Stripped from the portico of a chapel dedicated to Osiris at the Hathor Temple at Dendera in 1820, then shipped to Paris, the beautifully carved bas-relief played an unlikely role in fierce disputes over science and faith in Napoleonic and Restoration France.
Today, the zodiac continues to spark debate. As the first known depiction in history of the classical zodiac of twelve signs, spiritualists peer at its enigmatic symbols looking for a reflection of modern-day astrological beliefs. Egyptologists insist it has no modern application, and is little more than an early planisphere created to document the heavens exactly as the Egyptians witnessed them at a specific point in mid-50 BC.
Another, more pressing concern for the Dendera Zodiac is that of its long-term future. Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) chief Dr Zahi Hawass has made the Dendera Zodiac a priority in his ongoing quest to see Egyptian antiquities repatriated.
What's the story behind this enigmatic masterpiece of ancient Egyptian craftsmanship? And does it really have any practical purpose today?
Signs of the Times
Carved from a slab of sandstone, the zodiac comes from the ceiling display of a domain dedicated to the goddesses Hathor and Isis at Dendera, where the mysteries of the resurrection of the god Osiris were celebrated. It shows the vault of heaven, as represented by a disc, held aloft by four women with assistance from spirits with falcon heads.
Around the circumference of the heavens thirty-six "decans" symbolise the 360 days of the Egyptian year. The constellations shown inside the circle include the twelve signs of the zodiac, most of which are represented almost as they are today - Aries, Taurus, Scorpio and Capricorn being obvious examples. Others are represented by more typically Egyptian iconography, such as Aquarius, which is represented by god of the Nile flood Hapy.
Represented too are the five planets known to the Egyptians at the time the zodiac was created. Venus is behind Aquarius, Jupiter is near Cancer, Mars is directly above Capricorn. The particular arrangement of the planets has proven instrumental in allowing experts to date the zodiac.
Egyptian Stars Under Paris Skies
The Dendera Zodiac first came to the attention of the French during Napoleon's campaign in Egypt in the early 19th century. It was to become a subject of heated argument in France over the next few decades - a subject written about extensively by professor of history and author Jed Z. Buchwald, particularly in his book The Zodiac of Paris.
In 1802 artist, author and archaeologist Vivant Denon (who would later be appointed the first director of the Louvre) visited Dendera and drew the zodiac, then later published engravings of the temple ceiling back in France. He immediately sparked a big row over its age.
Some radical thinkers argued that it clearly dated from several thousand years ago, and proved that the Greeks and Romans were mere scientific children next to the Egyptians - bold claims indeed in an age when, according to standard biblical chronology, the world was still considered to be no older than 4,000 years. Conservatives countered by claiming that the zodiac was in fact much younger, and dated from just a few hundred years back.
Press censorship by Napoleon's chief of police Joseph Fouché soon poured cold water on the discussion, but the debate flared again 20 years later, when French General Antoine Desaix - with the permission from Egyptian ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha - decided to remove the relief to France. In 1820, stone masons using saws, jacks, scissors and even gunpowder recklessly extracted the zodiac from the temple ceiling, then shipped it to Paris. By 1822, it was installed by Louis XVIII - who purchased the piece for the immense sum of 150,000 francs - in the Bibliothèque Nationale.
Story of the Dendera Affair
The "Dendera Affair," as it became known, promptly blew up. In the intense religious, ideological and political fervor of Restoration France, scientists and intellectuals seized upon the zodiac to discredit Christianity. Physicists such as Joseph Fourier and Jean-Baptiste Biot were convinced that the Dendera ceiling long pre-dated Christ, and presented an image of the Egyptian sky unstained by human imagination and Christian beliefs.
Theologians hit back by questioning the merits of scientific calculation as a source of knowledge about the past. The debate wasn't so much one about the zodiac itself, but rather about who had the right to speak with authority about antiquity - physicists and engineers, or philologists, linguists, and historians?
The ideological battle raged back and forth, before Jean-François Champollion - who was on the verge of cracking the mysteries of Egyptian hieroglyphics thanks to the Rosetta Stone - stepped in and unlocked the secrets of the zodiac. Despite being a thoroughly antireligious fellow himself, Champollion proved the church reactionaries right, albeit for all the wrong reasons.
By interpreting the hieroglyphic side markings depicted in Denon's drawings of the zodiac in situ, he was able to accurately date the artefact to the very late period of Greco-Roman domination of Egypt in the 1st century BC, thus upholding - at least for the moment - Christian beliefs in the relative youth of Egyptian society. Consequently, the argument over the zodiac slowly died out. The Pope was so delighted he offered Champollion a cardinalship.
"Time-Scanning Dial" or "Map of the Sky"?
From its pride-of-place in the ceiling of a vault in the Room of the Ancestors at the Louvre, where it was transported from the Bibliothèque Nationale in 1919, the Dendera Zodiac has become the basis for all kinds of colourful - some might say wacky - theories about what one can learn from gazing into its strange, mesmerising cycle of symbols and patterns. For many it's a horoscope mapping mankind's past and future, and proof that the ancient Egyptians were centuries ahead of their time when it came to charting the movements of the sky.
New age pseudo-scientists prescribe a significance for the Dendera Zodiac as grave as that of the Maya Long Count Calendar, which is popularly said to be ticking towards Armageddon in December 2012. One such eccentric is John Lamb Lash, an author and "exponent of the practice of mythology." In an article on his website titled, with Dan Brown-esque flourish, "The Dendera Revelation: Our Moment in the Mythic Order of the Ages," he describes the Dendera Zodiac as a "time-scanning dial," revealing the mythic pattern of humanity's experience over a cycle of 26 millennia, a cycle which is due to end very soon (around the same time as the Maya calendar times out, conveniently enough).
"Densely encoded with myth and historical allusion, this artefact preserves the wisdom of forgotten ancestors who saw into the secrets of time," he adds, quite fancifully. As the end of a 26,000-year cycle approaches, and "endtime triggers" such as mad cow disease and swine flu are flicked, "Dendera decoded can teach us how to live in the present with more wisdom and more wonderment," reckons Lash.
Marc Étienne of the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre entertains no such wild and doomy notions. On the Louvre website, he writes that the Dendera Zodiac should be interpreted simply as "a map of the sky rather than a giant horoscope or a perpetual astrological tool."
The great bas-relief freezes, quite literally in stone, a very specific moment for the movements of the heavens, by displaying a certain configuration of the planets among the constellations that occurs only once every thousand years or so. An astrophysicist has dated this point to between 15 June and 15 August 50 BC (further proving just how clever Champollion was in his accurate dating of the zodiac).
It might seem remarkable that the ancient Egyptians at this very early stage were employing many of the same signs of the zodiac that astrologers use today. Yet, this doesn't reflect an act of future-gazing on their part. Egyptian ideas were merely mingling with beliefs and icons from Greece and, in particular, Babylonia, where the concepts of Western astrology were founded.
"The representations of the signs of the zodiac as we know them today did not appear in Egypt until the Greco-Roman Period," writes Étienne. "This monument reflects the way Egyptian cultural elements merged with Babylonian and Greek astronomical and astrological theories, as a result of the Assyrian and Babylonian deportations of the 8th and 6th centuries BC, and the Persian and Greek invasions of the 6th and 4th centuries."
The Future of the Dendera Zodiac
Zahi Hawass's quest to see a number of prominent, unique or irregularly-removed Egyptian antiquities returned to their country of origin remains ongoing - just last month, he hosted an international conference on artefact repatriation in a bid to galvanize support among sympathetic nations. Alongside the Rosetta Stone, the Bust of Nefertiti, the Statue of Hemiunu and the Bust of Ankhhaf, the Dendera Zodiac is right at the top of his most-wanted list.
As proven by Hawass's strong-arm tactics last year in dealing with the Louvre over the French museum's refusal to return fragments of a Theban Tomb to Egypt - when he suspend all archaeological cooperation until Louvre bosses relented - the SCA chief is prepared to go to severe lengths to get what he wants.
Does Hawass have a good case when it comes to the Dendera Zodiac? Perhaps so. There are some interesting parallels with the removal of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon, another antiquity that's subject of a repatriation tug-of-war, between the New Acropolis Museum and the British Museum. Both were plundered abroad with flimsy permission from a then-government that evidently didn't consider protection of its heritage a priority issue. Both were extracted in a crude manner verging on archaeological vandalism. Were the same thing to happen to the Dendera Zodiac today, it would be undoubtedly be judged as both scientifically reprehensible and a violation of international law.
Certainly the French can take no pride in the crude way in which the zodiac made its way to Paris. But is that sufficient cause for them to give it back? The claim that the zodiac would have fallen into ruin had it been left in Egypt holds little water - by the 1820s, the Egyptians were becoming more and more aware of their remote past and were seeking to establish their own museums.
What's more, the zodiac can be viewed by many, many more people at the world's most visited museum than in the remote location of Dendera, or even the Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza, assuming that's where Hawass would ultimately intend for it to be installed should he get the piece back. As one of the most stunning Egyptian antiquities ever discovered - a thing of true beauty - it surely deserves that much?
Is it too late to rectify archaeological crimes of the past, and should pragmatism reign? Or should a grave wrong be righted, and the antiquity returned to Egypt, setting a bold example in the thorny argument over artefact repatriation the world over? Time will tell. For the moment, it's possible to make one firm prediction about the future of the zodiac, and without any help from a horoscope - controversy promises to continue to haunt this magnificent historical snapshot of the heavens wherever it goes.
Malcolm Jack is a freelance arts and entertainment journalist based in Glasgow, Scotland. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 2004 with an MA Honours Degree in History.