Gazing at ancient skies

Astronomy before the Telescope

June 27, 1997

The celestial sphere is as much a part of human experience as the land and sea, and societies appear always to have been intensely interested in constructing meaningful relationships with it. These relationships were often practical, for example calendars and navigation, but lying behind the pragmatism were the pervasive and age-old influences of religion, myth and the formulation of cosmologies that adhered to the ideological imperatives of distinctive world-views. Consequently, during the long period preceding the invention of the telescope, the world's diversity of cultures produced distinctive conceptions of the heavens, of which western scientific astronomy is but one (albeit now dominant).

In light of this diversity, Astronomy before the Telescope is a fascinating but awkward book, characterised by a tension between competing objectives. In seeking global representation, there are chapters on prehistoric European (megalithic) astronomy, Africa, China, the Americas, and Australia and Polynesia. This should be applauded, but their inclusion creates problems that a critical introductory analysis could have addressed.

One problem is that nonwestern astronomies are embedded in wider cultural relationships with the natural world, whose investigation is more amenable to anthropology than to the history of science. As Wayne Orchiston says in his chapter on Australian, Polynesian and Maori astronomy, the achievements of these indigenous peoples played no part in the development of modern scientific astronomy and are thus reduced to cameo appearances. The same can be said for the other nonwestern chapters, including, partly, Colin Ronan's account of Chinese astronomy. Equally problematic is the extraction (from rich cultural contexts) of data on ancient astronomies that happen to fit modern criteria without due regard to contemporary perceptions.

The inclusion of Clive Ruggles's chapter on prehistoric European archaeoastronomy is a promising opening. He assesses the astronomical ramifications of Neolithic and Bronze Age megalithic stone monuments and seeks to contextualise them in wider cultural appreciations of solar and lunar symbolism in tandem with perceptions of architecture, landscape and religion. It was, however, to Sumerian civilisation's invention of writing around 3000 bc that we can trace the origins of astronomy in the western sense. John Britton's and Christopher Walker's account of Mesopotamian astronomy and astrology understandably focuses on calendrical issues, timekeeping, and the mathematical ephemerides that are Babylonia's principal contribution to scientific astronomy. Nevertheless, in the indistinguishable nature of astronomy and astrology in seventh century bc Babylonia, we perceive anthropologically interesting links between heaven and earth that characterise many traditional societies. We also see the hybrid origins, among cultures whose world-view was decidedly nonwestern, of what later metamorphoses into fundamentally European scientific astronomy.

Building on the substantive achievements of Mesopotamian astronomy we enter the heart of the book - seven chapters dealing with Europe from classical antiquity to the Renaissance. In a close and detailed assessment of Ptolemy and his Greek predecessors, G. J. Toomer explains how, while mathematically acceptable, Aristarchus's prescient heliocentric theory not only ran foul of Aristotelian physics, but entailed that the fixed stars must lie at unacceptably enormous distances. Ptolemy's Almagest, a remarkably successful blend of geometry-based theory and numerical prediction based on observation, was never regarded by its author as the final word on astronomy, though it fulfilled that function throughout antiquity. The intriguing (and still largely unpublished and unread) complexities of later Greek and Byzantine astronomy are the subject of an all-too-brief overview by Alexander Jones. The influence of political upheavals, Islam, and the confrontation of Arabic knowledge with the inherited Ptolemaic tradition is clearly a fertile field for future research.

By far the longest contribution is N. M. Swerdlow's chapter on Renaissance astronomy - justified by the fundamental transformation of astronomy represented by the mathematical and observational achievements of Copernicus and Tycho Brahe, and exemplified by Kepler's painstaking discovery that planetary orbits were ellipses not circles. Swerdlow covers these hugely important and complex issues with elegance and insight.

But what about the rest of the world ? David King's contribution on Islamic astronomy and David Pinigree's treatment of Indian astronomy are expert syntheses, variously sharing historically contingent cultural and intellectual connections with each other, classical antiquity, and medieval Europe. Their concerns with observational instrumentation, planetary periodicities and mathematical tables fit easily into the field of scientific astronomy. The same cannot be said for Africa, America, Australasia and Polynesia, where indigenous peoples had little or no ideological or philosophical predisposition towards western scientific concerns. These few chapters show that a key feature of naked-eye astronomy (in usually nonliterate societies) is the situating of celestial phenomena within metaphysical frameworks often regarded as superstition by modern science. Yet these are the same frameworks so intensively and fruitfully mined by anthropologists. Traditional societies, operating partly or totally in the oral tradition, are our nearest analogues to prehistoric cultures that existed in the immensity of time before writing - a period in which the fundamentally human (naked-eye) relationships with the celestial sphere were first conceived.

Nicholas J. Saunders is visiting fellow in archaeology, Southampton University.

Astronomy before the Telescope

Editor - Christopher Walker
ISBN - 0 7141 1746 3
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 352

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