Posted by d on December 17, 2002 at 21:00:54:
The recent discussion of the "azimuths of the Parthenon" naturally causes an effort to visualise how, in ancient times, such a temple was planned and sited.
From markings on the stones, we know that the ancient masons, and perhaps the architects, may have used the very materials of construction as drafting instruments.
The design process, then, may have been very different from that of today.
In the case of laying out a site for a proposed temple, the foundations, stereobates, etc, will have been required to face a given direction; as Vitruvius mentions, the “temple and the statue placed in the cella should face the Western sky”.
In this, he follows in the line of thought of (among others) the late dynastic Egyptians, who apparently (though this is much debated) used the sun to orient their tombs and temples; in predynastic and Old Kingdom monuments , by contrast, it is thought that orientation was as much or more given by the circumpolar , or “fixed” stars. of the northern sky.
It has been shown, in either case, that the orienting of the Great Pyramid is almost precisely to the cardinal directions , “ deviating by only a couple of arcminutes” as Martin Isler states, refering to the work of Petrie and Cole in his excellent recent book “Sticks, Stones and Shadows”. And the evidence shows that , so far as is known,
orientations in that epoch were acquired either by sun or star.
But to return to the present issue: how is it that the “ azimuths” of the Greek temple at Athens, which postdates the Great Pyramid by some two millennia and is considered an exemplar of refinement, are laid out with less precision than the Egyptian constructions, while in almost every other respect it is considered an apex of technical subtlety?
At this point, historians of science may recognise the shadowy presence of a “paradigm shift”; for it seems plausible that such an anomaly may be the herald of a change in technology.
I am not bold enough to state without reservation, what that technology might be.
Yet it seems intriguing that a certain Greek savant, Thales, who lived during the sixth century BCE, spent time studying a type of iron ore, which came from the town of Magnesia on the Aegean coast.
This ore, or “lodestone” , is apparently what we would call a “magnetic” ore today; and because we can assume that it was readily apparent that the metal sought a Northerly direction when fashioned into a floating or suspended compass, it seems likely that it was sometimes tried as a means of orienting architectural sites.
However, the “North” to which this technology points is not , in fact, identical with the pole of the Earth, and thus provides neither a perfect perpendicular azimuth to the directions provided by the sun’s shadow, nor a “North” identical with the pole stars; the difference in the axis of the Earth and that of the magnetic pole is something like 18 degrees.
An estimate of North laid out using a compass needle would deviate from true North by the “magnetic declination”, which varies from place to place, and from age to age.
If there are marked deviations from alignment with the cardinal points in the plinth of the Parthenon, then, it seems possible that they resulted from the mixing of a new, mysterious and yet slightly imperfect method of alignment with the older and established methods.
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