory” about which I have posted in Turkey.
But Rano Raraku features moai in every stage of completion, from just laid out, to shaped but not separated from the rock, to standing and awaiting final details, and ready for transport. Statues were carved in a horizontal position and mostly completed while still attached to the natural rock by a backbone ridge.
The connecting ridge was broken away and the freed moai slid downhill into a pit wherein it would stand vertical for finishing and details. Unfinished and finished examples stand adjacent in this pic:
And also in this view of the same statues from the other side:
The most impressive unfinished moai is also the largest ever attempted, at 21 meters (69 ft) tall, over twice the height of the tallest one ever erected on an ahu. It would have weighed about 250 metric tons (275 US tons) if completed!
That this giant could be successfully moved for display is reasonably doubted. Still, the largest moai ever successfully installed on an ahu stood 10 meters (about 32 ft) and weighed 74 metric tons (about 82 US tons)! As this was no small feat, transport of these these behemoths is another “mystery” of Easter Island, to which we’ll turn in the next post.
Thanks for looking!
1Yes, you should. Your reward for looking at the footnotes: moai jokes.
Fulfilling a promise in my first post of this series, this bit takes up the well-known “heads”—more accurately, statues—of Easter Island. Properly called moai, they are the iconic images of the island, recognized my almost everyone, but generally without context.
The moai were indeed made as nearly full statues, complete with torsos but no legs. Nearly 1,000 examples are known on the 164 square-kilometer island. The famous images everyone recognizes of the “heads” are the better-preserved and more photogenic examples that remained upright in the quarry where they were produced. These were buried by scree and soil to various levels and present an eerie scene. Some 397 moai remain in the Rano Raraku quarry where almost all moai were carved. The map below shows the concentration of known moai in and around the quarry.
Moai were made for display on large megalithic platforms called ahu.1Ahu were constructed for ritual/ceremonial use and are similar to religious platforms on other Polynesian islands, the most familiar examples being the heiau of Hawai’i. Easter Island is literally ringed by over 300 ahu along its rocky coast, about half of those once featuring moai.
Today, a number of ahu are restored with their toppled moai re-erected. Modern cranes were used for the restorations, which naturally begs the question of how the prehistoric period Rapanui (natives of the island) managed to do it. Thus we have one of the so-called “mysteries” of Easter Island. Another is how they were moved (as much as 9 miles). More on these things later, but . . . << SPOILER ALERT >> . . . it was not Ancient Aliens!
While the focus for observers is naturally the moai, the ahu themselves were impressive undertakings involving moving hundreds of tons of volcanic rock. Many “image ahu” (the ones with moai) featured “wings” extending the platform area significantly beyond the statues (perhaps for rituals displaced by the moai?).
One more quick fact: the moai are often erroneously said to be looking out to sea. In fact, on coastal ahu they always look inland; embodying the mana (divine power) of deceased chiefs as sentinels over the adjacent settlements. One of the most photographed ahu and moai is at Tahai, on the edge of Hanga Roa, the lone town on Rapa Nui:
Are those eyes and a headdress? In a future installment, we’ll look at details and embellishments of moai . . . , but next in Part 3: how were they made?
Most folks have heard of Easter Island; but when it is mentioned have to think for a moment and then remember something like: “oh; that is the place with all the stone heads.” That’s it—sort of.
There is much more to the island than the heads—and the “heads” are really statues with full torsos (only the legs are not depicted). More about the statues, properly called moai, and other island wonders in a later post. For now, a couple of notes about the island itself and its situation . . .
Easter Island is so-called because it was “discovered” on Easter Sunday, 5 April 1722, by a Dutch expedition of three ships commanded by Jacob Roggeveen. The Dutch were looking for the legendary Terra Australis which had appeared on maps since antiquity.1
While its small size (a rough triangle of 16, 18, and 22 km; see map below) eliminates it as the fabled lost continent, Easter was (and is) an exceedingly hard to find place without modern navigational aids. Sometimes touted as “the most remote place on Earth,” it is actually the third-most remote-from-other-human-settlements permanently-inhabited island (but just barely).2 Easter Island lies in the South Pacific some 2,112 km (1,312 mi) east of Pitcairn Island (where mutineers of the HMS Bounty settled) and 3,680 km (2,287 mi) west of South America (see map inset).
Easter Island was formed by three volcanoes; in order of appearance: Poike, Rano Kau, and Maunga Terevaka, the last creating the most recent lava flows that bound the three pieces together. There is no coral reef, so the coastline (which ) consists of rocky shores and cliffs all around excepting one sandy beach at Anakena.
Its remoteness, lack of resources, and relatively poor fishing made it a marginal place for human habitation. Yet, when the Dutch and subsequent European explorers arrived, they found a native Polynesian population and impressive constructions. As Easter is the easternmost island of Polynesia, they seem to have arrived by a voyage of discovery and settlement from the west (exactly where is a subject of great debate). Their megalithic monuments, moai, and their apparent downfall impressed European visitors and fueled speculations about various “mysteries” (I’ll get to those in later posts).
About the name . . . Easter Island is obviously a European-imposed designation. What did the natives call it? Ethnological collections do not preserve a prehistoric (before European contact) name. But one was born during one of the most terrible periods in the island’s history. In the 1860s Blackbirders (really just slavers) kidnapped many natives from Easter and other Polynesian islands to work in guano mines and as house servants in Peru. A cheif’s son was taken but then freed on a subsequent stop at the island of Rapa, when natives there seized and liberated the ship. In comparing geographies of their islands, the young future leader realized that his home was a more appropriate Rapa, meaning “extremity,” than Rapa itself and coined the name Rapa Nui, “Greater Extremity” (Rapa is thus sometimes now called Rapa Iti, or “Lesser Extremity”). The name Rapa Nui is used for the island itself today, while the combined form Rapanui designates the indigenous people group and their language.3
The name Rapa Nui was somewhat incomprehensible to a people who spoke a different form of the language and formerly knew of no other landmass, so it was apparently translated into the language of Easter Island as Te Pito ‘o te Henua, the name given to later ethnographers (in the 19th and 20th centuries). The phrase has been translated “The Navel of the World.” It is a poignant expression of the Rapanui perspective in which they could see, from Maunga Terevaka, their island in its entirety and nothing else but ocean to the horizon in every direction.4
But Te Pito ‘o Henua can also be translated “The End of the World.” As it happens, that is an eerie summary of recent interpretations of Rapa Nui’s tragic history, which posit it as a preview and warning to all inhabitants of the World.
*It has been an even two seasons since my last post, so it is time to get back into the habit.
1Terra Australis (sometimes Terra Australis Incognita, “unknown land of the south”) was an assumed undiscovered southern continent based in large part on the logic of even land-mass distribution between the hemispheres—and would be an interesting topic in its own right.
2Tristan da Cunha is the most remote at 2,400 km (1,500 mi) from both St. Helena and Africa; while St. Helena is 1,950 km (1,210 mi) from Africa. Given that Easter’s nearest neighboring populated place, Pitcairn Island, has only 50-60 inhabitants, an algorithm incorporating distance to quantity of population would rank Easter more “remote.”
Shaken, and also Stirred: Recollections of the Mexico City Earthquake (of 1985)
Exactly 32 years ago (according to the Gregorian Calendar convention as I write this) I was preparing to fly into Mexico City after the major earthquake there (19 September 1985). Like most Americans, I was horrified by the destruction and dismayed by the suffering displayed on our television screens in the aftermath of the 8.1 magnitude temblor. But what could I do? At the time, I was a PhD student and of limited resources. My friend Brad Gray, a fellow student who had grown up as a missionary kid in Mexico City, suddenly asked me if I would like to go down and help with disaster relief. His father was then Partnership Missions director for the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT). Brad, an excellent organizer with local knowledge and fluent Spanish, would be on the ground helping direct the effort by an organization within the BGCT called “Texas Baptist Men.” When I protested that I didn’t speak Spanish and had no real connection with the group or special skill, he replied, “we’ll find you a job; come on!” So, I agreed to what would be a life-changing experience.
The Mexico earthquake this week—on the very day of the 32-year anniversary of the 1985 event—has triggered memories of the earlier event. I hope, dear reader, you will indulge my reminiscences in this post.
I was not a “first responder” (I use quotes because that term was not used then), nor was I to be involved in the dramatic work of searching for survivors or victims. The Texas Baptist Men had developed a disaster relief team and equipment, including a fully self-sustained kitchen built into an 18-wheeler setup that was ready to go and provide thousands of meals a day. Similar rigs prepared and operated by the Baptist Men organizations in several other states were going down as well. This was a mission to provide food for displaced survivors, coordinating the effort through the Baptist Convention of Mexico.
The several mobile kitchen rigs arrived and set up in various high-need locations around Mexico City. The Texas unit was established in a soccer field in the barrio called Tepito, a place known then (and still, apparently) for being somewhat lawless. It was a poor neighborhood in which the quake destroyed a great many old buildings, displacing a large percentage of the residents.
With all the states’ Baptist Men Disaster Relief units set up in similar locations, but widely dispersed, the main problem would be logistics. By this time, a few days after the earthquake, international aid had flowed into the city in the form of basic food supplies, but it and other staples were in government warehouses. The Mexican government (primarily the Social Protective Services) authorized distribution of supplies to the kitchen units, but they would have to be picked up from the warehouses. A 1.5-ton box-van brought by the Texas Baptist Men was suitable for the job, but no one in their crew was confident about driving it into parts unknown with little information, no real directions, damaged infrastructure, and no communications. Just then, a 28-year-old PhD student with an underdeveloped sense of caution arrived with no other assigned job.
Brad gave me keys to the box-van and the task of fetching basic food stuffs from far-flung warehouses and delivering the same to four mobile kitchens buried in the chaos of a wreaked major city. With a few pesos I obtained a couple of city maps—there were no GPS helps in those days and no cell phones. Communications between the kitchen units and the hotel base were not a problem, as virtually all of the involved laymen were ham radio operators and each kitchen unit had its own radio setup. This did not help me, however, while on the road. My lack of Spanish was also still a concern, but within hours Brad got a fellow missionary kid down from Texas to be a translator.
The aid team was billeted in a local hotel that had survived relatively unscathed. They even had a functioning kitchen and produced a huge pot of huevos rancheros every morning. They were fantastic and still today I think of them most days as I make my own version. The daily routine after breakfast was to get my assignment, consisting of what supplies to get at which government warehouse, and to which kitchen units to deliver them. Another assignment was often waiting when I made delivery.
Driving through the city I was struck with the odd juxtaposition of devastation and normal life. Parts of the city were demolished and other parts were visibly unaffected. Tent cities of displaced persons could be seen with businessmen in suits walking by on the way to their offices. Life goes on; normally for some, and profoundly differently for others.
The warehouses were all over the place and I would navigate there using my trusty maps (I still have them). In most cases, I was obliged to go to a government office for approval from some bureaucrat, where I was invariably told, “you may get the [so-and-so] in [so-many] hours.” Awkward sitting around in a stark office with no activity followed—which I finally concluded must have been an encouragement to offer some incentive for quicker service. Not having any significant cash with which to provide such incentive, I learned it was best to say (through my translator and new friend Greg), “we’ll be back then.” Not wanting to waste gas, we might jump on the subway and grab some food or explore. In one case, I determined there was an archaeological site of interest nearby, so I managed a quick visit (possibly soon the subject of a “You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour” post).
The delay in signing approval forms was decidedly not to arrange labor to help load. It was usually just the guy with the key, Greg, and me who would stack the supplies in the box-van. We loaded thousands of pounds of sacked corn and rice (I don’t remember beans) and the like. The most memorable loads were weiners and chickens. They came from meat-processing plants. For the weiners, we drove into a “refrigerated” building (it was merely not too hot) and past hundreds of hog carcasses hanging on hooks (a macabre sight stuck in my head to this day) to a room-sized locker. It was filled with linked weiners—all unboxed. We simply coiled them on the metal floor of the van.
One morning I was instructed to pick up 1,000 pounds of chicken from a certain warehouse. After the usual formalities, we arrived at a locker similar to the weiner room. I was naïvely expecting packaged cut-up pieces like breasts and thighs. When the door was opened, thousands of plucked chickens tumbled out and onto the floor. Slightly troubled, we casually tossed them individually into the back of the van in a great pile. I vividly remember making the delivery (to the Louisiana Baptist Men site?) because when we opened the back of the truck, the local ladies that were recruited to cook began yelling excitedly, “Pollo! Pollo! Pollo!” and joyously hauled them off to the giant pots. What I had subconsciously rejected for my own consumption was a major blessing to those in need.
Driving in power-deprived Mexico City was a trip (in the 70s sense of that term). I learned that even functional traffic lights were routinely ignored and that fortune (as well as actual movement) favors the bold. Also, the larger and more beat-up vehicle had the right-of-way in this system, so the old Chevy box-van was a winner! The only things that didn’t yield to me were garbage trucks, dump trucks, and city busses. Getting to the kitchen sites was a bit of a challenge. Roads were closed, choked with piles of debris, or incredibly narrow in the barrios where the rigs were positioned. In one case, access was only through an alley that was a half a centimeter too narrow. Both ends of the rear step/bumper scraped with a horrible din on the stone curbing for several hundred feet, to the alarm of the neighborhood adults and great amusement of their kids. Veterans of my Study Travel and Excavation Program adventures may correctly conclude that Mexico City in 1985 profoundly shaped my driving tendencies.
Without resorting to clichés, I find it difficult to verbalize exactly how this experience was “life-changing,” as I noted in the first paragraph. I credit it with giving me confidence in strange and foreign situations, and in finding my place of service to others—which often seems to be in the weird peripheral or transitional areas. But the impact of my experience was not so much about me as about the chance to observe and process.
My observations and some random thoughts (in no particular order):
I find it difficult to take pictures of people under duress (thus there are no dramatic pics here).
Life goes on. I did take a picture of a man in a business suit walking to his office past a destroyed building and across the street from a tent encampment [unfortunately, I didn’t load that picture to post from my current whereabouts]. It was a striking (to me) juxtaposition.
Life can be crappy in its continuation. You and I (and all people) must decide if we will try to make it less crappy for those we can help.
I am not convinced that a selfless desire to help others is completely inherent. I rather think we must be shaken by events and be stirred to to the point of that decision.
True Religion is helping those that do not have the means to help themselves, and true mission activity is found in genuinely providing aid rather than mere words (I strongly recommend reading James 2).
Having experienced (I can’t think of a better word) the total eclipse on Monday (21 August 2017), I have a couple of random thoughts; both semi-relevant to my previous post, “Can a Total Eclipse Bring World Peace?“, and somewhat unrelated to it.
Totality is far more impactful and more awesome than a partial eclipse. Even a very small percentage of the sun provides an impressive amount of light, and the sudden darkening when totality occurs is startling—even when it is expected, and far more when it is not. The time of totality varies with location and event, but the limits are always about right to: elicit confusion, cause people to look at the amazing corona effect, and then pass before one can adjust to the phenomenon. Animals react too. In our case, roosters crowed with the reappearance of the sunlight and dogs howled throughout. Awesome is a good word for the experience; and humans cannot help but turn to one another and experience some sense of unity as the darkness (ironically) spotlights our insignificance, compared to the enormity of creation—no matter whether they attribute it to God, gods, demiurges, or “nature.” Therefore, admittedly because of my experience . . .
I am more of a “believer” that an eclipse lies behind Herodotus’ story about the battle between the Lydians and Medes that was halted when “daylight suddenly turned to darkness” (Herodotus 1.74). We met some interesting people and, despite the current divisiveness in this country, never considered categorizing them on the basis of gender, gender preference, religion, ethnicity, or political party. We were just humans in awe and wonder together.
The trouble of driving to the totality zone was worth it. It was actually more trouble getting back due to the traffic, which brings me to . . .
Americans, as a rule, don’t know how to drive on crowded four-lane roads. The left lane is for passing . . . only. This observation appears valid for all gender, gender preference, religion, ethnicity, and political affiliation categories.
Even excessive hype could not kill the wonder of the total eclipse. There was plenty of hype, but I will gripe about one thing only: several organizations and individuals put forth suggested playlists of “eclipse” songs. They were all lame. Most were chosen because the words “eclipse,” “moon,” “darkness,” or “sun” appear in the title or prominently in the lyrics. The resulting cacophony of competing styles could not set a mood, and most were simply not appropriate. I know I am possibly being a killjoy here, but . . . “Dancing in the Moonlight?” Really? There is no moonlight before, during, or after an eclipse. More ranting is tempting, but I will rather offer my own playlist . . .
[there is no number 6]
My eclipse playlist: Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon. That’s it. Nothing else. Dark Side of the Moon was practically written for a total solar eclipse soundtrack. As a concept album it also has a connectedness in theme and tone. “Speak to Me” and “Breathe” (tracks 1 and 2) are weird but a great mood-setting intro. “Time” (track 4) is just fantastic, with applicable lyrics for sun-watching to boot. It segues into my favorite, “Great Gig in the Sky” (track 5), which has an appropriate name and awesome “feel” for the event (though the song is apparently about dying). “Money” doesn’t work for the eclipse, so it should be skipped. But “Us and Them” (track 6) highlights human division and war, and therefore plugs into my interest in the battle reported by Herodotus; especially with the line “It’s not what we would choose to do.” The album concludes with the track (9) “Eclipse,” with its progressing lyrics and conclusion, packaged in the average amount of time of a totality experience, is the perfect ending. So there you go—an opinion from a child of the 60s and 70s.
Total eclipses have no impact on lottery tickets. A few minutes after totality, my non-male (and for whom the whole outdoors is not a toilet) companions needed to visit the first gas station/convenience store we saw. I bought a PowerBall ticket there and the astral prodigy just observed nearby apparently did not help my odds.
I need to post my first “You Don’t Get this on the Bus Tour” blog. It is coming soon (this weekend?) and, inspired by the eclipse experience, will feature a place with an astronomical theme [EDIT: that turned out not to be true, but that place will be featured in the future].
Sabre-rattling between powerful enemies. Middle eastern conflict creating refugees. Ethnic strife. Violent retaliation by the marginalized. Senseless murder of innocent persons. Tensions between nations over harboring of terrorists. Bombastic leaders bent on conflict. And, no doubt, a population hopeful for divine intervention or some sign from heaven. Enter a total eclipse.
No; this is not some kooky end-of-the-world prediction or new age hope based on the total eclipse of the sun eagerly awaited by many this Monday, 21 August 2017. The above paragraph actually describes a situation in the mid sixth-century BC, in which a total eclipse did bring about peace—or so we are told.
Our source on this unusual event is Herodotus—the 5th century BC writer sometimes referred to as the “Father of History.” As a background for later events, he relates the following account from the early-6th century BC (paraphrased here).
Certain nomadic Scythians (from central or eastern Anatolia/Turkey) were displaced by local conflict and became refugees in the kingdom of the Medes (in northwestern Iran). The Scythians were well-treated by the great Median king Cyaxeres, who charged them with teaching their language and bow skills to a group of youths. On one occasion, Cyaxeres berated the Scythians for having returned from a hunt empty-handed and thus severely offended them. The latter responded by killing one of the youths and secretly preparing his flesh as a meat dish presented for the king and his guests. As the Medians ate the dish and learned the horrible truth, the Scythians fled for safety to Sardis, the capital of the kingdom of Lydia in west and central Anatolia. The Lydian King Alyattes refused Cyaxeres’ demands that the refugees be extradited, and war broke out between the kingdoms. After five years of indecisive warfare with some battles won by each, the Lydians and Medians squared off again. After the battle was engaged, the “daylight suddenly turned into night” and both sides suddenly became motivated to end the conflict. Peace was formally concluded under the mediation efforts of the kings of Cilicia and Babylon with Aryenis, daughter of Alyattes wed to Astyages, son of Cyaxeres, to seal the pact (Herodotus 1.73-74). Herodotus adds that these nations have “the same form of oath as the Greeks, but for additional confirmation they make a shallow cut in their arms and lick each other’s blood” (1.74). Truly a lost bit of civil diplomacy, perhaps needed in our modern world!
Herodotus surely implies a solar eclipse as the means by which “daylight suddenly turned into night.” He further comments that the philosopher Thales of Miletus had predicted the event (1.74). Scholars have long observed that the only significant solar eclipse that appeared near potential battle sites in the possible chronological window occurred on 28 May 585 BC. Thus, the battle probably occurred on that date and, presuming the reliability of Herodotus, a solar eclipse led to the cessation of hostilities and a lasting peace between bellicose nations. We should be so lucky today.
Of course, the ancients had the wonder and “advantage” in seeing their eclipse as some celestial omen, whereas we know in advance the exact time, place, path, and duration of the event Monday, 21 August 2017. Consequently, we also know the cause and do not (except for fringe elements) connect it with divine displeasure or warning. Nevertheless, I will note that the precise predictability of modern eclipses attests to the accuracy and reliability of scientific measurement. And that fact strongly suggests that we should heed data based warnings on things like climate change and environmental damage caused by human activity.
Extra Stuff for the Nerdily Interested, part 1: Eclipse Predictability and the Role of Thales
But, it is reasonable to question whether Thales’ prediction of the event might/should have lessened its impact on the warring nations of 585 BC. As it happens, however, there is serious doubt by scholarship that Thales made such a prediction.
To be (somewhat) brief, it is fairly certain that Thales could not have been aware of the Saros Cycle, a period of 223 lunar months that was known to late Chaldean/Neo-Babylonian astronomers to predict lunar eclipses—and also relevant for solar eclipses. But, while lunar eclipses are visible throughout the night sky on occurrence, solar eclipses are location specific. Thus, solar eclipses one saros apart occur some 8 hours later and the visible path is therefore 120 degrees to the west—i.e., one third of the way around the globe! So, even if Thales knew the Saros Cycle he could not have known the appropriate previous solar eclipses or their location for calculation. Much more useful for predicting local solar eclipses is the Exeligmos Cycle of 54 years, 33 days, or 3 saroi, in length. The three saroi (each saros moving the center of the eclipse 120 degrees west) in a exeligmos bring the center of an eclipse all the way around the earth to the same approximate longitude. We now have evidence that the Greeks learned the Exeligmos Cycle by the beginning of the first century BC; but, alas, almost 500 years after Thales. This evidence comes from the long-enigmatic Antikythera mechanism. This device, a “computer” discovered in ancient shipwreck debris in 1902 and dated to the beginning of the first century BC, is now digitally reconstructed using high-tech scans of the oxidized remains. At least 30 connected bronze gears within the device rotated in clock-like movement to calculate celestial and calendrical phenomena, including lunar and solar eclipses (it deserves a post of its own, but Wikipedia has a good and well-cited article on it).
Returning to Thales; there is no evidence that he or anyone else in the sixth century BC had the knowledge of the above cycles to accurately predict an eclipse. This has created a long and vigorous scholarly debate.1 “Scholarly debates,” it should be noted, often last for years [or, saroi or exeligmoi!] as painstaking research is published in various articles. This case reminds me of many such debates on biblical issues, with deconstructionists refuting all elements of the story and believers searching for ways to preserve it.
In one parallel to biblical debates, there is some question as to the exact text and meaning of Herodotus’ report. The easiest reading asserts that Thales predicted only the year in which the eclipse occurred, but not the specific day or even month. It is something of an all or nothing issue: knowledge of the Saros or Exeligmos cycles would make precision prediction as easy as the year—given accurate earlier observational data. The assumption that Thales could have been privy to theorized Babylonian records was convincingly refuted. But there have been other attempts to preserve faith in Thales. One such scheme theorizes that local records of observed eclipses were kept at Miletus (Thales’ home) and that record by coincidence suggested eclipses occurred in sets of three with a consistent pattern of lunations between the three. This local pattern, while untrue as a rule, led Thales to predict the 28 March 585 BC as a coincidence.2 An older variation of this theory, using slightly different presumed observations, holds that Thales was led to predict the eclipse of 18 May 584 BC, but in more general terms. The 28 May 585 BC, it is supposed, would have surprised Thales as too early, but impressed others as a correct prediction.3 Whether Thales lucked out by using a fortuitous but false cycle, or stumbled into the acclaim by an earlier-than-expected fulfillment, or didn’t make a prediction at all, he was acclaimed for his astronomical knowledge by contemporary and other pre-Socratic philosophers, according to Diogenes Laertius (Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 1.1).
Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD, affirms that Thales predicted a solar eclipse in the 4th year of the 48th Olympiad (Natural History 2.53), which corresponds to 585/4 BC. The convergence of Pliny’s date for the event and the known full solar eclipse across Anatolia at the time convince most scholars that the battle occurred as described on 28 May 585 BC, regardless of their position on Thales’ role.
Extra Stuff for the Nerdily Interested, part 2: Issues with the Battle
Currently a plethora of web pages offer information on the looming solar eclipse. In my opinion, the best and most trustworthy is the one by NASA . Even better for planning and historical research is NASA’s permanent database of eclipse information, developed at Goddard Space Flight Center and available here: https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/. I am rather proud when a former employer does something really well, and this is a spectacular resource.
NASA’s online version of Five Millennium Catalog of Solar Eclipses yields Google Map tracks of the totality path and clickable time data for every eclipse from “-1999” to “+3000,” including the 28 May 585 BC event of interest. One difficulty arises out of the time data from the eclipse: it occurred very late in the day, with the end of the eclipse path ending in Mesopotamia at sundown. Herodotus’ account is read by some to indicate that the armies had just engaged when “daylight turned into night.” They thus reject the story on the basis that armies would only engage earlier in the day with plenty of daylight remaining.4 I am not convinced Herodotus intended to limit the timing in this way.
[NOTE: as of this writing, NASA informs me that they “had to redirect the site eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov to eclipse2017.nasa.gov because server constraints. Most of its content can be found at the primary author’s personal site, www.eclipsewise.com.” Presumably, the redirect will be lifted after the eclipse mania is over on 22 August 2017.]
As can be seen from the above map, the 28 May 585 BC area of totality covered a significant portion of Anatolia (Asia Minor; modern Turkey), where the Lydo-Median conflict certainly occurred. Anywhere in the region the eclipse would have been dramatic, but only a significant westward Median penetration into Anatolia—doubted by some scholars—could put the battle in the path of totality. This now seems less a problem with the recent potential identification of the Median outpost Pteria deep in the heart of old Hittite territory in north central Anatolia.5 The Iron Age site—at Kerkenes—is huge, but difficult to access . . . and clearly calling me to visit it! If I manage that, I will post about it here in my intended series on weird, significant, ultra-remote, or forgotten places: “You Don’t Get This On the Bus Tour.”
As for Alyattes versus Cyaxeres, Thales, and the eclipse that stopped a war—and to return to my biblical studies analogy above—I remain a “believer.” In part, I will claim, because the deconstructionist efforts have not convinced me; but in part, I will confess, because it is just more interesting that way. I am intrigued nevertheless, and will continue to study and research, and keep my belief honest. Perhaps to stretch my analogy (and move the bar from “belief” up to “faith”); faith makes life worth living, and thoughtful investigation makes faith worth having.
So (whether this is a logical conclusion of these ramblings or not); I will go to observe the total eclipse Monday with excitement and wonder . . . and I will hope for the best in our seemingly crazy world.
1 See, as a recent and representative overview, Miguel Querejeta, “On the Eclipse of Thales, Cycles and Probabilities,” Culture And Cosmos 15.1 (Spring/Summer 2011): 5–16.
2 Dirk L. Couprie, “How Thales was able to ‘Predict’ a Solar Eclipse without the Help of Alleged Mesopotamian Wisdom,” Early Science and Medicine 9.4 (2004): 321-37.
3 Willy Hartner, “Eclipse Periods and Thales’ Prediction of a Solar Eclipse: Historic Truth and Modern Myth,” Centaurus 14 (1969): 60–71.
4 Alden A. Mosshammer, “Thales’ Eclipse,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 111 (1981): 145-155
5 Christian Marek, In the Land of a Thousand Gods (Princeton: University Press, 2016), 113.