Monday, May 24, 2010

Jed Z. Buchwald & Diane Greco Josefowicz's "The Zodiac of Paris"

Jed Z. Buchwald is the Doris and Henry Dreyfuss Professor of History at the California Institute of Technology. His books include The Creation of Scientific Effects: Heinrich Hertz and Electric Waves. Diane Greco Josefowicz teaches in the writing program at Boston University.

Buchwald and Josefowicz applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, The Zodiac of Paris: How an Improbable Controversy over an Ancient Egyptian Artifact Provoked a Modern Debate between Religion and Science, and reported the following:
The Zodiac of Paris recounts the European fortunes of the Dendera zodiac, an ancient bas-relief temple ceiling adorned with symbols of the stars and planets. Now installed at the Louvre, it was discovered by the French during Napoleon's campaign in Egypt and removed, in 1821, by a French archaeological vandal who brought it to Paris. There the zodiac caused a sensation because it seemed to suggest that the Biblical account of creation was wrong—a dangerous proposition at a time when departures from religious orthodoxy were crimes against the state as well.

We stumbled on the zodiac’s story when one of us wandered into a Paris book shop and found a small volume, half-clad in red Morocco, with a single word embossed on the spine: ZODIAQUE. This was a collection of pamphlets, dating from the zodiac’s Paris debut, assembled and elegantly bound by an early enthusiast. It is part of the enduring magic of the subject that, as a result of this discovery, we soon became fascinated by the object’s power to excite scientific, religious, and political passions.

Before 1800, most accounts of the zodiacs discovered in Egypt (of which only one was physically brought to France years later) were written by people who had actually seen it; many were produced during the French occupation. After Napoleon’s return, these stories, accompanied by drawings, began to circulate. On page 99, we shift from eyewitness accounts of the zodiacs to the arguments they provoked, as scientists and scholars became obsessed by the historical, religious and astronomical facts that the objects appeared to encode.

At issue was the age of creation: If the zodiacs pictured the sky at the times when the edifices containing them were constructed , then astronomy, rather than textual sources from the Bible and classical antiquity, could be used to date the temples. Astronomers quickly pointed out that the dates that resulted from their calculations were remote indeed from anything offered by Biblical chronology. Since hieroglyphics had not yet been deciphered, and knowledge of ancient Egypt was correspondingly primitive, the zodiac offered fertile ground for flights of abundant speculation along these lines, much of which ultimately concerned whether science or religion was the more authoritative source of knowledge about the past.
Read an excerpt from The Zodiac of Paris, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue