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No 55 - March 2008

Book review: The lost language of the stars

Heather Connie Martin, 2007, The lost language of the stars, Virevolte, France, ISBN 978-2-9530732-0-1, paperback, A4 format, 80 pages, 77 black and white illustrations, £10.50, €15.00.

This is a star atlas with a difference. Martin believes that the symbols found on pre-Christian Pictish stones correspond to constellations that the Picts would have seen in the sky.

The introduction briefly tells the story of the author, growing up in Dundee and influenced both by amateur astronomy and by the Pictish stones that are still dotting the landscape. We are reminded that ancient peoples would have seen the stars and would have constructed patterns, but that the Pictish constellations would have little relation to the Babylonian or Greek ones that have survived to the present day. The main part of the book is formed by five sections introducing the proposed constellations, those visible in winter, spring, autumn and summer, and finally those that are circumpolar. Each constellation is shown side by side as outline of a stone carving and as a map of stars with connecting lines for guidance. This is accompanied by some background information about the ancient myths, Pictish and otherwise. In the final chapter Martin provides some historical context, beginning with brochs (iron age round towers) and the proposal that these might have served to observe stars in the zenith. She closes with a mention of minor planet (3753) Cruithne, discovered in 1986 by Duncan Waldron, and named after the legendary first king of the Picts.

The limiting magnitude of the star charts is about 7. Sometimes only one star in the charts is named, leaving the orientation slightly ambiguous. The star symbol sizes are sometimes slightly at odds with the catalogued magnitudes of the stars. The reviewer had mixed success finding the constellations, but then he does not see elaborate figures in our Greek constellations either, and skies within travelling distance of the city are not nearly as dark as in Pictish times. Some bright constellations from the book are easy to make out, some others - though fainter - can help making sense of sky areas with few bright stars.

Horst Meyerdierks


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Book review: The lost language of the stars

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