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

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


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The Zodiac of Paris: How an Improbable Controversy over an Ancient Egyptian Artifact Provoked a Modern Debate between Religion and Science by Jed Z. Buchwald, Diane Greco Josefowicz

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691145761
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 05/09/2010
Pages: 376
Sales rank: 1,070,999
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.60(d)

About 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.

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

What People are Saying About This

John Steele

This is an important book about an exciting topic. By tackling a subject that has largely been forgotten—the role technical science could play in religious debates—Buchwald and Josefowicz open up new avenues for understanding eighteenth- and nineteenth-century science. The Zodiac of Paris provides fascinating insights into the wide-ranging debates in Napoleonic and Restoration France.
John Steele, Brown University


This book makes a major contribution to European scientific, intellectual, and cultural history. Buchwald and Josefowicz have wrested from oblivion a subject that no previous author, French or English, has analyzed in this form or breadth. The Zodiac of Paris not only embodies interdisciplinarity at its very best, but also exposes the nineteenth-century roots of many concerns of the twenty-first century.
Darius A. Spieth, author of "Napoleon's Sorcerers: The Sophisians"

Walter Isaacson

This is a fascinating study of how politics, science, and religion intersected in the heated debates over the meanings of the hieroglyphics on a pair of stones brought from Egypt to Paris in 1821. At the heart of the tale is the question of how we know the past. It has the excitement of a real-life archeology mystery combined with a clash between science and theology that has great resonance for today.
Walter Isaacson, author of "Einstein: His Life and Universe"

John Ray

This book presents important and fascinating themes, and skillfully combines them. The birth of Egyptology, the French Revolution, the rule of Napoleon, the age of the Earth, and our knowledge of the stars all feature in its chapters. Above all there is the ever-shifting relationship between science, religion, and atheism. I discovered something new on every page.
John Ray, University of Cambridge


Buchwald and Josefowicz give an account of the controversy surrounding the discovery of the spectacular circular zodiac of the temple of Dendera, currently installed in the ceiling of a room in the Louvre, discovered in the course of the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt. The authors skillfully weave the phases of that discourse, and its attendant scientific, personal, and theological controversies, into a brisk overview of the religious and political history of France from the late Enlightenment until the July Monarchy. At issue was the age of the temple, and hence of Egyptian civilization, as indexed by the zodiac, assumed to represent the contemporary state of the sky.
Charles C. Gillispie, professor emeritus, Princeton University

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