Artifacts found among the ruins of a Nabataean temple, known as Khirbet Tannur have contributed to our knowledge of the art and religion of the ancient Nabataeans. At the same time, they have posed questions.
One of the most intriguing finds at this site was a Nabataean zodiac, which has been dated to the first quarter of the second century AD. Zodiacs were familiar throughout the Roman Empire and adjacent kingdoms. Even as late as the sixth century AD, elaborate mosaic zodiacs were commonly seen in the floors of churches and synagogues. Zodiacs were like calendars, expressing the belief of a cyclical passage of time. In addition, most of the practitioners of polytheistic religion believed in the power of the stars and planets to affect earthly events. The Nabataeans were apparently among these.
The zodiacal circle in the Nabataean zodiac found at Khirbet Tannur is supported by a winged niké, and surrounded by a mural-crowned tyche. Though the Nabataean sculpture is damaged, it still communicates a great deal to us.
One of the symbols of the Nabataean zodiac portrays Allat, the female goddess of fertility. She is armed with a lance or sword which can been seen faintly above her left shoulder. She may also have worn a diadem. An ancient festival was celebrated by the Nabataeans and their nomadic neighbors when the birthing of lambs marked the spring season. It was a time when grazing was good and the earth was green from the spring rains.
The Nabataean Sagittarius is rendered as the bust of a jovial youth. This youth probably bears a resemblance to Nabataean depictions of Al Kutbay, the god of learning and commerce. A spear or greatly enlarged arrow juts above the top of his left arm.
Capricorn is shown in the Nabataean panel as the damaged bust of a human figure, rather than the traditional Roman fish/goat that was common throughout the Roman Empire.
The remaining symbols of the Nabataean zodiac conform to their Roman counterparts but they are enlivened with original touches of artistic creativity. However, by far the most significant difference in the Nabataean zodiac is the arrangement of the order of the houses within the zodiacal circle.
The Roman version follows the traditional order known today. Beginning at the top and going counter-clockwise, the Roman zodiac runs as follows: (1) Aries, (2) Taurus, (3) Gemini, (4) Cancer, (5) Leo, and (6) Virgo. Then there is a break at the bottom after which the succession resumes with (7) Libra, (8) Scorpio, (9) Sagittarius, (10) Capricorn, (11) Aquarius, and finally (12) Pisces.
The Nabataean zodiac is different. The zodiac found at Khirbet Tannur begins counter-clockwise with (1) Aries, (2) Taurus, (3) Gemini, (4) Cancer, (5) Leo, and (6) Virgo. Then there is a break by the nikés head. So far, this is like the Roman version. Following the traditional order, one would expect (7) Libra to be next in the counter-clockwise progression. But this is not so! This space is occupied by (12) Pisces! Instead, the Nabataean Libra appears at the top, beside Aries. This begins a clockwise progression around the zodiacal circle’s opposite (left) side; beginning clockwise from (7) Libra at the top, the progression follows in order from (7) to (12) to end at the left side of the niké caryatid’s head.
Thus, the Nabataean zodiac found at Khirbet Tannur is extraordinary in its two opposite and completely separate halves. Some archeologists think that this denotes the existence of two New Year celebrations, one in the spring and the other in the fall, and this might help explain why there were two great festivals at Petra each year.
The bottom portion of this zodiac has now been located and reunited with the upper part.