An Astrolabe Rant
Posted by Darin Hayton on 02/07 at 01:34 PM
Continuing my fixation on astrolabes, here I am going to rant a bit about a particular “Mini Eastern Astrolabe.” To be fair, this is a trinket sold at museum gift shops:
It is meant to be a souvenir. It is not billed as a replica or other functioning device. Nevertheless, I would think the British Museum, which has one of the larger collections of astrolabes, could find a better trinket, especially considering the price.
Here are my problems with this “Mini Eastern Astrolabe.” On the one hand, it is clearly styled on the later, eastern astrolabes. The rete and the throne closely resemble the 17th-century instruments made in Lahore. See, for example, those by Muḥammad Muqǐm here, here, and here.
Compare the British Museum astrolabe:
To an astrolabe from the Lahore:
Two things that bother me most about the BM’s “Mini Eastern Astrolabe” are:
First, astrolabes from Lahore and eastern astrolabes don’t typically have a rule on the front of the instrument. When there is a rule, it is frequently a later addition by some European collector. There are probably exceptions, but in general eastern astrolabe do not have a rule. See, for example, the scores of eastern astrolabes at the Museum of the History of Science: Arabic astrolabes.
Second, the small circle on the rete is a scale of the zodiac. On the BM’s “Mini Eastern Astrolabe” the names of the zodiacal signs have been replaced by names of the month (at least as far as I can tell from the picture on the website). To make matters worse, I think, the names are in a pseudo-medieval Latin script, e.g., Martivs.
I don’t need the souvenirs at gift shops to be perfect, but I would like them to conform to some basic standards. Simply removing the rule on the front would be a start. Engraving the names of the zodiac instead of the Latin month would be even better. Either or both would bring this trinket in line with the historical objects it purports to represent.
But maybe I’m just ranting, like Peter Barthel, the Dutch astronomer who was recently all worked up about the incorrect representations of the moon on Christmas cards: Santa and the Moon. If he can rant about getting the moon right—though he didn’t seem all that worked up about getting Santa right—on holiday cards that are not produced or sold by experts and don’t purport to reflect reality, I should be allowed my rant about a trinket that is sold by an organization that should know better and purports to reflect real things.
All I want is for the experts (and I think the BM should be considered an expert when it comes to astrolabes) to get the history of science right, or at least get it close.