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The Contemporary Review, Volume 36, September 1879

But it must also be perfectly horizontal


But

though theoretically this method is sufficient, it is open, in practice, to a serious objection. The sun's elevation, when he is nearly at his highest, changes very slowly; so that it is difficult to determine the precise moment when the shadow is shortest. But the direction of the shadow is steadily changing all the time that we thus remain in doubt whether the sun's elevation has reached its maximum or not. We are apt, then, to make an error as to time, which will result in a noteworthy error as to the direction of the north-and-south line.

For this reason, it would be better for any one employing this shadow method to take two epochs on either side of solar noon, when the sun was at exactly the same elevation, or the shadow of exactly the same length,--determining this by striking out a circle around the foot of the upright, and observing where the shadow's point crossed this circle before noon in drawing nearer to the base, and after noon in passing away from the base. These two intersections with the circle necessarily lie at equal distances from the north-and-south line, which can thus be more exactly determined than by the other method, simply because the end of the shadow crosses the circle traced on the ground at moments which can be more exactly determined than the moment when the shadow is shortest.

Now, we notice in this description of methods which unquestionably were followed by the very earliest

astronomers, one circumstance which clearly points to a feature as absolutely essential in every astronomical observing station. (I do not say "observatory," for I am speaking just now of observations so elementary that the word would be out of place.) The observer must have a perfectly flat floor on which to receive the shadow of the upright pointer. And not only must the floor be flat, but it must also be perfectly horizontal. At any rate, it must not slope down either towards the east or towards the west, for then the shadows on either side of the north-and-south line would be unequal. And though a slope towards north or south would not affect the equality of such shadows, and would therefore be admissible, yet it would clearly be altogether undesirable; since the avoidance of a slope towards east or west would be made much more difficult if the surface were tilted, however slightly, towards north or south. Apart from this, several other circumstances make it extremely desirable that the surface from which the astronomers make their observations should be perfectly horizontal. In particular, we shall see presently that the exact determination of elevations above the eastern and western horizons would be very necessary even in the earliest and simplest methods of observation, and for this purpose it would be essential that the observing surface should be as carefully levelled in a north-and-south as in an east-and-west direction.

We should expect to find, then, that when the particular stage of astronomical progress had been reached, at which men not only perceived the necessity of well-devised buildings for astronomical observation, but were able to devote time, labour, and expense to the construction of such buildings, the first point to which they would direct their attention would be the formation of a perfectly level surface, on which eventually they might lay down a north-and-south or true meridional line.

Now, of the extreme care with which this preliminary question of level was considered by the builders of the great pyramid, we have singularly clear and decisive evidence. For all around the base of the pyramid there was a pavement, and we find the builders not only so well acquainted with the position of the true horizontal plane at the level of this pavement, but so careful to follow it (even as respects this pavement, which, be it noticed, was only, in all probability, a subsidiary and quasi-ornamental feature of the building), that the pavement "was varied in thickness at the rate of about an inch in 100 feet to make it absolutely level, which the rock was not."[43]


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