The Zodiac of Paris: How an Improbable Controversy over an Ancient Egyptian Artifact Provoked a Modern Debate between Religion and Science

Overview

The Dendera zodiac—an ancient bas-relief temple ceiling adorned with mysterious symbols of the stars and planets—was first discovered by the French during Napoleon's campaign in Egypt, and quickly provoked a controversy between scientists and theologians. Brought to Paris in 1821 and ultimately installed in the Louvre, where it can still be seen today, the zodiac appeared to depict the nighttime sky from a time predating the Biblical creation, and therefore cast doubt on religious truth. The Zodiac of Paris tells...

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Overview

The Dendera zodiac—an ancient bas-relief temple ceiling adorned with mysterious symbols of the stars and planets—was first discovered by the French during Napoleon's campaign in Egypt, and quickly provoked a controversy between scientists and theologians. Brought to Paris in 1821 and ultimately installed in the Louvre, where it can still be seen today, the zodiac appeared to depict the nighttime sky from a time predating the Biblical creation, and therefore cast doubt on religious truth. The Zodiac of Paris tells the story of this incredible archeological find and its unlikely role in the fierce disputes over science and faith in Napoleonic and Restoration France.

The book unfolds against the turbulence of the French Revolution, Napoleon's breathtaking rise and fall, and the restoration of the Bourbons to the throne. Drawing on newspapers, journals, diaries, pamphlets, and other documentary evidence, Jed Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz show how scientists and intellectuals seized upon the zodiac to discredit Christianity, and how this drew furious responses from conservatives and sparked debates about the merits of scientific calculation as a source of knowledge about the past. The ideological battles would rage until the thoroughly antireligious Jean-François Champollion unlocked the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphs—and of the zodiac itself. Champollion would prove the religious reactionaries right, but for all the wrong reasons.

The Zodiac of Paris brings Napoleonic and Restoration France vividly to life, revealing the lengths to which scientists, intellectuals, theologians, and conservatives went to use the ancient past for modern purposes.

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Editorial Reviews

Journal of the History of Science
[T]his book [is] one of the best that I have read in the history of science in the last ten years.
— William R. Shea
Journal for the History of Astronomy
[M]agnificently erudite.
— Owen Gingerich
European Legacy
This book is a model of how to enliven the activities of scientists, theologians, and publicists by exposing the cultural parameters of their times.
— Donald J. Dietrich
Journal of BJHS
Through the circulation of visual representations and overlapping and conflicting interpretations of ancient Egyptian zodiacs, Buchwald and Josefowicz reanimate the tumultuous politics and ever-shifting landscape of late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century France and give us a rich view of this period's ongoing grapplings with the proper roles and limits of historical, scientific and religious evidence and argumentation.
— Jane Murphy
MAA Reviews
The story of the Frenchmen Fourier, Biot, and Arago in this saga makes for some interesting reading, as does the supporting roles played by such mathematical luminaries as Laplace, Poisson, and Lagrange.
— Michele Intermont
Metascience
This is one of the first profound studies of a momentous shift in the history of Western civilization, the emergence of a new godless cosmic and social order.
— David Aubin
New Scientist - Jo Marchant
An impressive piece of scholarship.
Journal of the History of Science - William R. Shea
[T]his book [is] one of the best that I have read in the history of science in the last ten years.
Journal for the History of Astronomy - Owen Gingerich
[M]agnificently erudite.
European Legacy - Donald J. Dietrich
This book is a model of how to enliven the activities of scientists, theologians, and publicists by exposing the cultural parameters of their times.
Journal of BJHS - Jane Murphy
Through the circulation of visual representations and overlapping and conflicting interpretations of ancient Egyptian zodiacs, Buchwald and Josefowicz reanimate the tumultuous politics and ever-shifting landscape of late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century France and give us a rich view of this period's ongoing grapplings with the proper roles and limits of historical, scientific and religious evidence and argumentation.
MAA Reviews - Michele Intermont
The story of the Frenchmen Fourier, Biot, and Arago in this saga makes for some interesting reading, as does the supporting roles played by such mathematical luminaries as Laplace, Poisson, and Lagrange.
Metascience - Robert Fox
While The Zodiac of Paris can be read as a tale of intriguing complexity and many surprises, it is also rich in perspectives that might potentially illuminate the broader intellectual and political alignments in Restoration society. . . . [C]ultural historians of nineteenth-century France should read and digest [this] book that offers not just a meticulously researched and finely written account of a fascinating episode but also a probe into the passage of a certain strand of Enlightenment values into the new, burgeoning world of nineteenth-century professional society.
Metascience - Theresa Levitt
The authors have uncovered one of those moments in the past that could never be guessed at given our current knowledge alone. The detail, care, and thoroughness with which they have resurrected these strange, contentious times can only be commended.
Metascience - David Aubin
This is one of the first profound studies of a momentous shift in the history of Western civilization, the emergence of a new godless cosmic and social order.
ISIS - James Evans
[A] wonderful book that richly repays close reading.
From the Publisher
"Groundbreaking. . . . The Zodiac of Paris provides intriguing insight into a tumultuous era."—Andrew Robinson, Nature

"An impressive piece of scholarship."—Jo Marchant, New Scientist

"[T]his book [is] one of the best that I have read in the history of science in the last ten years."—William R. Shea, Journal of the History of Science

"[M]agnificently erudite."—Owen Gingerich, Journal for the History of Astronomy

"This book is a model of how to enliven the activities of scientists, theologians, and publicists by exposing the cultural parameters of their times."—Donald J. Dietrich, European Legacy

"Through the circulation of visual representations and overlapping and conflicting interpretations of ancient Egyptian zodiacs, Buchwald and Josefowicz reanimate the tumultuous politics and ever-shifting landscape of late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century France and give us a rich view of this period's ongoing grapplings with the proper roles and limits of historical, scientific and religious evidence and argumentation."—Jane Murphy, Journal of BJHS

"The story of the Frenchmen Fourier, Biot, and Arago in this saga makes for some interesting reading, as does the supporting roles played by such mathematical luminaries as Laplace, Poisson, and Lagrange."—Michele Intermont, MAA Reviews

"While The Zodiac of Paris can be read as a tale of intriguing complexity and many surprises, it is also rich in perspectives that might potentially illuminate the broader intellectual and political alignments in Restoration society. . . . [C]ultural historians of nineteenth-century France should read and digest [this] book that offers not just a meticulously researched and finely written account of a fascinating episode but also a probe into the passage of a certain strand of Enlightenment values into the new, burgeoning world of nineteenth-century professional society."—Robert Fox, Metascience

"The authors have uncovered one of those moments in the past that could never be guessed at given our current knowledge alone. The detail, care, and thoroughness with which they have resurrected these strange, contentious times can only be commended."—Theresa Levitt, Metascience

"This is one of the first profound studies of a momentous shift in the history of Western civilization, the emergence of a new godless cosmic and social order."—David Aubin, Metascience

"[A] wonderful book that richly repays close reading."—James Evans, ISIS

New Scientist
An impressive piece of scholarship.
— Jo Marchant
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691145761
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 5/9/2010
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Jed Z. Buchwald is the Doris and Henry Dreyfuss Professor of History at the California Institute of Technology. His books include "The Creation of Scientific Effects: Heinrich Hertz and Electric Waves". Diane Greco Josefowicz teaches in the writing program at Boston University.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Chapter 1: All This for Two Stones? 9
Chapter 2: Antiquity Imagined 28
Chapter 3: The Origin of All Religions 47
Chapter 4: On Napoleon's Expedition 70
Chapter 5: One Drawing, Many Words 99
Chapter 6: The Dawn of the Zodiac Controversies 116
Chapter 7: Ancient Skies, Censored 146
Chapter 8: Egypt Captured in Ink and Porcelain 175
Chapter 9: Egyptian Stars under Paris Skies 222
Chapter 10: The Zodiac Debates 268
Chapter 11: Champollion's Cartouche 312
Chapter 12: Epilogue 334
Acknowledgments 341
Notes 343
Bibliography 379
Figure Sources 407
Subject Index 413
Name Index 419

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