Stars in ancient peoples' eyes

Astronomies and Cultures
June 30, 1995

The astronomy of ancient civilisations has long been a matter of considerable scholarly interest, but it was only a few decades ago that claims for sophisticated astronomical knowledge among the prehistoric inhabitants of western Europe captured the public's imagination. Particularly influential was Gerald Hawkins's Stonehenge Decoded, published in 1965, which put forward a number of controversial astronomical interpretations of the famous megalithic sanctuary. These triggered polemical discussion among archaeologists, astronomers and other scholars. Further studies led to critical assessments of the work of Hawkins and the earlier work of Alexander Thom and eventually to the formation of a new discipline, archaeoastronomy.

Astronomies and Cultures is one of two volumes published as proceedings of the third "Oxford" conference on archaeoastronomy. It contains ten papers synthesising the results of investigations in various parts of the world during various periods, and is intended for a wider readership than its companion volume, Archaeoastronomy in the 1990s, edited by C. L. N. Ruggles.

Partly as a result of the "Oxford" conferences, it is now accepted that ancient astronomies cannot be properly understood without considering their cultural context, social role and place in evolutionary processes. This holistic or anthropological approach, adopted by both archaeoastronomy and its sister discipline, ethnoastronomy, has not hitherto been shared by historians of the development of scientific astronomy in literate, historically documented societies. But the third "Oxford" conference revealed a need to constitute an all-encompassing field of research, for which the term cultural astronomy was proposed.

In a theoretical article on cultural astronomy, the editors C. L. N. Ruggles and N. J. Saunders define it as being "concerned with the diversity of ways in which cultures, both ancient and modern, perceive celestial objects and integrate them into their view of the world." Exploring the processes of formation and use of astronomically derived cultural manifestations, and maintaining that "a society's view of and beliefs about the celestial sphere are inextricably linked to the realm of politics, economics, religion and ideology", the authors conclude that "cultural astronomy is but part of the wider endeavour of investigating and interpreting human culture."

Other papers examine concrete research results. New material on the origin and development of Chinese astronomy and calendar is presented, as well as on the role of folk astronomy within Islamic religion. A paper on the riddle of red Sirius, analysing written sources on the colour and mythological significance attributed to the brightest star in classical antiquity, shows that an anthropological approach can offer a convincing solution to a long-standing problem. We also learn how the astronomical and calendrical ritual observances of pagan Europe at the dawn of the Middle Ages were transformed and incorporated into the Christian liturgical year and religious practice. The architecture of Vijayanagara, capital of the greatest empire of medieval India, is shown to materialise beliefs about sacred geography and cosmic order, including astronomical alignments; and we discover similar concepts embedded in the urban planning and cultural landscapes of ancient Mesoamerica. A contribution on medicine wheels demonstrates that the astronomical properties of these characteristic archaeological features of the North American Great Plains have often been overemphasised. Interesting new information is presented on the significance of the planet Venus in the the Mesoamerican world view, as well as on some notions of the Pleiades and other constellations common to both highland and lowland cultures of South America past and present.

Astronomies and Cultures will be exciting reading for anybody interested in the peculiarities and diversities of ancient cultures. It clearly shows that cultural astronomy has already come a long way.

Ivan Sprajc is a researcher, Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Mexico City.

Astronomies and Cultures

Author - Clive L. N. Ruggles and Nicholas J. Saunders
ISBN - 0 87081 319 6
Publisher - University Press of Colorado
Price - $33.95
Pages - 344

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