Archaeologists excavating the ancient Egyptian Temple of Esna have restored a series of ceiling paintings depicting the zodiac, a belt-shaped region of the sky traditionally divided into 12 astrological signs. Dated to the Ptolemaic period, which spanned 305 to 30 B.C.E., the artworks add to evidence suggesting the Greeks brought the zodiac tradition to Egypt.
“Representations of the zodiac are very rare in Egyptian temples,” says Christian Leitz, an Egyptologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, in a statement. “The zodiac itself is part of Babylonian astronomy and does not appear in Egypt until Ptolemaic times.”
Images of the zodiac signs and their correlating constellations appear on pottery and sarcophagi from the Ptolemaic era. But the motif is rarely seen in temple decorations. As Daniel von Recklinghausen, also an Egyptologist at Tübingen, says in the statement, “Apart from Esna, there are only two completely preserved versions left,” both from the Dendera Temple Complex on the West Bank of the Nile River.
Speaking with Live Science’s Owen Jarus, Leitz says the Esna zodiac is virtually the same as the design commonly seen today. “There is no difference apart from some depictions in the signs,” he explains.
In addition to the 12 signs, the Esna reliefs feature images of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, as well as the “seven arrows” of Sekhmet and constellations used by the ancient Egyptians to measure time, reports Ahram Online’s Nevine El-Aref. Other newly restored artworks depict snakes, crocodiles and imagined creatures like a bird with a crocodile’s head.
The restoration project—a collaboration between Tübingen scholars and the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities—began in 2018. Researchers have painstakingly restored ceiling frescoes, column inscriptions and other decorative elements, removing layers of soot, dust and dirt to reveal the artworks’ original appearance.
“The temple’s complete range of images is unique in its wealth of figures and the state of preservation of the colors,” said von Recklinghausen in a 2022 statement detailing previously unknown frescoes of the vulture goddess Nekhbet and the serpent goddess Wadjet.
The zodiac isn’t the first celestial-centric find made at Esna, which is located almost 40 miles south of Luxor. In 2020, the team discovered inscriptions that revealed the ancient Egyptian names of several constellations. According to Michelle Starr of Science Alert, the Big Dipper was known as Mesekhtiu, while Orion was called Sah. The newly restored ceiling paintings could help experts match the name of a previously unknown constellation, Apedu n Ra, or “the geese of Ra,” to the relevant zodiac figure.
Historians don’t know the exact origins of the zodiac signs or the practice of astrology (divination based on the movement of the stars). But one of the oldest artifacts linked to celestial divination—the Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa—dates to the Neo-Assyrian period, between roughly between 911 and 612 B.C.E. The artifact tracked the motion of the planet Venus and “is one of the earliest pieces of what’s been called Babylonian planetary omens,” wrote Olivia B. Waxman for Time in 2018.
From Mesopotamia, the 12 signs for the division of the night sky spread to Greece, gaining traction as the Greeks came to dominate the Mediterranean. Following Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 330 B.C.E., the two cultures traded their knowledge of the stars, with the Greeks introducing the concept of zodiac signs and the Egyptians discussing the seasonal movement of the sun and the patterns that make up constellations.
“There must have been a lot of exchange that got the Greeks on board with the idea of divination using planets,” Sten Odenwald, director of STEM resource development at NASA, told Time in 2018. “And because they were deep into mathematics and logic, they worked out a lot of the rules for how this could work.”
The most famous astrological artifact in ancient Egyptian history is arguably the Dendera Zodiac, now housed at the Louvre in Paris. Dated to around 50 B.C.E., the bas-relief depicts the 12 constellations of the zodiac, five planets, and both a lunar and solar eclipse.