In 1998, the ancient Kitora Tomb was discovered in Asuka, located in the Nara Prefecture of Japan. The tomb is relatively small but features beautiful paintings of animals (a black tortoise, a red phoenix, a white tiger, and a blue dragon) which represent the four points of the compass. Even more fascinating is a star chart on the ceiling which was discovered through further probing in 1998. In the years since, it has been the subject of a great deal of speculation as to its origins.
When was the star chart created? What does it represent? What was its purpose? These are questions upon which researchers have failed to come to universal agreement. We do know that the chart appears to depict 68 constellations in the night sky, and the rings depict the movement of celestial objects such as the sun. Japanese astronomy researchers have suggested a date of creation between 520 BC and 40 BC, which could make this the oldest surviving star chart of its kind. Evidently, the chart was created several hundred years before the Kitora Tomb itself.
Researchers Matsuru Soma and Tsuko Nakamura have come to the same conclusion with regard to the star chart’s vantage point: China. They believe that the view of the sky shown in the Kitora Tomb chart resembles the view that would be visible from modern-day Chinese cities such as Xi’an or Luoyang during this time period. A different hypothesis, from Kazuhiko Miyajima, is that the chart shows the view from Pyongyang or Seoul, in North and South Korea, respectively. Either way, it is curious that the chart depicts a view of the sky from a different vantage point from the place it was created.
An annotated diagram of the star chart makes it a little easier to understand:
As the research continues, we may eventually have answers to the persistent questions of the Kitora Tomb Star Chart’s origin and purpose. Until then, we are left to wonder.