Arte-Factual: The Dendera Zodiac

It seems that everyone is going crazy for Katy Perry’s latest music video, Dark Horse, which presents a very colourful, if somewhat inaccurate view of Ancient Egypt. So I thought I’d jump on the latest “Egyptomania” bandwagon and look at a famous sculpture that can be seen in the Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation level, Cleopatra’s Palaces.

Perhaps you may recall seeing a large blue disc painted on the ceiling of one of the rooms in the palace and decorated with the images of gods and animals. But if you can’t remember it, don’t worry. Here’s a handy screenshot to jog your memory.

Dendera Zodiac as seen in Last Revelation
The Dendera Zodiac as seen in Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation. Image credit: Unknown.

The disc is based on the Egyptian bas-relief known as the Dendera Zodiac, which was found at the Temple of Hathor in Dendera during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt at the start of the nineteenth century. It  was discovered in 1799 by the French archaeologist and artist Vivant Denon, and academics rapidly became fascinated with the sculpture. When Denon published his drawings of the Zodiac in his 1802 book Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, it sparked heated debates between scholars and religious communities about the age of the sculpture and, by extension, the age of the Earth itself.

As its name suggests, the Dendera Zodiac is a planisphere – a star chart – depicting the constellations (including the 12 signs of the zodiac) and the five planets known to the ancients at that time. The sky was represented by the disc and is held up by four women (the four pillars of heaven) and falcon-headed spirits. The 36 spirits found around the edge of the disc represent the 36 divisions of the Ancient Egyptian solar calendar; Egyptian solar years consisted of thirty-six 10-day “weeks” plus five intercalary days.

Many of the constellations appear to be very similar to those we are familiar with today, albeit with an Ancient Egyptian twist. For example, the zodiac sign Aquarius the Water-Bearer is represented by the Egyptian god of the Nile floods, Hapi, while the asterism known as the “Big Dipper” or “Plough” is represented by an ox’s foreleg.

The Dendera Zodiac
The Dendera Zodiac. Image credit: Round About the Cauldron Go.

In recent years, the French Egyptologist Sylvie Cauville and French astrophysicist Éric Aubourg have worked together to date the map based on the configuration of the planets as seen on the Zodiac carving. This exact configuration occurs only once every thousand years.

The two researchers were also able to identify two eclipses. One is a solar eclipse which occurred on 7th March 51 BC, which is illustrated by the goddess Isis holding a baboon – perhaps the god Thoth in his baboon form – to stop it from hiding the sun. The other is the lunar eclipse of 25th September 52 BC, which is represented by an udjat eye within a circle. The pair concluded that Zodiac depicted the night sky as seen between 15th June and 15th August 50 BC, shortly after the death of the pharaoh Ptolemy XII Auletes, father of Egypt’s last pharaoh, Cleopatra VII.

No one really knows why these particular celestial events were commemorated but Cauville believes that the solar eclipse coincided with the death of Ptolemy XII. Cleopatra may have commissioned the Zodiac as a way to honour her father’s passing or celebrate her own ascension to the throne. This is merely speculation on Cauville’s part but it does seem like the level designers and artists did their research when they worked on the Cleopatra’s Palaces level.

That said, if you’re hoping to see the real Dendera Zodiac, you won’t find it in Alexandria – the site of the fictional palace complex – or even in Dendera itself. In fact, you’d have to visit a completely different country: France. The Zodiac now resides in Paris and is part of the Louvre Museum‘s collection.

The story of how the Dendera Zodiac found its way to the Louvre Museum is one of derring-do and colonialism. The highly dubious nature of its procurement has placed the Zodiac at the centre of an ongoing dispute between the museum authorities and Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, which calls for the repatriation of the Zodiac and other Egyptian artefacts that were illegally acquired by French, British, German, and other foreign nationals.**

The Louvre website states that the “Zodiac of Dendera was transported to France in 1821 with the permission of Egyptian ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha” but it neglects to mention how the sculpture was removed from the site in the first place.

One of the reliefs at Dendera, Egypt
One of the reliefs at Dendera. Image credit: Jasonpearce.

In 1820, Sébastien-Louis Saulnier, a collector and antiquarian who had served as a police commissioner under Napoleon, hired the stonemason Jean-Baptiste Lelorrain to remove the Zodiac from the Temple of Hathor and transport it back to Paris. Lelorrain travelled to Egypt under the pretence of acquiring antiquities in Thebes and waited for the opportune moment to begin his work at the temple in Dendera.

Through an act of calculated recklessness, he and a team of local workmen used saws and gunpowder to successfully dislodge the Zodiac from the ceiling. They then used a system of wooden rollers and sledges to load the sandstone slabs onto a waiting riverboat. Lelorrain relied on bribes and political manoeuvring to get the Zodiac onto his ship in Alexandria and back to France, much to the chagrin of the British, who had hoped to claim the sculpture for themselves.

The Zodiac arrived in Paris in the summer of 1822. It was soon snapped up by Louis XVIII for the kingly sum of 150,000 francs and installed in the Royal Library, now the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. It was later moved to the Louvre Museum, where it remains on display today in Room 12 bis. Visitors to the Temple of Hathor must sadly settle for the plaster-cast replica that has been installed on the ceiling of the chapel where the original Zodiac was found.

Only time will tell if the original will eventually make its way back to its rightful home in Dendera.

** The subjects of art repatriation and the ethical and political implications of the antiquities trade are far too complex to delve into here. If you’re interested in these topics and would like to learn more, please visit PostColonialWeb’s page, “The Repatriation of Cultural Objects” or check out the Oriental Institute and Archaeological Institute of America’s 2010 symposium “Who Owns the Past?” on YouTube. Great books on the subject include Sharon Waxman’s Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World and Colin Renfrew’s book Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology

Sources & Further Reading:

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About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a writer, translator, and gamer who is passionate about archaeology, language learning, travel, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

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8 Comments on “Arte-Factual: The Dendera Zodiac”

  1. Another great article–this time about a few of my favorite things (the intersection of astrology/astronomy and archaeology) and of course one of my least favorites (real-life tomb robbing). Thanks for posting…and keep the Arte-Factual features coming! 😀

    1. Will do! 😀

      I had to keep the astronomy aspect to a minimum as there was just way too much information to process and I wanted to keep the article as concise as possible so check out the “Further Reading” section if you want to know more. Fascinating stuff. 🙂

  2. It’s interesting that in almost every ancient culture there are traces of fascination with the stars, although Egyptians didn’t necessarily believe the stars were gods or anything of the sort (I believe they thought they were moth bites in the cloth that forms the night sky, or I might be thinking of ancient greece) they would have certainly found them fascinating and godly. Back when we knew so little about this world, the sight of something out of this world was just amazing, now that we know they’re balls of gas we have lost the effect of the sight of the stars, but back then the stars symbolized hope, they were so far away and yet so bright and beautiful, so indicative of a loving all-mighty power, it’s no wonder that they are commonly drawn into artistic drawings of faith.

    And I actually do remember coming across this part in Tomb Raider 4, I remember thinking it was so beautiful that I took a screenshot of it for my review. My favorite thing about TR4 is that they stuck to one country throughout, meaning that they could for once stretch out the exploration of that culture instead of swiftly jumping from one vaguely-represented location to the next.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. People were much more in tune with nature and the stars back in the day. No modern-day gadgets and entertainment to distract them from the beauty that was around them. Looking at a star-filled sky fills me with wonder so I can only imagine how the ancients must have felt…

  3. Can you even imagine how much brighter the stars would have been back then, or even one hundred years ago. That would be my biggest reason for wanting a time machine. When I was a child I would sneak out onto the roof of my house and stare into the sky. I still lay on the roof and star gaze several times a year. Its the biggest reason I stay living as rural as I possibly can.