Archaeologists have unearthed a clay tablet that reveals just how advanced the Babylonian people were at studying space.
A stunning recent discovery suggests that humans have gazed toward the cosmos in wonder for much longer than once believed. According to a report from the Washington Post, researchers from Humboldt University in Germany have proved that Babylonian astronomers cracked some of the biggest mysteries in space 1,400 years before the Europeans.
As Newton and other English mathematicians sought an explanation for how the planets and stars traveled throughout the night sky, they were completely unaware of the fact that a small clay tablet had the answers they were looking for etched in stone.
According to Mathieu Ossendrijver, an astrophysicist at Humboldt University, the clay tablet is like thousands of others that have been uncovered since the 19th century, but with a key difference. The marks on the tablet tell the tale of how Babylonian astronomers figured out how to calculate the orbit of what they referred to as the “White Star,” or Jupiter.
The tablets have puzzled archaeologists for decades, and only now are they beginning to be deciphered by dedicated researchers. “I couldn’t understand what they were about,” said Ossendrijver. “I couldn’t understand anything about them, neither did anyone else. I could only see that they dealt with geometrical stuff.”
The researcher’s breakthrough came in 2014, when a retired Assyriologist shared a collection of black and white photos of more tablets that were stored in the British Museum in London. Ossendrijver described the tablet and the information that it contained as an ancient astronomical Rosetta Stone.
The last tablet was related to a number of other tablets that Ossendrijver recognized. He was able to see the pattern in the markings in the clay that revealed a common subject: Jupiter. Each tablet held a different part of the calculation that tracked Jupiter’s position in the sky, relative to other planets and distant stars.
“This tablet contains numbers and computations, additions, divisions, multiplications. It doesn’t actually mention Jupiter. It’s a highly abbreviated version of a more complete computation that I already knew from five, six, seven other tablets,” said Ossendrijver.
A press release from Science describing the recent breakthrough can be found here.