Multispectral Imaging Shows Erased Evidence Of Ancient Star Catalogue

Ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus worked to accurately catalog and record the coordinates of celestial objects. But while Hipparchus’ Star Catalogue is known to have existed, the document itself is lost to history. Even so, new evidence has come to light thanks to patient work and multispectral imaging.

Hipparchus’ Star Catalogue is the earliest known attempt to record the positions of celestial bodies (predating Claudius Ptolemy’s work in the second century, which scholars believe was probably substantially based on Hipparchus) but direct evidence of the document is slim.

That is somewhat less true after it was discovered that the coordinates of Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown) appeared to be hidden within some ancient documents. This led to further investigations, which yielded a translated passage, some of the strongest evidence yet of Hipparchus’ lost work. It describes the Corona Borealis and gives coordinates accurate within one degree; considerably more precise than Ptolemy’s calculations. A remarkable achievement for a second-century scholar, considering that the telescope would not be invented for another 1500 years or so.

How was this information uncovered? Multispectral imaging of a palimpsest manuscript (a parchment erased of writing, then re-used) revealed the earlier markings, followed by reconstruction and translation. In 2012 an undergraduate student named Jamie Klair first noticed the astronomical nature of of the undertext present in some pages of the ancient Greek palimpsest known as the Codex Climaci Rescriptus. Peter Williams, a biblical scholar at Cambridge University, later noticed it contained the astronomical measurements of the Corona Borealis in 2021, which led to the discoveries.

Hipparchus’ Star Catalogue is far from having been rediscovered, but this is the most direct evidence yet of an important piece of science history from the ancient Greeks; much like the marvelous device known as the Antikythera mechanism.

42 thoughts on “Multispectral Imaging Shows Erased Evidence Of Ancient Star Catalogue

    1. Not really. Paper was somewhat troublesome and expensive to manufacture in ancient days and was frequently repurposed when the immediate information needs from the original document had expired.

      Depending on the nature of the document, it may have even originally been a student’s “practice pad” from a scriptorium, which were definitely and frequently reused while the students mastered the art of writing down what they heard. That’s what passes for photocopying in “ye Dayes of Olde.”

        1. I’d think Andrew was just being funny… ~4 years ago.

          After 2020 science denialism/conspiracy theory jokes are right up there with suicide or rape ones. Come back after growing up Andrew.

          1. Or you could learn some tolerance and not start judging people for making a joke?

            With the amount of reuse paper got, I wonder what other insights would be gleaned if multispectral imaging was standard practice for all manuscript study.

          2. “Or you could learn some tolerance and not start judging people for making a joke?”

            Yah no.

            There are WAY too many people out there actually believing that stuff to tolerate the joke. And they are causing real damage to both our school systems and public health. That’s intolerable.

      1. How is anyone supposed to know the difference within Andrew’s posts.

        FSM damn it – this hasn’t changed at all in the last >25 years:
        Text-only conversations need other cues (like smileys for example) to express the stuff that is conveyed per default in persone-2-person verbal communication (intonation, tone, (facial)expression, etc) but impossible to convey in text-only (when using just the same text).

        Read Andrew’s post and take it word for word. If his intention was to make a joke he failed miserably.

        1. There is a supreme court amicus brief I might direct interested individuals to:

          It’s a bit dry, but it offers some insight on interpreting communication in various formats of presentation. It may even offer tools of interpretation for text-only communication for readers seeking novel application of the content therein.

        2. Andrew succeeded brilliantly. The notion that there is a Big Astronomy conspiracy is sufficiently absurd I am somewhat surprised that there is anyone at a tech oriented website who didn’t instantly chuckle.

          Well played, Andrew

        3. I understand getting whooshed by the joke–it happens to everybody, from time to time. What’s blowing my mind is the people getting indignant like it’s Andrew’s fault they got whooshed.

          Take the L and move on, holy shit.

  1. The above image is before processing it. In the paper ( there is the processed version of the above image, Greek-readable, , writing “Corona Borealis, lying in the northern hemisphere, in length spans 9°¼ from the first degree of Scorpius to 10°¼8 in the same zodiacal sign …”

  2. yawn.
    Another “Greeks invented everything.”
    Why is it always the Greeks?
    Why were they so damn inventive and hogging up all the discoveries?
    —“Hipparchus! Tend to your olive pressing and stop looking at the heavens!”

    1. Partially its survivor bias of the information. Thats the earliest civilization that we still have regular ties to, know where many of the settlements were, that writing existed AND existed in forms and places that lent to it surviving. AND succeeding empires like the Roman and beyond held a cultural fascination that led to the information being passed on thoroughly enough to keep many religious and cultural ‘revolutions’ (as in book burnings) from destroying it in the mean time.

    2. Nope IT was Not allways the greek, thats only your Western View of the world, or should i say how you have written the History books in yout Part of the world. Actually one of the oldest cultures Developed in the todays Iran area which influenced India and from there China. These cultures developted knowledge and the Western cultures simply Copy them. Look at the Gutenberg Book Press, movable Letters was invented by the Chinese. And also the greek did knowledge Exchange. They also Copy or write knowlede and inventions in their own language. Look at the church they Copy Most of the islamic sciences into latin and said “we invented this”. Also they steal knowledge fromm older Woman which are used to know about her als, the church call them whitch, burn Them and Look today man’s churches have still herbal gardens, but IT IS Stolen knowledge.

      1. “Actually one of the oldest cultures Developed in the todays Iran area which influenced India and from there China.”

        Imagine if someone invented the airplane back in ancient times. But
        they kept it to themselves and didn’t tell anyone. Would that make it any less of an invention for the Wright Brothers and Gustave Whitehead to fight over?

        China advanced to a certain point centuries before others. But they turned inward and weren’t exactly known for getting their accomplishments out there. If they had removable type before Guttenberg.. hard telling if anyone in the “West” knew anything about it.

        Stars and a whole lot of mathematical concepts have Arabic names to give credit to their earliest known scholars. Although a lot of that may go back farther, perhaps to Babylon.

        Then a bunch of stuff about men’s churches growing herbal gardens? I have no idea what that is about. Sounds like you are into some strange stuff!

      2. Sheesh. Stolen knowledge. I bet you see everything through a cultural appropriation lens, too.

        Knowledge diffusion is perhaps the most important thing about being human. Or as Einstein put it, “standing on the shoulders of giants”. I think the real crime is keeping advances secret.

        And, FWIW, I love the humor going on here.

    3. Not everything. But a lot. Why? Luck. They were writing after the Bronze Age Collapse when a lot of earlier knowledge was lost. A lot of credit goes to ancient Arabs too. I remember hearing about them all the time in math class. Thus the name “Algebra”.

      1. Or the Library of Alexandria: ‘… the fire started by Caesar destroyed 40,000 scrolls from the Library of Alexandria.’¹

        Albegra is the title of one of the books from Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (the last means the region like ‘George from Washington’). He must lived something about 1000 B.C. so we learn 3000 years old stuff in school :-D

        But one great example for me is Tu Youyou² she found a recipe for malaria in a book from the han dynasties.

        ¹: Wikipedia: ‘’ 09.23.23
        ²: Nobelprize: ’’ 09.23.23

        1. Ummmm
          Islam didn’t exist before 600 a.d., so how did a Muslim write al gebra 1600 years before?
          AIUI, the Arabic language didn’t exist until 200 years after Mohammed’s death.

  3. 1The heavens proclaim the glory of God.

    The skies display his craftsmanship.

    2Day after day they continue to speak;

    night after night they make him known.

    3They speak without a sound or word;

    their voice is never heard.

    4Yet their message has gone throughout the earth,

    and their words to all the world.

  4. Believe it or not, there’s a hack here that applies to recovering slightly less ancient technical data.

    I discovered this by accident. Sometimes when you have equipment with a very worn or UV bleached label, then taking a picture of it with your phone, flash on, will show the writing on it that appears invisible to the naked eye. Then one can also try photos in the light of one of those “dial a color” LED lamps, to see if that brings up anything.

    So, nice little trick to bear in mind, when you find yourself looking at a “blank” label wondering what the hell the model number of this thing is or what voltage it takes.

    1. Hmmm, I have been struggling to find a way to get more details from the etching on an old Disston saw blade (namely the Model Number).
      I am going to try your suggestion.
      Thanks 😊

  5. Well, this is the last place I’d have expected Peter Williams to crop up, had to re-read it to check it was really the same guy I knew…! Good on him & his undergrad for spotting this.

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