Abstract: From Dunhuang (P.R. China): the oldest Star Atlas


The Dunhuang star atlas was discovered in 1907 by Aurel Stein, the Hungarian-British explorer, in a town on the ancient Silk Road. It is now in the British Library. Only recently has it been thoroughly studied by astronomers. In this lecture I describe the atlas and set it in the cultural context of the Warring States, Han and later Tang periods. Dated to the period 500-1000 CE, it is far in advance of contemporary products from the Mediterranean world. Its interpretation requires both a knowledge of visual astronomy and an understanding of the role that astronomy-astrology played in Chinese society.  By following a number of clues – costume, paper, taboo characters, handwriting, the names in the document and internal astronomical evidence – we can arrive at a finer dating, learn why the atlas ended up in the far west of Han China, and even identify the author of an remarkable and beautiful product of scientific observation that was also a closely guarded state secret.

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