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World's oldest observatory found in China
Updated: 2005-10-31 07:05

Chinese archaeologists said they have found the world's oldest observatory, dating back to some 4,100 years ago, in north China's Shanxi Province.

The ancient observatory in the Taosi relics site in Shanxi Province is at least 2,000 years older than the 1,000-year-old observatory built by the Maya in central America, said He Nu, a research follow with the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

He told Xinhua on Sunday that the observatory, built at the end of the primitive society, "was not only used for observing astronomical phenomena but also for sacrificial rites."

The remains of the observatory, in the shape of a semicircle 40meters in diameter in the main observation platform and 60 meters in diameter in the outer circle, were made by rammed earth in three circles.

Archaeologists inferred that 13 stone pillars, at least four meters tall, stood on the foundation of the first circle originally, forming 12 gaps between them.

"The ancient people observed the direction of sunrise through the gaps and distinguished the different seasons of the year," said He.

In order to test the conjecture, archaeologists spent a year and a half simulating the observations of the ancients at the site.

To their surprise, the seasons marked by observation at the site were only one or two days different from the seasonal division of the traditional Chinese calendar, which is still widely used in rural China.

A forum on the function of the relics site at Taosi was held recently in Beijing. More than 20 Chinese archaeologists, astronomers and historians attended the forum.

Most of them share the view that the site is an ancient observatory, and some of the astronomers believed that it might also be used to observe the moon and stars.

The Taosi relics site, dated back to 4,300 years ago, is located in Xiangfen County, Linfen City of Shanxi Province, and covers an area of 3 million square meters. It is believed to be a settlement of the period of the five legendary rulers (2,600 BC-1,600 BC) in Chinese history.

Astronomical observation and the making of calendars is regarded as one of the symbols of the origin of civilization, according to experts.

A historical document says that China had special officials in charge of astronomical observation as early as the 24th century BC. The discovery of the ancient observatory in Taosi confirmed the records.

Wang Shouguan, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said China was at an advanced level in the world in terms of astronomy in ancient times.

"However, we know very little about China's astronomy in the prehistoric period. The discovery will help the study of ancient astronomy," Wang added.

Experts called on related government departments to make plans to better protect the site and restore the ancient observatory.

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