Sky Watchers: Ancient Astronomers

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Sky Watchers: Ancient Astronomers

Two to five class periods


World History

Sandra Murray Lamb, U.S. history and civics teacher, Washington Irving Middle School.Jay Lamb, world history, philosophy, and religion teacher, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Students will understand the following:
1. The meaning ancient people attributed to the natural rhythms of the Earth and the celestial objects of the sky

2. How ancient peoples' view of the heavens affected their belief systems

3. How to duplicate astronomical techniques used by ancient people


For this lesson, you will need:

Books and magazines about ancient astronomers
Computer with Internet access
Materials for making posters, models, and so on
A variety of materials for fieldwork

1. Setting the stage: Have students close their eyes and picture the sky. Ask them to brainstorm things they may see in the course of a night and day, such as the movement of the sun, moon, and stars. Now ask them to explain certain phenomena: Why do the sun and moon appear to move across the sky? Also, ask students to share what they know about the change of seasons. After this discussion, explain that students are going to investigate what ancient people knew about astronomy, how they gained that knowledge, and what it meant to them. Have students brainstorm what they already know about ancient astronomers. (Students might mention Stonehenge or the ancient Maya. You should list these and other ancient civilizations on the board, such as the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon; the ancient Chinese, Egyptian, or Indian astronomers; as well as the Aztecs; the Greeks; Mesopotamia; and Cahokia.)

2. Grouping: Divide the class into groups of three or four with each group researching one of the ancient peoples who were known to use astronomy. Each group should focus on the evidence of astronomy in these cultures, the methods the ancient people used for their observations and calculations, important astronomical discoveries, and the influence of astronomy on their beliefs and daily lives.

3. Research: Students will use available resources to conduct their research. There are a number of great Internet sites that will support this research with pictures and detailed information. Once information is gathered, students may build models (of such sites as Stonehenge) or design posters illustrating the information they have found.

4. Jigsaw presentation: After all posters are complete, display them around the classroom in an art gallery format. Divide the class into thirds, ensuring that one member of each research group is in each new group. Starting at different posters, have each person present his or her information to the rest of the subset.

5. Analysis: Students in each group will compare the information and techniques of the different ancient peoples studied. What are the similarities and differences in their methods of observation and calculation? Which civilization seems more sophisticated in its understanding of the heavens? How did the heavens hold similar meanings for each civilization? After time for discussions, have each subset compare its findings with those of the other two groups.

6. Fieldwork: In order to appreciate the accomplishments of ancient astronomers, ask students to engage in some astronomical fieldwork. Activities for young astronomers include the following: finding north using shadows; building a sundial; building a sextant; recording sunrise and sunset times; determining the change of seasons; finding specific stars, constellations, and planets in the night sky; or determining the time by the relative positions of objects in the sky. Student groups could engage in a number of these activities over time, speculate on future trends, and report back to the class on a regular basis.


Adaptations for Older Students:

Older students may wish to actually duplicate some of the work of the ancient astronomers. How did they predict eclipses? How did they determine the length of the year? How did they use shadows to determine the circumference of the Earth? How can you determine a north-south line? Students may also wish to investigate modern astronomical advances by doing research on recent events, visiting a planetarium, or having an astronomer in as a speaker.

1. Discuss some of the reasons people are fascinated with watching the sky. Why did this seem important to ancient people? Was this interest ultimately beneficial to these civilizations? Why do we study the heavens today? How do these reasons compare with the reasons ancients studied the heavens?
2. Recently, the United States has spent millions of dollars on space exploration landers and satellites that have failed. Debate why we should spend so much money on astronomy and space exploration. Would we be better off spending that money for important needs on Earth? Support your point of view with facts and examples.
3. Ancient people often oriented their homes, lives, and activities around the sun. How much do we do this in our society? Why? Discuss whether we should spend more money on research for solar power and solar-oriented designs for homes.
4. Why do we adjust our clocks for daylight savings time? Why don't Hawaii and Arizona participate in daylight savings time? Which government agency regulates this? Why? Discuss whether daylight savings time is worthwhile. Should it be continued or abandoned?
5. Until the Industrial Revolution, most humans were closely attuned to, and lived their lives in harmony with, the natural rhythms of the day and the cycles of the year. To what extent is this true in a modern society? Criticize or defend this change in the way we live. What have we lost? What have we gained?
6. At one time, many of the beliefs of Western society were based on or supported by the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe. Analyze why people thought this was so, and discuss how it was disproved. Imagine a discovery today that could cause a similar shake-up in the way we view ourselves and our place in the universe.

To evaluate the overall project use a rubric to assess the quality of work based on the details of your original assignment. Did students clearly and accurately describe the beliefs, inventions, and discoveries of ancient astronomers? In addition, how well were students able to explain their initial research to others? You may wish to have students help create this rubric by brainstorming the criteria on which the products and presentations should be assessed. What are the minimum standards they should be expected to accomplish? You may also wish to do a self- and group evaluation to see how students rate their own participation and their group's performance.

It's Greek to Us

Examine the astronomical theories of the Greek astronomers Eratosthenes (circumference of the Earth), Aristarchus (sun larger than Earth, Earth travels around sun, stars are far away), and Ptolemy (Earth is the center of the universe). Try to duplicate the methods and reasoning that each one used to arrive at his major conclusions. Explain how Eratosthenes and Aristarchus could have been so right, yet Ptolemy was so wrong. Why did Ptolemy's view of the universe prevail until the 17th century?

Got Solar?

Look at the houses in your neighborhood and determine whether the sun was taken into account when those buildings were designed and constructed. Research the basic principles of solar building and some examples of solar homes that would be appropriate for your geographical area. How would you alter the design or position of your home to take better advantage of the sun? How might homes in very hot and sunny places be designed to minimize the impact of the sun?

What's the Time?

Challenge students to build a sundial. Explain that as the Earth rotates, the sun appears to move across the sky. The post on the sundial casts a shadow on a circular surface. If marked correctly, this circle can tell you what time it is. There are several sources on the Internet providing detailed directions for either simple or more complex sundials. See The Sun in Time or Build a Sundial.

Which Way Is North?

You can create a compass using nothing but a pole, a long rope, an outside clearing, and shadows! To create this “gnomon,” stick the upright pole into the ground. Loosely tie a long rope to the base to follow the pole's shadow throughout the day. Find a pair of points, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, where the shadow is the same length from the pole. Mark those spots and run a line between them. This is the east-west line. Fold the line in half to find the midpoint and stake that spot. The pole, marking noon, and that stake should form a line pointing north and south. (Thanks to William H. Calvin, “Leapfrogging Gnomons.”) For more instructions see Leapfrogging Gnomons.

How High in the Sky?

Build a simple sextant to measure the height of celestial objects above the horizon. By noting changes in altitude over time, this sextant can be used to observe the motion of the moon, stars, and planets. For details, see Build a Sextant.

In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest

David Roberts, Simon & Schuster, 1996.

This book is the author's tale of his years of hiking through the Southwest in search of knowledge and understanding of the ancient Anasazi people. The author writes of his conversations with experts and fellow-seekers, insights into Anasazi life, and some of his own important discoveries about this fascinating culture.
On the Trail of Spider Woman: Petroglyphs, Pictographs, and Myths of the Southwest

Carol Patterson-Rudolph, Ancient City Press, 1997.

Spider Woman is a mythic figure pictured in prehistoric rock images throughout the southwestern United States. Through the author's photographs and illustrations of the images and her retelling of the stories they represent, she gives us a picture of the varied ancient cultures of this area and how they view the world around them.

Anasazi: The Ancient Ones

Artifacts and art of the Anasazi are displayed at this site as well as a photo essay of some Anasazi sites.
Mayan Civilization

This website discusses the advances made by the Mayan people in the area of astronomical calculations. It contains numerous links and graphics that illustrate the advanced level of the Mayan astronomers.
Native American Arts Review: Anasazi 1100-1400 A.D.

Images of Anasazi art, architecture, and artifacts.
Social Strife May Have Exiled Ancient Indians

A reprint of a New York Times article outlining a new theory about the Anasazi collapse.
Anasazi Heritage Center

Interesting collection of facts and artifacts from the Anasazi.


The height of a celestial object above the horizon.


The altitude of the planet was noted as 28 degrees above the horizon.
architectural calendar

A structure designed around the changing position of the sun.


The room, made to be an architectural calendar, was designed so that the sun would shine on key points at certain times of the year.

The science of the stars, planets, and all other heavenly bodies.


After my first look through a telescope I became very interested in astronomy.

The partial or total obscuring of one object by another.


The first time you see a total eclipse of the sun is an experience you will never forget.

The time when the sun crosses the equator, making night and day of equal length in all parts of the Earth.


This religion had a special ceremony planned for the equinox.

The line where the sky seems to meet the earth.


From the top of the ship's mast we could see clear to the horizon.

An instrument used by navigators for measuring the angular distance of a celestial object from the horizon.


A sextant was used to determine the latitude of the ship.

The time when the sun's path is farthest north or farthest south of the celestial equator; also the longest or shortest day of the year.


The summer solstice began on June 21 this year.

Grade Level:


Subject Area:


Understands essential ideas about the composition and structure of the universe and the Earth's place in it.

Knows characteristics of our sun and its position in the universe (e.g., the sun is a medium-sized star; it is the closest star to Earth; it is the central and largest body in the solar system; it is located at the edge of a disk-shaped galaxy).

Benchmark:Knows characteristics and movement patterns of the nine planets in our solar system (e.g., planets differ in size, composition, and surface features; planets move around the sun in elliptical orbits; some planets have moons, rings of particles, and other satellites orbiting them).

Benchmark:Knows characteristics and movement patterns of asteroids, comets, and meteors.

Benchmark:Knows how the regular and predictable motions of the sun and moon explain phenomena on Earth (e.g., the day, the year, phases of the moon, eclipses, tides, shadows).
Grade Level:


Subject Area:

World history

Understands the imperial crises and their aftermath in various regions from A.D. 300 to 700.

Understands major achievements in technology, astronomy, and medicine in the Gupta period.
Grade Level:


Subject Area:

World history

Understands how agrarian societies spread and new states emerged in the third and second millennia B.C.

Understands the rise of urban and complex agrarian societies in the third and second millennia B.C. (e.g., how the Minoan civilization emerged on Crete and its significant cultural achievements; the origins and possible purpose of Stonehenge and the effort made to create it).
Grade Level:


Subject Area:

World history

Understands the expansion of states and civilizations in the Americas between 1000 and 1500.

Understands the significance of the mound centers located in the Mississippi valley, such as the mound center at Cahokia in Illinois.
Grade Level:


Subject Area:

World history

Understands the rise of centers of civilization in Mesoamerica and Andean South America in the first millennium of the common era.

Understands Mayan achievements in astronomy, mathematics, and the development of a calendar (e.g., the place of archaeological evidence such as the “Long Count” calendar in the interpretation of Mayan history, how achievements in astronomy affected Mayan society, the value of mathematical innovations and the calendar to farmers).
Grade Level:


Subject Area:

Historical understanding

Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns.

Understands alternative systems of recording time (e.g., Egyptian, Indian, Mayan, Muslim, Jewish), astronomical systems on which they are based (e.g., solar, lunar, semilunar), their fixed points for measuring time, and their strengths and weaknesses.
Copyright 2001

Teachers may reproduce copies of these materials for classroom use only.

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