Ex-Ripon Grammar pupil discovers oldest map of stars
Dec 19, 2022
Dr Peter Williams
Dr Peter Williams and the manuscript

A former pupil of Ripon Grammar School has discovered the oldest known map of the stars hidden in an ancient manuscript.

Dr Peter Williams, who left the school in 1989, is a leading biblical historian at the University of Cambridge.

He made the discovery while researching a Bible manuscript belonging to the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC. Dr Williams said:

The ancient parchment, which came from a monastery in Egypt, is a palimpsest – a manuscript with text which had been rubbed out and new writing placed on top. Dr Williams explained:

“In the early Middle Ages when papyrus had become scarce and the invention of paper in the west was still centuries away, there was a huge shortage of writing material.

“Consequently, if you found an old manuscript in a script or language you didn’t use you would probably rub it out to put new writing on top.

“Now modern imaging techniques are enabling us to read faint text that was rubbed out over a millennium ago, sometimes even if all the ink has been removed.”

The text underneath turned out to come from around the sixth century AD, with the text on top from the ninth.

Read more:

Dr Williams had set his teams of summer interns at the Tyndale House research institute he leads the task of trying to decipher just what had been rubbed out 10 years ago and one student, Jamie Klair, discovered some of it was about astronomy.

But it was during last year’s covid lockdown, as Dr Williams was studying a page which his teams of scholars hadn’t managed to crack, that he realised he was seeing star co-ordinates, which turned out to be of the constellation Corona Borealis.

He discovered it was a fragment from the 2,100-year-old catalogue of the stars by the Greek astronomer and founder of trigonometry Hipparchus, a much noted chart of celestial bodies which was thought to be lost to the ages.

They are the earliest star coordinates preserved in any manuscript. The resulting paper co-authored by Dr Williams and published in the Journal for the History of Astronomy, said:

“Hipparchus’s lost Star Catalogue is famous in the history of science as the earliest known attempt to record accurate co-ordinates of many celestial objects observable with the naked eye,”

“This new evidence is the most authoritative to date and allows major progress in the reconstruction of Hipparchus’s Star Catalogue.”

The fragment has enlightened our understanding of ancient astronomy, which appears to have been a remarkably accurate discipline, with Hipparchus’s measurements correct to within one degree of the stars’ actual positions. Some 300 years later, the Greek mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy wrote his Almagest, the oldest star catalogue known to historians before this discovery.

Dr Peter Williams

Dr Peter Williams during his Ripon Grammar days

Dr Williams studied Greek, Latin and music at A-level at Ripon, where he was deputy head boy.

He went on to read classics and Hebrew at Cambridge, and now combines his love of old languages with research on the Bible.

Having studied for an MPhil and PhD at Cambridge, apart from a brief residency as senior lecturer in theology at the University of Aberdeen, Dr Williams has remained at the University of Cambridge, where he is an affiliated lecturer in the faculty of divinity, since leaving Ripon.

Follow us on

The Stray Ferret Feed

Ripon City Council has given its backing to plans designed to return Ripon’s iconic Spa Baths to its former Edwardian glory.

Load More