Astronomy

Seeker's Visual Guide to Solar Eclipses Throughout History

Ancient monuments, clay tablets, paintings, and photographs reveal the power that solar eclipses have had on the imaginations of prehistoric and modern civilizations.

“The impact of solar eclipses on Mesoamerican culture and on virtually all other early civilizations cannot be overstated,” according to Bruce Masse, formerly of the University of Hawaii and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

In a paper published in the journal Vistas in Astronomy, he said that such celestial events pervade “cosmology, art iconography, chiefly symbols, architecture, time reckoning, and religious and chiefly rituals,” as well as myths and historical accounts.

Witnessing, and then surviving, an eclipse must have seemed like coming back from the dead.

The origin of the word “eclipse” comes from the Greek term ekleipsis, meaning an abandonment, a feeling shared by the Inca of South America. Worshippers of the sun god Inti, the Inca felt that their leader was mad at them whenever the moon obscured the sun. They rarely practiced human sacrifice, but a wave of killing would follow solar eclipses. The irony is that the leaders were desperately trying to give Inti what they were supposed to value the most.

While such a response would be unthinkable today, solar eclipses continue to captivate. From likely prehistoric gatherings at Stonehenge to anticipation of this year’s August 21 total solar eclipse, these incredible sky shows remain some of the solar system’s most compelling events.

Construction of the megalith Stonehenge, located in England, began in 3100 BC. While historians still debate the monument’s underlying meanings, there is consensus that astronomical alignments inspired much of its design. For example, lines of it point to either sunrise at the summer solstice or sunset at the winter solstice. Some scholars believe that eclipses can be predicted via various methods involving study of Stonehenge. As photographer Ben Stansall shows, portions of the monument can frame certain solar eclipses.

Pyramids and temples of ancient Egypt show stellar alignments, some of which are attested in inscriptions. A 25-year solar-lunar calendar, dating to 1257 BC during the reign of Ramses II, reveals how astronomers at the time were attempting to understand sun and moon cycles. How the pyramids fit into that process remains a mystery, but viewing solar eclipses at or near these monuments often provides some of the most striking visuals.

The earliest records of specific solar eclipses are found on clay tablets. The oldest known mention is a description of a total solar eclipse said to have occurred on May 3, 1375 BC. Modern assessment of the event — recorded on a clay tablet from the ancient city of Ugarit, in what is now Syria — determined that the eclipse actually happened on March 5, 1223. In a paper published in Nature, authors T. De Jong and W. H. Van Soldt wrote, “This new date implies that the secular deceleration of the Earth’s rotation has changed very little during the past 3,000 years.”

Chichén Itzá, a massive Mayan step pyramid dating to about 600 AD, is a masterpiece of astronomical special effects. On the spring equinox, light and shadows on the Temple of Kukulcán make it look as though a feathered serpent god is crawling down the side of the pyramid. From certain angles during a solar eclipse, the darkened orb can look as though it is ascending the temple’s steps.

Individuals with knowledge of astronomy, such as the Mayan rulers, could use the information to their advantage, making others think that they could control the sun. Christopher Columbus, for example, predicted the total lunar eclipse of 1504, and used that astronomy-informed prognostication to impress the indigenous people of Jamaica, who then provided provisions for Columbus and his men. Dionysius the Areopagite, a judge who became the first Bishop of Athens in the 1st century AD, might have done something similar, with the goal being to convert pagans to Christianity.

Starting in about the year 720 BC, astronomers from around the globe, including China and Europe, began to accurately document solar eclipses. Modern scientists, however, continue to refine the older data.

“Using the gravitational theories of the orbital motion of the Earth around the sun and the moon around the Earth, we can compute where and when eclipses should have been seen in the past, assuming that the Earth’s axial rate of rotation has been constant,” Leslie Morrison of the International Astronomical Union said. “The historical observations show a consistent discrepancy between these calculations and where and when the eclipses were actually seen.”

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Morrison explained that the discrepancy is a measure of how the earth’s rotation has been slightly slowing down, causing each day to become progressively longer by about two thousandths of a second per century.

A celestial map from the 1600s, shown above, could not get into that level of technical detail. Note the simple mathematical graphic of the sun on the bottom left.

Artists often included solar eclipses in their works for dramatic effect, to document actual celestial events, or to add symbolic meaning. In the image above the engraver not only documents the solar eclipse, but also human reaction to it in an otherwise very tranquil setting. The people watching the eclipse are dwarfed by the enormous sky scene. A century later, artists ushered in the Romantic era, which placed similar emphasis on nature.

Solar eclipses during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) seemed to provide a sense of comfort to those who followed astronomy and understood the phenomena. As almanac writer, physician, and astronomer Nathaniel Low wrote, no matter how gloomy conditions are, “nature’s various face” still informs our lives.

Artists of the 17th and 18th centuries attempted to document how earlier cultures viewed solar eclipses. This image above captures Asian astronomical know-how and the reverence that people in China, and the world over, may express and feel while observing such a natural spectacle.

In 1839, Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre invented the daguerreotype, which was a polished copper plate upon which an image could be directly exposed. It grew in popularity over the following decade, with one highlight of the medium being a 1851 image of the July 28 solar eclipse that year, shown above. The image is the first photograph of a solar eclipse. Berkowski attached a small telescope to his imaging equipment in order to capture the picture. 

Thirty-eight years after the first photo of a solar eclipse was taken, photographers were experimenting with different techniques that would enable them to better convey time and motion. The flashy visuals of the January 1, 1889, solar eclipse were captured in a composite print, shown above, produced by overlaying several plates photographed at different exposures.

Advancements in telescope technology developed along side better imaging techniques. Better lenses and more lightweight materials meant that astronomers could transport powerful telescopes to desired viewing sites, however remote and climatically challenging.

The invention of motion picture cameras in the 1890s led to some fanciful accounts of what outer space was like. The film "A Trip to the Moon," directed by Georges Méliès, remains a cult film favorite to this day. In similar fashion, illustrator W. Kranz in 1900 imagined what a solar eclipse might look like when seen from the moon or another planet.

Two years before the start of World War I, a crowd gathered in France to admire a solar eclipse. Photographer Eugène Atget seemed more interested in them than the eclipse. Atget cleverly captured the sun gazers as they strained to see the event without damaging their eyes.

The changing position of the moon with respect to the sun during an eclipse can create what are known as Baily’s beads, or bright beams of sunlight that shine through the otherwise obscured area. Sometimes these beams, also called solar prominences, lead to a diamond ring shape. Photographer Frederic Goetz nicely captured this effect on January 24, 1925. The image, seen above, proved to be a hit during the Jazz Age, when many people had the money to flash their own diamond bling. Few predicted the stock market crash just four years later, which led to the Great Depression.

The US Custom House in Philadelphia was erected at a time when the federal government was spearheading many building projects during the Depression era to stimulate the economy. More than 4,000 workers were employed at relatively good wages for two years at a cost of more than $3,500,000 to construct the Custom House. It opened on November 10, 1934. The building’s second-floor rotunda ceiling shows stages of a solar eclipse in vivid colors, making a bold and hopeful statement at a time when the country needed a lift.

Reddish-hued solar prominences give a 1999 photograph of a total solar eclipse, shown above, a psychedelic look. While a shot of this quality required particular skill, anyone today can try to photograph a solar eclipse. The first cellphone cameras became publicly available just 3 years after this photo was taken.

On August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will cross the United States on a 70-mile-wide ribbon of land stretching from Oregon to South Carolina. Throughout the rest of North America — and in parts of South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia — a partial eclipse will be visible. NASA, according to its Total Eclipse site, will be viewing the eclipse simultaneously from the ground and from the air.

"When the moon blocks out the sun during a total eclipse, those regions of Earth that are in the direct path of totality become dark as night for almost three minutes," Steve Clarke, director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, said in a statement. "This will be one of the best-observed eclipses to date, and we plan to take advantage of this unique opportunity to learn as much as we can about the sun and its effects on Earth."

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