Scientists Use the Stars to Date a 2500-Year-Old Poem

Software and poetry combine to reproduce the sky as thousands of years ago.

May 15 2016, 1:00pm

Sappho. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Scientists at the University of Texas in Arlington have used details from an ancient poem and sophisticated astronomical software to pinpoint the approximate date it was written.

In 570 BC, the legendary Greek poet Sappho portrayed the sky over her native island of Lesbos in her "Midnight Poem." Translated in the 1800s by Henry Thornton Wharton, Sappho's words sketched a brief, searing portrait of loneliness pinned to heavenly bodies in motion:

The moon has set

And the Pleiades;

It is midnight,

The time is going by,

And I sleep alone.

Writing in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, study authors Manfred Cuntz, , Levent Gurdemir, and Martin George said that because Sappho's quiet meditation "represents a prime example of where ancient poetry and astronomy merge," they felt it offered "the possibility of seasonal dating."

Working from several translations, the scientists focused on Sappho's use of the Pleiades—a.k.a. The Seven Sisters—which they stated was "interesting" because the constellation "has mythological, cultural, and astronomical importance."

Key to dating "Midnight Poem," the researchers wrote, was the "line indicating that by midnight the Pleiades had already set, even though we do not know the year in which this observation was made." From there they factored in several other data points like the year Sappho may have died, 570 BC, the map coordinates of the city where she likely was at the time, and the way the Greeks may have measured the hours in Sappho's day.

The Pleiades, Image: NASA/ESA/AURA/Caltech.

They funneled all the data into a sophisticated astronomical program called Starry Night to try and pinpoint precisely when the Pleiades would have been gone from the skies by midnight in Sappho's time. Then they used the University's Planetarium to recreate the sky that Sappho might have seen from her empty bed. Their pinpointed date for the poem's creation? The Starry Night software determined that sometime between January 25 and March 31, 570 BC, Sappho looked up and then wrote her brief and lonely lyric. As researcher Manfred Cuntz said, they "were able to accurately seasonally date this poem to mid-winter and early spring."

Cuntz also insisted in the University of Texas release about their findings that Sappho "should be considered an informal contributor to early Greek astronomy as well as to Greek society at large."

UTA's dean of the College of Science made what was probably the most compelling point about the findings. The research broke "down the traditional silos between science and the liberal arts," said Dean Morteza Khaledi, "by using high-precision technology to accurately date ancient poetry."

It seems like an elegant merger of disciplines that a great mind like Sappho's would truly appreciate.