Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Zodiac of Paris – Jed Z. Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz ***

Many years ago there was a wonderful picture book for adults called Motel of the Mysteries (see at and Its premise was that a post-apocalyptic future civilization dug up a 20th century motel and treated it as the Victorians treated Egyptian discoveries (it’s no coincidence that this was the Toot ‘n Come On motel). I can’t remember a lot of it in detail (I lost my copy around the time I left university) but it included a careful interpretation of the religious significance of the strip of paper placed around the toilet seat to show it had been cleaned.
What really came across in that book was how easy it was to apply wild speculation in interpreting archaeological finds. Where this is pretty rare now, The Zodiac of Paris tells of a similar situation happening for real in Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic France, when a number of ‘zodiacs’ from Dendera and elsewhere in Egypt were subjected to the most amazing range of interpretations.
This is a chunky book, and not the easiest read imaginable (I find it odd that one of the authors teaches writing, as this sometimes reads like a dull academic history) – but there is lots of meat in it. The two main themes that I found fascinating were what was going on in France in the Napoleonic era (something that just doesn’t get taught in UK schools), and the attempts by the experts of the period – sometimes big names in science or maths like Fourier – to make sense of the fascinating ‘zodiacs’ discovered in a number of temples.
These zodiacs, particularly the circular one from Dendera pictured on the front of the book, which was hacked from the temple ceiling and taken back to Paris, caused quite an uproar. Part of the problem – and one of the most fascinating parts of the book given modern outbreaks of anti-Darwinism from Creationists – was that the religious authorities were appalled that some savants suggested that the zodiacs could be used to show the age of their construction, from various positions of solstices and the like. Some of the dates calculated were earlier than the date assumed for Noah’s flood (or even creation itself) from Biblical analysis, and this was not popular in some quarters.
After hearing of all sorts of interpretations and even a play based on what the zodiac meant, we still aren’t absolutely certain today just what the zodiacs were intended to be, but the feeling seems to be that they aren’t projections of actual layouts of the sky at a particular date, but rather collections of images of astronomical symbols (they certainly look a jumbled mess to the untutored eye), which give no information at all about dating. Certainly when you read through the arguments put by the scholars of the time, they are often extremely far fetched, requiring huge assumptions about what was meant by the makers of the zodiacs. The interpretation is anything but obvious, not helped by this book, which isn’t at all clear in its explanations of the various astronomical and geometric assumptions being made by the French scholars.
In terms of what it gives you, it’s an excellent and fascinating book, but the way it is written means it’s often quite hard work to get to that information, with far too much unnecessary historical detail alongside insufficient explanation of the science. To be fair, this may well have been the authors’ intent, but it could have been better given the interest in ancient Egyptian astronomical knowledge and the fascinating parallels with modern Creationist arguments against scientific dating.
Review by Brian Clegg

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