Astronomy of Ancient Cultures

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Astronomy of Ancient Cultures

Astronomy of Ancient Cultures

The science of archaeoastronomy combines the fields of astronomy and archaeology with the goal of uncovering clues to the importance of astronomy in ancient cultures. The pages below focus on a variety of early civilizations, but regardless of their differences, it is apparent that these cultures had one thing in common: astronomy was a backbone of their social, political, and religious systems. Astronomy is considered to be the most ancient science, although until recently it was not conducted as science for curiosity's sake or for the furthering of human knowledge. Instead, the study of the sky was a vital part of the theological foundation of early civilizations. The sky's obvious effects on Earth led to the view of an intense connection between celestial events and human affairs. The first question we must ask when we begin to study archaeoastronomy is: why did the ancients bother? The most obvious explanation derives from the fact that the sky is a dynamic and ever-changing scene. Due to the changing positions of the Sun, Moon, planets, stars, and other astronomical objects, astronomy probably began as a natural curiosity. Eventually, over a few generations patterns were noted in the sky, and the people began to assign a mythical value to certain patterns. The cyclical occurrence of the Sun, constellations, and to a lesser extent the planets, gave the impression of a cosmic order. Everyday observations, such as the rising and setting of the Sun, and seasonal observations, such as the summer and winter solstices, were carefully noted and often coincided with festivals. Astronomical events like eclipses and supernovae were often hailed as religious signs. Archaeoastronomy is a fascinating field which gives an immense insight into the mindsets of ancient cultures. The reference page below contains a listing of some of the best books and articles on the subject, as well as a list of interesting websites dealing with archaeoastronomy.

Mayan Astronomy

Incan Astronomy

North American Indian Astronomy

Neolithic Astronomy in Ancient Britain

Mesopotamian Astronomy

Indian Astronomy

Ancient Egyptian Astronomy

Islamic and Arab Astronomy

Chinese Astronomy

Archaeoastronomy References

Home | About StarTeach | Contact UsAstronomy of the MayansThe Importance of Astronomy in Mayan SocietyIn the Mesoamerican culture, the practice of astronomy was extremely important. To the Maya of Mesoamerica, this ancient science reflected order in the universe and the gods' place in it. This order reflected an inherent harmony present in their general theological view of the universe. To the Mayans, capturing the essence of time was of the utmost importance. In their cosmology, space and time were inevitably intertwined, as is evidenced by their complex calendar system that combines spatial attributes of the universe, such as animals and plants, with temporal movements of astronomical objects. Although the Mayans never invented water clocks or other specific time-keeping devices, they used the sky as a method of measuring the passage of time. The Mayans believed that celestial events were indicative of communication with the gods. Specific astronomical objects represented certain deities, whose divine lives were portrayed in the daily, monthly, and yearly changes in their appearance. The religious aspect of astronomy was also taken one step further: to astrology. The movement of constellations and other objects across the sky represented a connection between celestial events and human affairs. In other words, the practice of astronomy- in the form of astrology- was believed to have an influence on every Mayan.

Finally, probably one of the most tangible and practical benefits of astronomy was on agriculture. The appearance of certain constellations or planets in the sky heralded the planting season. The more they understood the sky, the more assurance there was that the people would not starve. It can be argued on this basis alone that astronomy was a practice which promoted the success of the Mayan civilization.

The Mayan Priest-AstronomersThe Mayan practice of astronomy was relegated to the ilhuica tlamatilizmatini, or "wise man who studies heaven". These priest-astronomers had a great amount of power, given the fact that they could essentially 'predict' the future. Their knowledge of the patterns of the sky, and of the mathematics that solves more complex patterns, led them to an exalted position in Mayan society. The figure below shows an astronomer with his eye stretched out to the heavens. Priest-astronomers spent the dark hours determining the time of night. Of course, the length of the days varies substantially from season to season, and therefore the astronomers had to be very knowledgeable about the sky in order to know the hour and to predict when the sun would rise again.

The Mayan astronomers officially began the day at sunrise, although for some Mayans the day began at either noontime, when the sun was at its highest point, or at sunset. Starting the day at these times may seem strange to those of us conditioned to a western view of time. However, our own time is relatively unusual: we start the day when the sun is almost at its anti-zenith, when it is at its highest point on exactly the other side of the Earth! The priest-astronomers recorded Mayan cosmology in codices, many of which were burned by the Spanish. A few codices remain, and several Spanish historians also recorded basic Mayan cosmology. Codex Vaticanus A is a wealthy source of information on how Mayans viewed the universe. In this document, as in the figure below, it is portrayed as a multi-layered universe consisting of thirteen levels of the heavens and nine layers of the underworld, with the Earth sandwiched in between and belonging to both.

Mayan CosmologyMichael Coe gives a wonderful explanation of Mayan cosmology in his article on Mesoamerican astronomy (see references). In the center of the universe, the Earth is layer one of the upper world and the underworld. It is conceptualized as a large wheel surrounded by the teoatl, or divine water, which is an ocean that extends to the horizon. The second layer, called Ilhuicatl metzli, is where the moon and clouds reside. The fixed stars lie in the next layer, known as Citlalco, where the deity Citlallicue ("She of the Starry Skirts") lives. The sun, also known as Ilhuicatl Tonatiuh, occupies the fourth layer, while Venus, the "Great Star," inhabits the fifth. Layer six is called Ilhuicatl Mamalhuazocan, or "Heaven of the Fire Drill," which represents an unidentified constellation (perhaps Orion's Belt). This layer is also where comets ("Stars that Smoke") come from, and where the fire serpents attend to their duty of bringing the sun from the east to the zenith. The seventh layer is the black or green heaven, fierce with winds or storms, and the eighth layer is blue heaven, which is where dust lies. The next layer, the home of thunder, is called Itztapal Nanatzcayan, or "Where Stone Slabs Crash Together." Layers ten, eleven, and twelve represent respectively the colors white, yellow, and red. Finally, the last layer, called Omeyocan, is where the dual male-female god, who created space and time, lives. The nine-layered underworld also played a significant part in Maya cosmology. The Milky Way was seen as a road of souls traveling to the underworld, or as the umbilical cord connecting heaven and the underworld to the Earth. As Michael Coe so eloquently states, "The Mesoamerican cosmos was one in constant flux, in which space and time were co-terminous, in which the heavenly bodies moved in fixed layers, and which was in constant peril of cataclysm".

Mayan AstronomyAlthough the Maya appreciated the sky as a whole and its infinite dimensions, they were particularly interested in certain specific astronomical objects. The sun, the moon, Venus, and specific star clusters and constellations were most important. These objects were given the most attention by the priest-astronomers, who spent generations finding the precise paths of these objects across the sky and through the seasons. The most important object in the sky is the sun, which is universally recognized as the prime life-giver on Earth. Tonatiuh, a red eagle with a large and all-seeing eye, was the god associated with the sun. Because of the tilt of the Earth's axis, the sun appears at different positions in the sky depending on the time of year. This tilt is what produces the seasons experienced on Earth. The Maya accurately calculated times when the sun would rise and set, and even more amazing, they determined the length of the solar year to be 365 days. A tropical year is actually 365.2422 days long, so they were very close in their calculations. Unfortunately, even this small error means that the calendar which they created based on their solar year calculations would be off by approximately one month every 100 years, or by almost a whole six months every 600 years. This is obviously a dramatic difference, but there is evidence that the priest-astronomers continually updated their records and predictions so that the calendar remained accurate throughout the generations. The moon was another object of interest to the Mayans. It was represented by a female deity who had powerful influence on terrestrial events. A waxing moon had the attributes of the beautiful, ideal woman, while a waning moon was considered to be an old female deity who ruled over childbirth. Around 300 C.E., the Mayans began to keep track of synodic lunations, or the interval between successive full moons. A Mayan astronomer calculated that there were exactly 149 moons over a period of 4400 days, which works out to an average lunation of 29.53 days. In the city of Palenque, it was found that there are 405 moons in 11,960 days, which means that an average lunation is 29.53086 days. This is remarkable accuracy, given that the actual average lunation is 29.53059 days. Venus held a particular attraction for the Mayans. It was considered to be connected with the major deity Quetzalcoatl. It was called Xux Ek, the "Great Star," and the Mayans knew that it is the same object that appears in both the morning and the evening at different times of the year. The priest-astronomers determined the synodic period of Venus (how long it takes to orbit the sun) to be 584 days, which is again incredibly close to the actual period of 583.92 days. When Venus rose in the mornings, it was considered bad luck, and everyone would stay inside their homes and block their chimneys so that the evil light from Venus could not enter. The Mayans also calculated the synodic periods of Mars as 780 days (actual = 779.936 days) and Mercury as 117 days (actual = 116 days), but they seemed uninterested in Jupiter and Saturn, the other bright planets. None of the planets were actually seen as objects different from the rest of the stars, which is unusual considering that they move significantly in relation to the fixed stars.

Certain star clusters and constellations also held special meaning for the Maya. For instance, the Pleiades star cluster appears in the morning sky around planting time, in late April. This meant that the Maya could plan ahead for the planting season, since they could predict the rising of the Pleiades in connection to the appearance of other constellations on the horizon. The Pleiades was called tianquiztli, which meant "marketplace". There is evidence that the Mayans thought of the Pleiades as being the center of the layer of fixed stars, rather than Polaris, around which the rest of the sky seemingly revolves. The builders of the ancient city of Teotihuacan, below, aligned their main street to the Pleiades. Polaris, or Xaman Ek, was, however, used by travelers to orient themselves on land.

The sky closer to the equator is the most vivid on Earth. Due to the fact that the Earth is a sphere, at a point on the equator people have the opportunity to view all of the constellations visible throughout the world, exactly twice the number visible at either of the poles. Constellations such as the Big Dipper, Orion's Belt, Cassiopeia, and the Southern Cross were also important to the Maya, although of course they were viewed differently than our western tradition teaches. Festivals were held when the Pleiades and Orion's Belt rose at sundown and vanished at dawn. Constellations are shown on the border of the Aztec calendar stone, shown below. More captivating objects such as comets were believed to be an even more direct link to the human world. If a comet, or "star that smokes," appeared in the sky, it foretold the death of a noble person. Often, correlations were made between celestial and terrestrial events, which led to a permanent linkage between humans and gods.

General predictions concerning the placement of astronomical objects in the sky at a certain time were not necessarily difficult to make, considering that there was an entire crew of priest-astronomers who had the sky entirely memorized. However, it is a completely different story to make accurate and specific predictions about certain astronomical events. We have already seen how the Maya determined synodic periods of several objects with amazing accuracy. On the whole, these calculations were simply done by counting, for instance, the number of lunar revolutions in a certain time period. For more complex calculations, however, mathematics was invented.

A prime example of the usefulness of mathematics is in the science of predicting eclipses. Solar eclipses, known as chi' ibal kin, or "to eat the sun," were a particular cause for distress among the Maya people. Eclipses can be terrifying events for those who do not understand the basic reasoning behind the occurrence, and so being prepared for them was important. Predicting eclipses is a considerably more complicated task than determining when the sun would rise or set, because it involved correlating the synodic lunations with the solar calendar. In other words, the movement of the Earth, the sun, and the moon all had to be taken into account, which is no small feat for anyone to accomplish. Since the orbital plane of the moon is inclined by 5 degrees to the plane of the Earth's orbit, eclipses do not happen at every full and new moon. Instead, they occur only when the moon happens to be in the ecliptic plane at the same time that it is at the correct position in line with the sun and Earth.

Maya priest-astronomers determined the nodes when the paths of the moon and sun cross, which is every 173.31 days. During this time, eclipses may occur within 18 days of the node. One example of an eclipse table resides in the Dresden Codex, which was written in the eleventh century in the northern Yucatan. The codex is made of ficus tree bark, and the pages are covered with lime for a glossy finish. The glyphs are painted in red and black with a very fine brush. In the eclipse section of the Dresden Codex, two numbers appear quite frequently. The numbers 177, which is approximately the length of six lunations, and 148, or five lunations, are representative of times when eclipses were predicted. The astronomers periodically corrected the eclipse tables, learning from their small mistakes and adjusting the calendars, and so on several occasions we see that the number 178 appears in place of 177. In effect, the eclipse tables consist of columns and rows of the numbers explained above, and in some cases, the eclipse glyph is presented instead. This symbolizes days when an eclipse could be expected, and if one did occur, the number was replaced by the eclipse glyph.

Mayan MathematicsThe Maya mathematical system on which all this was based was incredibly advanced, and it was developed starting about 500 B.C.E. During the period of the Dark Ages in Europe, the Mayan system was more refined than any in the world at that time. They used a vigesimal, or base 20, number system, which seems foreign to us but is actually quite easy to use with practice. Mayan numbers consist of a series of dots and bars, where dots have a value of one and bars represent five. The numbers one through nineteen, and a series of glyphs representing the number zero, are shown in the picture below.

Our base 10 number system uses a decimal system based on powers of ten, i.e. 1; 10; 100; 1000; and so on. The Mayan system operated on exactly the same principles, except that the 'decimals' were based on powers of twenty, i.e. 1; 20; 400; 8000; 160000. An example of simple addition of a large number is shown in the figure below . The Maya also developed the concept of zero, which had immense benefit as a place-holder and vastly simplified basic arithmetic, along with making it possible to do more complex calculations.

The Mayan CalendarPerhaps the most important application of the Mayan mathematical system was in the development of their calendars. The Mayans were obsessed with numerology, and used many "special numbers" to create their two interconnected calendars. The ritual calendar consisted of thirteen 20-day periods, which totaled 260 days. Although it is unclear exactly why the Maya chose a 260-day calendar, there are several theories. First, the numbers 13 and 20 were two of the numbers considered to have magical powers. Second, by coincidence, two ritual calendar years (520 days) is the same as 3 eclipse half-years (520 days). Finally, although this is a controversial idea, 260 days is approximately the length of human gestation (266 days). It seems likely that a combination of these factors influenced the creation of the 260-day ritual calendar. Each day in a 20-month period of the ritual calendar is represented by a specific animal, plant, or natural force. The Maya also developed a solar calendar, detailing the so-called Vague year. It was 365 days long, consisting of eighteen 20-day periods plus a final five "days without name," which were considered unlucky. Certain groupings of years held special meaning. For instance, the 52 Vague year cycle represented the time when both the ritual and the Vague calendars would again correlate to the same starting day. In addition, the 52 years were broken down into four 13-year periods, each being thought of as a specific cardinal direction. In addition to this connection between the calendars, there are several other mathematical coincidences that had great importance. There are exactly 146 ritual years in 65 synodic periods of Venus, and similarly eight Vague years are equal to five synodic periods of Venus . The Maya used their knowledge of the sky and their mathematical prowess in a symbiotic relationship, where astronomical cycles precipitated the use of numbers and vice-versa.

Alignment of Mayan Buildings and TemplesIt has been recognized by archaeologists that many buildings and temples in Mayan cities have astronomical orientations. This is a field in which there is much on-going work, particularly by Anthony Aveni and his colleagues (see references). Aveni states that "while most Mesoamerican cities exhibit a planned appearance, frequently one or more buildings at a given site seem out of line relative to neighboring structuresOne possibility is that astronomical events occurring on or near the horizon could have determined the way a building would face".

A prime example of astronomical orientation is the so-called Building J at Monte Alban, which was built around 275 B.C.E. This building was constructed in an arrow shape, and Aveni found that five of the brightest stars in the sky would at that time have set approximately at the point of the arrow. In addition, a line drawn perpendicular to the front steps of the building would have pointed directly to the place on the horizon at which the bright star Capella rose. By coincidence, it seems that the appearance of Capella at this position could have heralded the passage of the sun through the zenith (the point directly overhead), since at Monte Alban these events are almost simultaneous. Evidence of this appears in the presence of a zenith tube at the same site, which points directly overhead and effectively finds the sun's zenith passage. An example of a zenith tube, this one from the city of Xochicalco, is shown in the figure below.

Mayan cities all show signs of astronomical orientation in the construction of buildings. Many of these were actually observatories that had special viewing windows set into the walls. Each window corresponded to a celestial event, for instance the rising of the star Sirius or the setting of the Pleiades. Buildings were purposefully aligned with bright stars like Capella and Sirius, or with Venus, or with the position of the sun's transit. This diagram of Uxmal shows the astronomical placement of buildings as determined by Anthony Aveni.

The fact that the construction of Maya cities depended on astronomy is proof of the intense relationship that Maya had with the sky. The priest-astronomers' power was indicative of the essence of their duties: if someone can foretell the actions of astronomical objects which are linked to gods, then in the Mayan frame of reference that person is in communication with the deities. Astronomy therefore characterizes many facets of Mayan life, including religious aspects such as connecting the gods' actions to humans' lives and practical aspects like measuring time and preparing for planting season. Primarily, though, the Mayan practice of astronomy was actually astrology. The dynamic universe was viewed as the infinite home of the gods, and the work of the men who studied this universe brings a unique perspective to our modern science of astronomy.

REFERENCES FOR THIS PAGE:Anthony Aveni. Ancient Astronomers. Smithsonian Books, 1993. Anthony Aveni. "Astronomy in Ancient Mesoamerica." In In Search of Ancient Astronomies, edited by E.C. Krupp. Doubleday and Company, 1977. 165-202. Anthony Aveni. "Possible Astronomical Orientations in Ancient Mesoamerica." In Archaeoastronomy in Pre-Columbian America, edited by Anthony Aveni. U. of Texas Press, 1975. 163-190. Anthony Aveni. Skywatchers of Ancient Mexico. U. of Texas Press, 1980. Michael Coe. "Native Astronomy in Mesoamerica." In Archaeoastronomy in Pre-Columbian America, edited by Anthony Aveni. U. of Texas Press 1975. 3-31. Evan Hadingham. Early Man and the Cosmos. Walker and Company, 1984. Guillermo Hinojosa. Personal interview. April 25, 2000. E.C. Krupp, Echoes of the Ancient Skies: The Astronomy of Lost Civilizations. Harper and Row, 1983. The Maya Astronomy Page. Colin A. Ronan. Changing Views of the Universe. MacMillan, 1961. Clive Ruggles. Mesoamerican Images. Clive Ruggles. Peruvian Images.

Astronomy of the IncasThe Inca empire was a powerful social organization which amazingly only lasted a century before the Spanish conquest of the New World. It began when a military leader named Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui brought western South America under one rule, following the demise of the earlier Huari and Tiwanaku cultures. The new empire was centered politically and spiritually at the city of Cuzco in the Andes Mountains, but it encompassed over 375,000 square miles. The society was very organized, with strict laws and demarcation of classes.

Astronomy played a key role in their culture, particularly due to the importance of agriculture. The city of Cuzco was laid out in a radial plan which mimicked the sky and pointed to specific astronomical events on the horizon. Like Ancient Egypt and India, this was a horizon-based culture. The most important events to the Inca involved certain risings and settings of the Sun, Moon, and stars. For instance, when the Pleiades star cluster rose, it signaled the start of the Incan year. The Pleiades were called the Seven Kids after the seven brightest stars in the cluster, but the Inca were actually able to see 13 stars due to the clear atmosphere at the high altitude of Cuzco.

Astronomy was used extensively for agricultural purposes. The Inca built carefully oriented pillars on hills overlooking Cuzco, and when the Sun rose or set between the pillars, it was time to plant at a specific altitude. A whole range of pillars was employed so that the most accurate time-keeping was possible for the high altitudes, the valley floor, and everywhere in between. The people ritually made sacrafices to the Sun asking him to rise in the proper place for planting.

The astronomers recognized the planet Venus as the same whether it appeared as the morning or evening star. They believed that Venus was a servant of the Sun and was ordered to go ahead of or behind the Sun, but always remain close.

The Inca built observatories where they captured the first and last rays of the Sun through a series of specially placed windows. Their chief observatory was called the Coricancha, or 'golden enclosure', and was covered completely in gold. A gold sun disk faced the rising sun. As in the case of so many other New World sites, the gold was pillaged by the invading Spanish. A drawing of an Inca sun ceremony is pictured below.

REFERENCES FOR THIS PAGE:Anthony Aveni, Stairways to the Stars, John Wiley & Sons, 1997.Inca Civilization.

Ancient Astronomy of the North American IndiansThe astronomy practiced by Native Americans is impossible to summarize in one explanation, since the tribes had such diverse traditions and legends. The impressive aspect of their astronomy lies in the fact that many of the tribes were hunters and gatherers. This contrasts sharply with the other ancient cultures studied here, which developed the practice of astronomy after becoming equipped with the technology of agriculture.

The Anasazi of Chaco Canyon, New MexicoThe Anasazi were a mysterious people who lived in Arizona and New Mexico about a thousand years ago. They built high cliff dwellings, the ruins of which remain today. Little is known about their way of life, but several tantalizing clues were left in the form of cave art. A recently discovered site called Penasco Blanco shows a depiction on a cave wall of what must be a supernova explosion (see picture below). The relative orientations of the crescent moon and the star make it very likely that this is a recording of the supernova which created the Crab Nebula in 1054 A.D. This supernova, which would have been about five times brighter than Venus for about three weeks, was also recorded by Chinese astronomers. Another very interesting site is called the Anasazi sun dagger. It is a spiral design traced into a cave wall, and during midsummer, midwinter, and the equinoxes it is perfectly bisected or surrounded by daggers of sunlight which enter the specially placed windows. The Anasazi also built a solar observatory called Hovenweep Castle at Four Corners. All of this evidence points to the fact that the Anasazi were quite experienced sky-watchers, as are their probable descendents, the Pueblo Indians.

The Pueblo Indians of New MexicoStudying the astronomical practices of the Pueblo gives us a glimpse into the astronomy of ancient groups such as the Anasazi. The Pueblo Indians lived in a society completely dominated by a strict religious order. Timing ceremonies was vital to them, and they devised a type of knotted cord that allowed them to keep track of the solar cycles. Summer solstice was a particularly important time for them: an individual known as the sun priest would watch for the summer solstice through a notch in the wall of a 'sun tower'. At the proper time, the sun priest would warn the people, speaking words which were thought to come directly from the sun.

Big Horn Medicine Wheel, WyomingThe Big Horn Medicine Wheel is a mysterious stone marking which was placed at the summit of a 10,000 foot mountain between 200-400 years ago, probably by the Cheyenne Indians (see photo below). It has a diameter of 90 feet, with 28 spokes that radiate outward and apparently stand for the number of days in a month. Although the orientation has been debated, it seems that the medicine wheel marks both the rising and setting sun on the summer solstice. Other stones in the arrangement mark the rising of the bright stars Aldebaran, Rigel, and Sirius. Other medicine wheels have also been found to have astronomical orientations, such as one at Moose Mountain in Canada, which was probably built between 100-500 A.D.

Pawnee Indians of the North Central U.S.The Skidi band of Pawnee are known to have had a complex religion of which astronomy was a large part. Their attempts to feel connected with the sky went so far as to design their lodges and villages with astronomy in mind. Villages were laid out in the position of the most important stars in the sky. In the last corner of the village was a shrine to the morning star (Venus), and in the west was another shrine to the evening star (also Venus). The doors of the lodges always faced east to the rising sun, and four posts representing the four important directions (northwest, northeast, southwest, and southeast) were used to hold up the lodge. The domed roof represented the sky. Part of their creation myth says that Mars, the red morning star warrior, mated with Venus, the female evening star, to produce the first humans. To the Pawnee, the solstices were not important, and they instead worshipped the Pleiades cluster. The pole star was considered to be a chief protecting the stars and the people, which makes sense because the north star is always up and everything else in the sky revolves around it. A Pawnee star chart can be seen in the picture below.

Chumash Indians of the California CoastThe Chumash had a particularly developed view of astronomy. The Sun was seen as a widower who carried a torch through the sky, while the Moon was a female god in charge of human health. They viewed Venus differently depending on when it appeared. As the morning star it was good, and as the evening star it was feared because it represented the underworld. The Chumash identified Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, as well as a number of stars as dim as sixth magnitude. Their major religious ceremonies took place around the time of the winter solstice, which was seen as a critical time during which the Sun might decide not to return. Winter solstice ceremonies were marked by praying and chanting to pull the Sun back to Earth.

REFERENCES FOR THIS PAGE:Evan Hadingham, Early Man and the Cosmos, Walker and Company, 1984.Penasco Blanco. Pawnee Star Charts. Wheels: Sun and Stars.

Neolithic Astronomy in BritainPerhaps the most mysterious ancient astronomy is that practiced by the neolithic people of Britain and Western Europe. Beginning around 3000 B.C. the people of this region began accumulating giant stones called megaliths and placing them in specific shapes with special orientations. The most famous example of this is Stonehenge, a site on a plain in southern England (see picture below). This monumental feat was begun five thousand years ago, and was continually reconstructed and added on to for two thousand years. The large stones weigh about 30 tons each, and were probably dragged by oxen from a site 20 miles away, while the central volcanic stones come from Wales, over 130 miles away. The astronomical orientations of these stones are generally without question, although archaeoastronomers believe in different levels of the people's scientific capability. What makes Neolithic astronomy more mysterious is the fact that only the monuments remain; the people had no writing system at that time with which to record their motivations.

At Stonehenge, astronomical alignments are hard to judge because stones were placed next to each other sometimes hundreds of years apart. However, it is commonly accepted that Stonehenge recorded the rising and setting positions of the Sun and Moon at the height of each season. In addition, the oldest stone at the site, called the Heel Stone, was placed at the entry to Stonehenge in such a position that sighting it from the center of the monument points directly to the summer solstice. It has also been suggested that the outer series of holes could have acted as a computer to predict lunar eclipses. This use is the most advanced stage of neolithic astronomy, and is still debated among archaeoastronomers. The picture below shows a schematic of the astronomical orientations at Stonehenge.

Studies of other neolithic sites throughout Britain and France show that many sites have a mathematical significance as well. At the Avebury stone ring, 17 miles north of Stonehenge, the common neolithic unit of distance, called the megalithic yard, is highlighted. The circumferences of the circles of stones are significant: 25 or 50 megalithic yards (a megalithic yard is 2.71 feet). Many of the circles have diameters of 4, 8, 12, 16, or 32 megalithic yards. In an effort to achieve a value of pi which was an integral number, some of the circles are flattened at the top. It is also evident that these people were aware of the geometric relation that we call Pythagorean's theorem for a right triangle. Several shapes are constructed based on an interweaving of circles and right triangles. Some of the stones could be used as sights to distant mountain ranges, where astronomical events could be pin-pointed.

REFERENCES FOR THIS PAGE:Anthony Aveni, Stairways to the Stars, John Wiley & Sons, 1997.Evan Hadingham, Early Man and the Cosmos, Walker and Company, 1984.Stonehenge Photo Gallery. http://www.sacred-destinat

Astronomy of Mesopotamia: Sumeria, Babylon, and AssyriaAstronomy began with the first settlements of agricultural societies. Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is today Iraq, was the birthplace of civilization almost 10,000 years ago. It is in ancient Sumeria that we find the oldest records of the study of astronomy. Babylon and Assyria were later civilizations in the same geographic area, and inherited the Sumerians' astronomical traditions and many of their myths and legends surrounding the skies. They in turn developed their own astronomical culture and passed it on to the Greeks and eventually to our modern world. Perhaps the greatest legacy to modern western astronomy was left to us by the Babylonians. We still use many of their original constellations, and the records they kept of astronomical occurences allow us a glimpse into their view of the heavens.

Purposes of Astronomy in Ancient Mesopotamian CivilizationAs in most ancient cultures, astronomy was actually practiced as astrology. Astronomical events, whether they were every-day occurences or rare incidents, had a deep religious meaning for the people. It was believed that all things happened for a reason. This spiritual angle often spilled over onto the social or political levels as well. Kings and nobles relied heavily on omens which were witnessed and interpreted by a powerful group of priest-astronomers. Lives were lived according to the advice of these astronomers, who seemingly were able to understand the universe and make predications based on their observations.

A great deal of astronomical mythology was handed down from the Sumerians. Constellations that we still use today, such as Leo, Taurus, Scorpius, Auriga, Gemini, Capricorn, and Sagittarius, were invented by the Sumerians and Babylonians between 2000-3000 B.C. These constellations had mythical origins, the stories of which are common throughout the western world. The Babylonians created a zodiac, which marked the twelve constellations that the sun, moon, and planets travel between during their movements through the sky.

However, besides being the manifestation of legends, the constellations provided a practical use for the people of ancient Mesopotamia. Like in other societies, the orientation of the constellations was used to mark seasons for harvesting or sowing crops. Certain constellations were noted for their yearly rising or setting times, and provided an accurate clock by which time could be measured. The Babylonians kept written records of calendars used for planting.

Babylonian RecordsBabylonians kept records on clay tablets using a type of writing called cuneiform. At first this was generally for business purposes, in order to keep track of financial transactions and inventories. Several cuneiform tablets have been found, however, that focus on more scientific topics. One notable example is the Venus Tablet of King Ammizaduga, pictured below, which demonstrates the scientific methodology used by the Babylonian astronomers. The main topic of this tablet is the appearance and disappearance of the planet Venus as it goes from being an evening star to a morning star. Based on the detailed astronomical patterns mentioned in this tablet, modern scientists were able to use computers to determine that the Venus tablet was probably written in the year 1581 B.C. Another astronomical cuneiform tablet was found in the tomb of King Ashurbanipal of Ninevah, and also details the times of Venus' appearance and disappearance from the horizon.

Scientific BreakthroughsThe Babylonians not only recognized Venus as the same object whether it appeared in the morning or evening, but they actually developed a method for calculating the length of the Venus cycle! According to the Babylonians, the length of one cycle was 587 days, compared with the actual value of 584 days. The slight difference is due to the fact that they attempted to coincide these astronomical cycles with phases of the moon.

Both the Babylonians and the Assyrians were able to predict lunar eclipses. They applied a simple method which made future predictions based on past observations. Several cuneiform tablets list series of lunar eclipses and mark time between successive events.

One of the major breakthroughs of the Babylonians was their invention of the degree system to distinguish positions in the sky. The system was similar to our use of degrees to calculate latitude and longitude. The Greeks adopted the degree system and also many of the Babylonian constellations, which they renamed in Greek.

REFERENCES FOR THIS PAGE:Anthony Aveni, Stairways to the Stars, John Wiley & Sons, 1997.J. Norman Lockyer, The Dawn of Astronomy, MIT Pres

Astronomy of Ancient IndiaEarly Indian AstronomyThe practices of astronomy and astrology in ancient India had their roots almost four thousand years ago. Much of what we know about Indian astronomy comes from the Sanskrit sacred books called the Vedas. These religious texts were a series of hymns composed over several hundred years, and offer intriguing insights into the way Indians of the time viewed the sky. As in most ancient cultures, events in the heavens were believed to have direct effects on people. The practice of astrology, of divining a person's future based on physical phenomena, was a driving force in the advancement of astronomy as a science. In the Veda texts, the gods were called Devas, which means 'bright' and refers to the luminous nature of the sun and stars. The Sun, comets, the sky, dawn, and the horizon were all deified based on their attributes. To the ancient Indians, the horizon held an immense amount of mystique: it was there that the question 'Will the sun rise again?' was answered every day. A beautiful verse from a Veda mentioning the Indian affinity for dawn says:'Thou art a blessing when thou art nearRaise up wealth to the worshipper, thou mighty DawnShine for us with thy best rays, thou bright DawnThou daughter of the sky, thou high-born Dawn.'The earliest Veda text mentioning astronomy is called the Rig Veda, and was written around 2000 B.C. At that time, the earth was considered to be a shell supported by elephants, which represented strength, and were themselves supported by a tortoise, representing infinite slowness.

Indian Astronomy in the First MilleniumAs time progressed, Indian astronomy became more scientific and less spiritual. Beginning in the first century, it seems clear that Indian astronomers recognized that the stars are the same as the Sun, only farther away. Verses mention that the night sky is full of suns, and that when our Sun goes below the horizon, a thousand suns take its place. This is an incredible scientific leap in thought. The Earth was at this time considered to be spherical, and various astronomers attempted to measure its circumference. Interestingly enough, the Sun was widely believed to be the center of the universe, an idea which pre-dates western science (with the exception of a few Greek believers) by about 1100 years. However, this idea may be much older: vague references to the sun being in the center of the universe exist in Vedic writings from as early as 3000 B.C.In the 5th century, a great Indian astronomer and mathematician named Aryabhatta advanced this heliocentric theory and also discussed his idea that the Sun is the source of moonlight. He also studied how to forecast eclipses (see photo below). His books and others were translated into Latin in the 13th century, and profoundly influenced European mathematicians and astronomers. Several Indian scientists of the 6th century also were the first to advance the idea of gravity. They noticed that a special force keeps objects stuck to the earth, and hypothesized that the same force might be responsible for holding heavenly bodies in their place. The idea pre-dates Newton's conception of gravity by about 1100 years.

REFERENCES FOR THIS PAGE:J. Norman Lockyer, The Dawn of Astronomy, MIT Press, 1894.History of Indian Astronomy. http://www.stormpage

Ancient Egyptian AstronomyOne of the earliest advanced civilizations, Ancient Egypt, had a rich religious tradition which permeated every aspect of society. As in most early cultures, the patterns and behaviors of the sky led to the creation of a number of myths to explain the astronomical phenomena. For the Egyptians, the practice of astronomy went beyond legend: huge temples and pyramids were built to have a certain astronomical orientation. Although many of the religious aspects of Egyptian life were known for centuries, it was not until recently that a number of archaeoastronomers attempted to find out how important astronomy really was in ancient Egypt.

Foremost of the archaeoastronomers, and one of the pioneers in the field, was Sir Norman Lockyer, a British astronomer who lived from 1836-1920 and extensively studied Egyption astronomy. In his wonderful book 'The Dawn of Astronomy', Lockyer breaks ancient astronomy into three distinct phases. First, a civilization goes through the worship stage, where astronomical phenomena are viewed only as the actions, moods, and warnings of the gods. Next, a civilization progresses to using astronomy for terrestrial purposes, such as for agriculture or navigation. The final step is to study astronomy solely for the sake of gaining knowledge. The Ancient Egyptians started in the worship stage and eventually began to see how astronomy could help them in their everyday lives.

Astronomical WorshipThe Egyptian gods and goddesses were numerous and are pictured in many paintings and murals. Certain gods were seen in the constellations, and others were represented by actual astronomical bodies. The constellation Orion, for instance, represented Osiris, who was the god of death, rebirth, and the afterlife. The Milky Way represented the sky goddess Nut giving birth to the sun god Ra. In the picture below, Nut is shown bending over the Egyptians. The stars in Egyptian mythology were represented by the goddess of writing, Seshat, while the Moon was either Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing, or Khons, a child moon god.

The horizon was extremely important to the Egyptians, since it was here that the Sun appeared and disappeared daily. A hymn to the Sun god Ra shows this reverance: 'O Ra! In thine egg, radiant in thy disk, shining forth from the horizon, swimming over the steel firmament.' The Sun itself was represented by several gods, depending on its position. A rising morning Sun was Horus, the divine child of Osiris and Isis. The noon Sun was Ra because of its incredible strength. The evening Sun became Atum, the creator god who lifted pharoahs from their tombs to the stars. The red color of the Sun at sunset was considered to be the blood from the Sun god as he died. After the Sun had set, it became Osiris, god of death and rebirth. In this way, night was associated with death and day with life or rebirth. This reflects the typical Egyptian idea of immortality.

Astronomy for Practical UsesThe center of Egyptian civilization was the Nile River, which flooded every year at the same time and provided rich soil for agriculture. The Egyptian astronomers, who were actually priests, recognized that the flooding always occurred at the summer solstice, which was also when the bright star Sirius rose before the Sun. The priests were therefore able to predict the annual flooding, which made them quite powerful.

Many Egyptian buildings were built with an astronomical orientation. The temples and pyramids were constructed in relation to the stars, zodiac, and constellations. In different cities, the buildings had different orientations based on the specific religion of that place. For instance, some temples were constructed to align with a star that either rose or set at harvest or sowing time. Others were oriented toward the solstices or equinoxes. As early as 4000 B.C., temples were built so that sunlight entered a room at only one precise time of the year.

An alternative building method was to gradually narrow successive doors into a specific room, in order to concentrate the sunbeams onto a god's image on the wall. The designs sometimes became quite complex. At the temple of Medinet Habu, there are actually two buildings which are slightly off-kilter. It has been suggested that the second one was built when the altitude of the other temple's orientation stars changed over a long period of time. The picture below shows Medinet Habu and the relative orientation of its temples.

REFERENCES FOR THIS PAGE:J. Norman Lockyer, The Dawn of Astronomy, MIT Press, 1894.Egyptian Papyrus. Habu. http://www.museumphoto

Arab and Islamic AstronomyDuring the period when Western civilization was experiencing the dark ages, between 700-1200 A.D., an Islamic empire stretched from Central Asia to southern Europe. Scholarly learning was highly prized by the people, and they contributed greatly to science and mathematics. Many classical Greek and Roman works were translated into Arabic, and scientists expanded on the ideas. For instance, Ptolemy's model of an earth-centered universe formed the basis of Arab and Islamic astronomy, but several Islamic astronomers made observations and calculations which were considerably more accurate than Ptolemy's. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Islamic astronomy is the fact that it built on the sciences of two great cultures, the Greek and the Indian. Blending and expanding these offen different ideas led to a new science which later profoundly influenced Western scientific exploration beginning in the Renaissance.

Purposes of Islamic AstronomyPerhaps the most vital reason that the Muslims studied the sky in so much detail was for the purpose of time-keeping. The Islamic religion requires believers to pray five times a day at specified positions of the sun. Astronomical time-keeping was the most accurate way to determine when to pray, and was also used to pin-point religious festivals. The Muslim holy book, the Koran, makes frequent reference to astronomical patterns visible in the sky, and is a major source of the traditions associated with Islamic astronomy.

Another important religious use for astronomy was for the determination of latitude and longitude. Using the stars, particularly the pole star, as guides, several tables were compiled which calculated the latitude and longitude of important cities in the Islamic world. Using this information, Muslims could be assured that they were praying in the direction of Mecca, as specified in the Koran.

Aside from religious uses, astronomy was used as a tool for navigation. The astrolabe, an instrument which calculated the positions of certain stars in order to determine direction, was invented by the Greeks and adopted and perfected by the Arabs (see picture below).

The sextant was developed by the Arabs to be a more sophisticated version of the astrolabe. This piece of technology ultimately became the cornerstone of navigation for European exploration.

Great Islamic AstronomersScience was considered the ultimate scholarly pursuit in the Islamic world, and it was strongly supported by the nobility. Most scientists worked in the courts of regional leaders, and were financially rewarded for their achievements. In 830, the Khalifah, al-Ma'muun, founded Bayt-al-Hikman, the 'House of Wisdom', as a central gathering place for scholars to translate texts from Greek and Persian into Arabic. These texts formed the basis of Islamic scientific knowledge.

One of the greatest Islamic astronomers was al-Khwarizmi (Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi), who lived in the 9th century and was the inventor of algebra. He developed this mathematical device completely in words, not mathematical expressions, but based the system on the Indian numbers borrowed by the Arabs (what we today call Arabic numerals). His work was translated into Latin hundreds of years later, and served as the European introduction to the Indian number system, complete with its concept of zero. Al-Khwarizmi performed detailed calculations of the positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets, and did a number of eclipse calculations. He constructed a table of the latitudes and longitudes of 2,402 cities and landmarks, forming the basis of an early world map.

Another Islamic astronomer who later had an impact on Western science was al-Farghani (Abu'l-Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Kathir al-Farghani). In the late 9th century, he wrote extensively on the motion of celestial bodies. Like most Islamic astronomers, he accepted the Ptolemaic model of the universe, and was partially responsible for spreading Ptolemaic astronomy not only in the Islamic world but also throughout Europe. In the 12th century, his works were translated into Latin, and it is said that Dante got his astronomical knowledge from al-Farghani's books.

In the late 10th century, a huge observatory was built near Tehran, Iran by the astronomer al-Khujandi. He built a large sextant inside the observatory, and was the first astronomer to be capable of measuring to an accuracy of arcseconds. He observed a series of meridian transits of the Sun, which allowed him to calculate the obliquity of the ecliptic, also known as the tilt of the Earth's axis relative to the Sun. As we know today, the Earth's tilt is approximately 23o34', and al-Khujandi measured it as being 23o32'19". Using this information, he also compiled a list of latitudes and longitudes of major cities.

Omar Khayyam (Ghiyath al-Din Abu'l-Fath Umar ibn Ibrahim al-Nisaburi al-Khayyami) was a great Persian scientist, philosopher, and poet who lived from 1048-1131. He compiled many astronomical tables and performed a reformation of the calendar which was more accurate than the Julian and came close to the Gregorian. An amazing feat was his calculation of the year to be 365.24219858156 days long, which is accurate to the 6th decimal place!

Western science owes a large debt to Islamic and Arab scientists, whose contributions range from the Arabic names of stars which we still use today to the mathematical and astronomical treatices used by Europeans to enter our modern world of science.

REFERENCES FOR THIS PAGE:SPECIAL THANKS TO Mohammad Gharaibeh (University of Nevada Reno Physics Department).Ancient Arab Astronomy. of Islamic Science. Arabs and Astronomy. History of the Sextant. the Qur'an Says About the Moon.

Ancient Chinese AstronomyThe Chinese people tended to use astronomy for practical purposes from the very beginning, unlike many of the other cultures studied here that focused mainly on religious aspects of the sky. However, they did develop an extensive system of the zodiac designed to help guide the life of people on Earth. Their version of the zodiac was called the 'yellow path', a reference to the sun traveling along the ecliptic. Like in Western astrology, the Chinese had twelve houses along the yellow path.

The first Chinese written records of astronomy are from about 3000 B.C. The first human record of an eclipse was made in 2136 B.C., and over hundreds of years of advanced sky-watching, the Chinese became very adept at predicting lunar eclipses. They followed a calendar of twelve lunar months, and calculated the year to be 365.25 days long. They translated this 'magic' number into a unit of degrees, by setting the number of degrees in a circle equal to 365.25 (as compared to our use of 360 degrees).

One of the famous observations made by Chinese astronomers was that of a supernova in the year 1054. They referred to this phenomenon in records as a 'guest star', and mention that it remained bright for about a year before again becoming invisible. This supernova created what we see today as the Crab Nebula. The explosion itself in 1054 was also recorded by the Anasazi Indians of the American Southwest, but for some reason there is no known record of this occurance in European or any other cultures.

In order to mark the passage of time and the seasons, the Chinese primarily used the orientation of the Big Dipper constellation relative to the pole star in early evening. They were also the inventors of the first clock, a water clock which divided a day into 100 equal parts. During the Ming Dynasty, between the years of 1436-1449, an observatory was built in Beijing on the old city walls, and was filled with impressive bronze instruments.

REFERENCES FOR THIS PAGE:Chinese Astronomy. in Space.

Archaeoastronomy ReferencesAnthony Aveni, Stairways to the Stars, John Wiley & Sons, 1997.Anthony Aveni, Skywatchers of Ancient Mexico, University of Texas Press, 1980.J. Norman Lockyer, The Dawn of Astronomy, MIT Press, 1894.E.C. Krupp (ed.), In Search of Ancient Astronomies, Doubleday & Company, 1977.Kenneth Brecher and Michael Feirtag (ed.), Astronomy of the Ancients, MIT Press, 1979.E.S. Kennedy and Imad Ghanem (ed.), The Life and Work of Ibn al-Shatir, Institute for the History of Arabic Science, 1975.Evan Hadingham, Early Man and the Cosmos, Walker and Company, 1984.Robert Burnham, Alan Dyer, and Jeff Kanipe, Astronomy: The Definitive Guide, Barnes & Noble Books, 2003.David Levy, A Guide to Skywatching, Fog City Press, 1994.

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The rising Sun illuminates the inner chamber of Newgrange, Ireland, only at the winter solstice.

Archaeoastronomy (also spelled archeoastronomy) is the study of how people in the past "have understood the phenomena in the sky, how they used phenomena in the sky, and what role the sky played in their cultures."[1] Clive Ruggles argues it is misleading to consider archaeoastronomy to be the study of ancient astronomy, as modern astronomy is a scientific discipline, while archaeoastronomy considers symbolically rich cultural interpretations of phenomena in the sky by other cultures.[2]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-3" [3] It is often twinned with ethnoastronomy, the anthropological study of skywatching in contemporary societies. Archaeoastronomy is also closely associated with historical astronomy, the use of historical records of heavenly events to answer astronomical problems and the history of astronomy, which uses written records to evaluate past astronomical practice.

Archaeoastronomy uses a variety of methods to uncover evidence of past practices including archaeology, anthropology, astronomy, statistics and probability, and history. Because these methods are diverse and use data from such different sources, the problem of integrating them into a coherent argument has been a long-term issue for archaeoastronomers.[4] Archaeoastronomy fills complementary niches in landscape archaeology and cognitive archaeology. Material evidence and its connection to the sky can reveal how a wider landscape can be integrated into beliefs about the cycles of nature, such as Mayan astronomy and its relationship with agriculture.[5] Other examples which have brought together ideas of cognition and landscape include studies of the cosmic order embedded in the roads of settlements.[6]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-7" [7]Archaeoastronomy can be applied to all cultures and all time periods. The meanings of the sky vary from culture to culture; nevertheless there are scientific methods which can be applied across cultures when examining ancient beliefs.[8] It is perhaps the need to balance the social and scientific aspects of archaeoastronomy which led Clive Ruggles to describe it as: "...[A] field with academic work of high quality at one end but uncontrolled speculation bordering on lunacy at the other."[9]Contents

1 History of archaeoastronomy 2 Archaeoastronomy and its relations to other disciplines 3 Methodology

3.1 Green archaeoastronomy 3.2 Brown archaeoastronomy 4 Source materials

4.1 Alignments 4.2 Artifacts 4.3 Art and inscriptions 4.4 Ethnographies 5 Recreating the ancient sky

5.1 Declination 5.2 Solar positioning 5.3 Lunar positioning 5.4 Stellar positioning 5.5 Transient phenomena 6 Major topics of archaeoastronomical research

6.1 The use of calendars 6.2 Myth and cosmology 6.3 Displays of power 7 Major sites of archaeoastronomical interest

7.1 Newgrange 7.2 Egypt 7.3 El Castillo 7.4 Stonehenge 7.5 Maeshowe 7.6 Uxmal 7.7 Chaco Canyon 8 Fringe archaeoastronomy 9 Archaeoastronomical organisations and publications 10 See also 11 Notes 12 References 13 External links

13.1 Societies 13.2 JournalsHistory of archaeoastronomyIn his short history of 'Astro-archaeology' John Michell argued that the status of research into ancient astronomy had improved over the past two centuries, going 'from lunacy to heresy to interesting notion and finally to the gates of orthodoxy.' Nearly two decades later, we can still ask the question: Is archaeoastronomy still waiting at the gates of orthodoxy or has it gotten inside the gates?

Todd Bostwick quoting John Michell[10]Two hundred years before Michell wrote the above, there were no archaeoastronomers and there were no professional archaeologists, but there were astronomers and antiquarians. Some of their works are considered precursors of archaeoastronomy; antiquarians interpreted the astronomical orientation of the ruins that dotted the English countryside as William Stukeley did of Stonehenge in 1740,[11] while John Aubrey in 1678[12] and Henry Chauncy in 1700 sought similar astronomical principles underlying the orientation of churches.[13] Late in the nineteenth century astronomers such as Richard Proctor and Charles Piazzi Smyth investigated the astronomical orientations of the pyramids.[14]The term archaeoastronomy was first used by Elizabeth Chesley Baity (at the suggestion of Euan MacKie) in 1973,[15] but as a topic of study it may be much older, depending on how archaeoastronomy is defined. Clive Ruggles[16] says that Heinrich Nissen, working in the mid-nineteenth century was arguably the first archaeoastronomer. Rolf Sinclair[17] says that Norman Lockyer, working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, could be called the 'father of archaeoastronomy.' Euan MacKie[18] would place the origin even later, stating: "...the genesis and modern flowering of archaeoastronomy must surely lie in the work of Alexander Thom in Britain between the 1930s and the 1970s."

Early archaeoastronomy surveyed Megalithic constructs in the British Isles, at sites like Auglish in County Londonderry, in an attempt to find statistical patterns

In the 1960s the work of the engineer Alexander Thom and that of the astronomer Gerald Hawkins, who proposed that Stonehenge was a Neolithic computer,[19] inspired new interest in the astronomical features of ancient sites. The claims of Hawkins were largely dismissed,[20] but this was not the case for Alexander Thom's work, whose survey results of megalithic sites hypothesized widespread practice of accurate astronomy in the British Isles.[21] Euan MacKie, recognizing that Thom's theories needed to be tested, excavated at the Kintraw standing stone site in Argyllshire in 1970 and 1971 to check whether the latter's prediction of an observation platform on the hill slope above the stone was correct. There was an artificial platform there and this apparent verification of Thom's long alignment hypothesis (Kintraw was diagnosed as an accurate winter solstice site) led him to check Thom's geometrical theories at the Cultoon stone circle in Islay, also with a positive result. MacKie therefore broadly accepted Thom's conclusions and published new prehistories of Britain.[22] In contrast a re-evaluation of Thom's fieldwork by Clive Ruggles argued that Thom's claims of high accuracy astronomy were not fully supported by the evidence.[23] Nevertheless Thom's legacy remains strong, Krupp[24] wrote in 1979, "Almost singlehandedly he has established the standards for archaeo-astronomical fieldwork and interpretation, and his amazing results have stirred controversy during the last three decades." His influence endures and practice of statistical testing of data remains one of the methods of archaeoastronomy.[25]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-26" [26]

It has been proposed that Maya sites such as Uxmal were built in accordance with astronomical alignments.

The approach in the New World, where anthropologists began to consider more fully the role of astronomy in Amerindian civilizations, was markedly different. They had access to sources that the prehistory of Europe lacks such as ethnographies[27]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-28" [28] and the historical records of the early colonizers. Following the pioneering example of Anthony Aveni,[29]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-30" [30] this allowed New World archaeoastronomers to make claims for motives which in the Old World would have been mere speculation. The concentration on historical data led to some claims of high accuracy that were comparatively weak when compared to the statistically led investigations in Europe.[31]This came to a head at a meeting sponsored by the IAU in Oxford in 1981.[32] The methodologies and research questions of the participants were considered so different that the conference proceedings were published as two volumes.[33]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-34" [34] Nevertheless the conference was considered a success in bringing researchers together and Oxford conferences have continued every four or five years at locations around the world. The subsequent conferences have resulted in a move to more interdisciplinary approaches with researchers aiming to combine the contextuality of archaeological research,[35] which broadly describes the state of archaeoastronomy today, rather than merely establishing the existence of ancient astronomies archaeoastronomers seek to explain why people would have an interest in the night sky.

Archaeoastronomy and its relations to other disciplines...[O]ne of the most endearing characteristics of archaeoastronomy is its capacity to set academics in different disciplines at loggerheads with each other.

Clive Ruggles[36]Archaeoastronomy has long been seen as an interdisciplinary field that uses written and unwritten evidence to study the astronomies of other cultures. As such, it can be seen as connecting other disciplinary approaches for investigating ancient astronomy: astroarchaeology (an obsolete term for studies that draw astronomical information from the alignments of ancient architecture and landscapes), history of astronomy (which deals primarily with the written textual evidence), and ethnoastronomy (which draws on the ethnohistorical record and contemporary ethnographic studies).[37]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-38" [38]Reflecting Archaeoastronomy's development as an interdisciplinary subject, research in the field is conducted by investigators trained in a wide range of disciplines. Authors of recent doctoral dissertations have described their work as concerned with the fields of archaeology and cultural anthropology; with various fields of history including the history of specific regions and periods, the history of science and the history of religion; and with the relation of astronomy to art, literature and religion. Only rarely did they describe their work as astronomical, and then only as a secondary category.[39]Both practicing archaeoastronomers and observers of the discipline approach it from different perspectives. George Gummerman and Miranda Warburton view archaeoastronomy as part of an archaeology informed by cultural anthropology and aimed at understanding a "group's conception of themselves in relation to the heavens', in a word, its cosmology.[40] Todd Bostwick argued that "archaeoastronomy is anthropology the study of human behavior in the past and present."[41] Paul Bahn has described archaeoastronomy as an area of cognitive archaeology.[42] Other researchers relate archaeoastronomy to the history of science, either as it relates to a culture's observations of nature and the conceptual framework they devised to impose an order on those observations[43] or as it relates to the political motives which drove particular historical actors to deploy certain astronomical concepts or techniques.[44]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-45" [45] Art historian Richard Poss took a more flexible approach, maintaining that the astronomical rock art of the North American Southwest should be read employing "the hermeneutic traditions of western art history and art criticism"[46] Astronomers, however, raise different questions, seeking to provide their students with identifiable precursors of their discipline, and are especially concerned with the important question of how to confirm that specific sites are, indeed, intentionally astronomical.[47]The reactions of professional archaeologists to archaeoastronomy have been decidedly mixed. Some expressed incomprehension or even hostility, varying from a rejection by the archaeological mainstream of what they saw as an archaeoastronomical fringe to an incomprehension between the cultural focus of archaeologists and the quantitative focus of early archaeoastronomers.[48] Yet archaeologists have increasingly come to incorporate many of the insights from archaeoastronomy into archaeology textbooks[49] and, as mentioned above, some students wrote archaeology dissertations on archaeoastronomical topics.

Since archaeoastronomers disagree so widely on the characterization of the discipline, they even dispute its name. All three major international scholarly associations relate archaeoastronomy to the study of culture, using the term Astronomy in Culture or a translation. Michael Hoskin sees an important part of the discipline as fact-collecting, rather than theorizing, and proposed to label this aspect of the discipline Archaeotopography.[50] Ruggles and Saunders proposed Cultural Astronomy as a unifying term for the various methods of studying folk astronomies.[51] Others have argued that astronomy is an inaccurate term, what are being studied are cosmologies and people who object to the use of logos have suggested adopting the Spanish cosmovisin.[52]When debates polarise between techniques, the methods are often referred to by a colour code, based on the colours of the bindings of the two volumes from the first Oxford Conference, where the approaches were first distinguished.[53] Green (Old World) archaeoastronomers rely heavily on statistics and are sometimes accused of missing the cultural context of what is a social practice. Brown (New World) archaeoastronomers in contrast have abundant ethnographic and historical evidence and have been described as 'cavalier' on matters of measurement and statistical analysis.[54] Finding a way to integrate various approaches has been a subject of much discussion since the early 1990s.[55]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-56" [56]MethodologyFor a long time I have believed that such diversity requires the invention of some all-embracing theory. I think I was very nave in thinking that such a thing was ever possible.

Stanislaw Iwaniszewski[57]There is no one way to do Archaeoastronomy. The divisions between archaeoastronomers tend not to be between the physical scientists and the social scientists. Instead it tends to depend on the location of kind of data available to the researcher. In the Old World, there is little data but the sites themselves; in the New World, the sites were supplemented by ethnographic and historic data. The effects of the isolated development of archaeoastronomy in different places can still often be seen in research today. Research methods can be classified as falling into one of two approaches, though more recent projects often use techniques from both categories.

Green archaeoastronomyGreen Archaeoastronomy is named after the cover of the book Archaeoastronomy in the Old World.[58] It is based primarily on statistics and is particularly apt for prehistoric sites where the social evidence is relatively scant compared to the historic period. The basic methods were developed by Alexander Thom during his extensive surveys of British megalithic sites.

Thom wished to examine whether or not prehistoric peoples used high-accuracy astronomy. He believed that by using horizon astronomy, observers could make estimates of dates in the year to a specific day. The observation required finding a place where on a specific date the sun set into a notch on the horizon. A common theme is a mountain which blocked the Sun, but on the right day would allow the tiniest fraction to re-emerge on the other side for a 'double sunset'. The animation below shows two sunsets at a hypothetical site, one the day before the summer solstice and one at the summer solstice, which has a double sunset. Horizon astronomy is arguably inaccurate, due to variations in refraction.

HYPERLINK "" \o "Play media" \t "new" To test this idea he surveyed hundreds of stone rows and circles. Any individual alignment could indicate a direction by chance, but he planned to show that together the distribution of alignments was non-random, showing that there was an astronomical intent to the orientation of at least some of the alignments. His results indicated the existence of eight, sixteen, or perhaps even thirty-two approximately equal divisions of the year. The two solstices, the two equinoxes and four cross-quarter days, days half-way between a solstice and the equinox were associated with the medieval Celtic calendar.[59] While not all these conclusions have been accepted, it has had an enduring influence on archaeoastronomy, especially in Europe.

Euan MacKie has supported Thom's analysis, to which he added an archaeological context by comparing Neolithic Britain to the Mayan civilization to argue for a stratified society in this period.[22] To test his ideas he conducted a couple of excavations at proposed prehistoric observatories in Scotland. Kintraw is a site notable for its four-meter high standing stone. Thom proposed that this was a foresight to a point on the distant horizon between Beinn Shianaidh and Beinn o'Chaolias on Jura.[60] This, Thom argued, was a notch on the horizon where a double sunset would occur at midwinter. However, from ground level, this sunset would be obscured by a ridge in the landscape, and the viewer would need to be raised by two meters: another observation platform was needed. This was identified across a gorge where a platform was formed from small stones. The lack of artifacts caused concern for some archaeologists and the petrofabric analysis was inconclusive, but further research at Maes Howe[61] and on the Bush Barrow Lozenge[62] led MacKie to conclude that while the term 'science' may be anachronistic, Thom was broadly correct upon the subject of high-accuracy alignments.[63]In contrast Clive Ruggles has argued that there are problems with the selection of data in Thom's surveys.[64]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-65" [65] A deeper criticism of Green archaeoastronomy is that while it can answer whether there was likely to be an interest in astronomy in past times, its lack of a social element means that it struggles to answer why people would be interested, which makes it of limited use to people asking questions about the society of the past. Keith Kintigh wrote: "To put it bluntly, in many cases it doesn't matter much to the progress of anthropology whether a particular archaeoastronomical claim is right or wrong because the information doesnt inform the current interpretive questions."[66] Nonetheless the study of alignments remains a staple of archaeoastronomical research, especially in Europe.[67]Brown archaeoastronomyIn contrast to the largely alignment-oriented statistically led methods of Green archaeoastronomy, Brown archaeoastronomy has been identified as being closer to the history of astronomy or to cultural history, insofar as it draws on historical and ethnographic records to enrich its understanding of early astronomies and their relations to calendars and ritual.[53] The many records of native customs and beliefs made by the Spanish chroniclers means that Brown archaeoastronomy is most often associated with studies of astronomy in the Americas.[68]One famous site where historical records have been used to interpret sites is Chichen Itza. Rather than analysing the site and seeing which targets appear popular, archaeoastronomers have instead examined the ethnographic records to see what features of the sky were important to the Mayans and then sought archaeological correlates. One example which could have been overlooked without historical records is the Mayan interest in the planet Venus. This interest is attested to by the Dresden codex which contains tables with information about the Venus's appearances in the sky.[69] These cycles would have been of astrological and ritual significance as Venus was associated with Quetzalcoatl or Xolotl.[70] Associations of architectural features with settings of Venus can be found in Chichen Itza.

"El Caracol" a possible observatory temple at Chichen Itza.

The Temple of the Warriors bears iconography depicting feathered serpents associated with Quetzalcoatl or Kukulcan. This means that the building's alignment towards the place on the horizon where Venus first appears in the evening sky (when it coincides with the rainy season) may be meaningful.[71] Aveni claims that another building associated with the planet Venus in the form of Kukulcan, and the rainy season at Chichen Itza is the Caracol.[72] This is a building with circular tower and doors facing the cardinal directions. The base faces the most northerly setting of Venus. Additionally the pillars of a stylobate on the building's upper platform were painted black and red. These are colours associated with Venus as an evening and morning star.[73] However the windows in the tower seem to have been little more than slots, making them poor at letting light in, but providing a suitable place to view out.[74]Aveni states that one of the strengths of the Brown methodology is that it can explore astronomies invisible to statistical analysis and offers the astronomy of the Incas as another example. The empire of the Incas was conceptually divided using ceques radial routes emanating from the capital at Cusco. Thus there are alignments in all directions which would suggest there is little of astronomical significance, However, ethnohistorical records show that the various directions do have cosmological and astronomical significance with various points in the landscape being significant at different times of the year.[75]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-76" [76] In eastern Asia archaeoastronomy has developed from the History of Astronomy and much archaeoastronomy is searching for material correlates of the historical record. This is due to the rich historical record of astronomical phenomena which, in China, stretches back into the Han dynasty, in the second century BC.[77]A criticism of this method is that it can be statistically weak. Schaefer in particular has questioned how robust the claimed alignments in the Caracol are.[78]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-79" [79] Because of the wide variety of evidence, which can include artefacts as well as sites, there is no one way to practice archaeoastronomy.[80] Despite this it is accepted that archaeoastronomy is not a discipline that sits in isolation. Because archaeoastronomy is an interdisciplinary field, whatever is being investigated should make sense both archaeologically and astronomically. Studies are more likely to be considered sound if they use theoretical tools found in archaeology like analogy and homology and if they can demonstrate an understanding of accuracy and precision found in astronomy.

Source materialsBecause archaeoastronomy is about the many and various ways people interacted with the sky, there are a diverse range of sources giving information about astronomical practices.

AlignmentsA common source of data for archaeoastronomy is the study of alignments. This is based on the assumption that the axis of alignment of an archaeological site is meaningfully oriented towards an astronomical target. Brown archaeoastronomers may justify this assumption through reading historical or ethnographic sources, while Green archaeoastronomers tend to prove that alignments are unlikely to be selected by chance, usually by demonstrating common patterns of alignment at multiple sites.

An alignment is calculated by measuring the azimuth, the angle from north, of the structure and the altitude of the horizon it faces[81] The azimuth is usually measured using a theodolite or a compass. A compass is easier to use, though the deviation of the Earth's magnetic field from true north, known as its magnetic declination must be taken into account. Compasses are also unreliable in areas prone to magnetic interference, such as sites being supported by scaffolding. Additionally a compass can only measure the azimuth to a precision of a half a degree.[82]A theodolite can be considerably more accurate if used correctly, but it is also considerably more difficult to use correctly. There is no inherent way to align a theodolite with North and so the scale has to be calibrated using astronomical observation, usually the position of the Sun.[83] Because the position of celestial bodies changes with the time of day due to the Earth's rotation, the time of these calibration observations must be accurately known, or else there will be a systematic error in the measurements. Horizon altitudes can be measured with a theodolite or a clinometer.


The Antikythera mechanism (main fragment)

For artifacts such as the Sky Disc of Nebra, alleged to be a Bronze Age artefact depicting the cosmos,[84]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-85" [85] the analysis would be similar to typical post-excavation analysis as used in other sub-disciplines in archaeology. An artefact is examined and attempts are made to draw analogies with historical or ethnographical records of other peoples. The more parallels that can be found, the more likely an explanation is to be accepted by other archaeologists.

A more mundane example is the presence of astrological symbols found on some shoes and sandals from the Roman Empire. The use of shoes and sandals is well known, but Carol van Driel-Murray has proposed that astrological symbols etched onto sandals gave the footwear spiritual or medicinal meanings.[86] This is supported through citation of other known uses of astrological symbols and their connection to medical practice and with the historical records of the time.[citation needed]Another well-known artefact with an astronomical use is the Antikythera mechanism. In this case analysis of the artefact, and reference to the description of similar devices described by Cicero, would indicate a plausible use for the device. The argument is bolstered by the presence of symbols on the mechanism, allowing the disc to be read.[87]Art and inscriptions

Diagram showing the location of the sun daggers on the Fajada Butte petroglyph on various days

Art and inscriptions may not be confined to artefacts, but also appear painted or inscribed on an archaeological site. Sometimes inscriptions are helpful enough to give instructions to a site's use. For example a Greek inscription on a stele (from Itanos) has been translated as:"Patron set this up for Zeus Epopsios. Winter solstice. Should anyone wish to know: off the little pig and the stele the sun turns."[88] From Mesoamerica come Mayan and Aztec codices. These are folding books made from Amatl, processed tree bark on which are glyphs in Mayan or Aztec script. The Dresden codex contains information regarding the Venus cycle, confirming its importance to the Mayans.[69]More problematic are those cases where the movement of the Sun at different times and seasons causes light and shadow interactions with petroglyphs.[89] A widely known example is the Sun Dagger of Fajada Butte at which a glint of sunlight passes over a spiral petroglyph.[90] The location of a dagger of light on the petroglyph varies throughout the year. At the summer solstice a dagger can be seen through the heart of the spiral; at the winter solstice two daggers appear to either side of it. It is proposed that this petroglyph was created to mark these events. Recent studies have identified many similar sites in the US Southwest and Northwestern Mexico.[91]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-92" [92] It has been argued that the number of solstitial markers at these sites provides statistical evidence that they were intended to mark the solstices.[93] The Sun Dagger site on Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, stands out for its explicit light markings that record all the key events of both the solar and lunar cycles: summer solstice, winter solstice, equinox, and the major and minor lunar standstills of the moons 18.6 year cycle.[94]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-Cambridge-95" [95] In addition at two other sites on Fajada Butte, there are five light markings on petroglyphs recording the summer and winter solstices, equinox and solar noon.[96] Numerous buildings and interbuilding alignments of the great houses of Chaco Canyon and outlying areas are oriented to the same solar and lunar directions that are marked at the Sun Dagger site.[97]If no ethnographic nor historical data are found which can support this assertion then acceptance of the idea relies upon whether or not there are enough petroglyph sites in North America that such a correlation could occur by chance. It is helpful when petroglyphs are associated with existing peoples. This allows ethnoastronomers to question informants as to the meaning of such symbols.

EthnographiesAs well as the materials left by peoples themselves, there are also the reports of other who have encountered them. The historical records of the Conquistadores are a rich source of information about the precolumbian Americans. Ethnographers also provide material about many other peoples.

Aveni uses the importance of zenith passages as an example of the importance of ethnography. For peoples living between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn there are two days of the year when the noon Sun passes directly overhead and casts no shadow. In parts of Mesoamerica this was considered a significant day as it would herald the arrival of rains, and so play a part in the cycle of agriculture. This knowledge is still considered important amongst Mayan Indians living in Central America today. The ethnographic records suggested to archaeoastronomers that this day may have been important to the ancient Mayans. Alignments to the sunrise and sunset on the day of the zenith passage have been found in Mayan cities such as Chichen Itza. There are also shafts known as 'zenith tubes' which illuminate subterranean rooms when the sun passes overhead found at places like Monte Alban and Xochicalco. It is only through the ethnography that we can speculate that the timing of the illumination was considered important in Mayan society.[98]Ethnographies also caution against over-interpretation of sites. At a site in Chaco Canyon can be found a pictograph with a star, crescent and hand. It has been argued by some astronomers that this is a record of the 1054 Supernova.[99] However recent reexaminations of related 'supernova petroglyphs' raises questions about such sites in general[100] and anthropological evidence suggests other inrepretations. The Zuni people, who claim a strong ancestral affiliation with Chaco, marked their sun-watching station with a crescent, star, hand and sundisc, similar to those found at the Chaco site.[101]Ethnoastronomy is also an important field outside of the Americas. For example anthropological work with Aboriginal Australians is producing much information about their Indigenous astronomies[102] and about their interaction with the modern world.[103]Recreating the ancient sky...[A]lthough different ways to do science and different scientific results do arise in different cultures, this provides little support for those who would use such differences to question the sciences' ability to provide reliable statements about the world in which we live.

Stephen McCluskey[104]Once the researcher has data to test, it is often necessary to attempt to recreate ancient sky conditions to place the data in its historical environment.

DeclinationMain article: DeclinationTo calculate what astronomical features a structure faced a coordinate system is needed. The stars provide such a system. If you were to go outside on a clear night you would observe the stars spinning around the celestial pole. This point is +90 if you are watching the North Celestial Pole or 90 if you are observing the Southern Celestial Pole.[105] The concentric circles the stars trace out are lines of celestial latitude, known as declination. The arc connecting the points on the horizon due East and due West (if the horizon is flat) and all points midway between the Celestial Poles is the Celestial Equator which has a declination of 0. The visible declinations vary depending where you are on the globe. Only an observer on the North Pole of Earth would be unable to see any stars from the Southern Celestial Hemisphere at night (see diagram below). Once a declination has been found for the point on the horizon that a building faces it is then possible to say whether a specific body can be seen in that direction.

Diagram of the visible portions of sky at varying latitudes.

Solar positioningWhile the stars are fixed to their declinations the Sun is not. The rising point of the Sun varies throughout the year. It swings between two limits marked by the solstices a bit like a pendulum, slowing as it reaches the extremes, but passing rapidly through the midpoint. If an archaeoastronomer can calculate from the azimuth and horizon height that a site was built to view a declination of +23.5 then he or she need not wait until 21 June to confirm the site does indeed face the summer solstice.[106] For more information see History of solar observation.

Lunar positioningThe Moon's appearance is considerably more complex. Its motion, like the Sun, is between two limits known as lunastices rather than solstices. However, its travel between lunastices is considerably faster. It takes a sidereal month to complete its cycle rather than the year long trek of the Sun. This is further complicated as the lunastices marking the limits of the Moon's movement move on an 18.6 year cycle. For slightly over nine years the extreme limits of the moon are outside the range of sunrise. For the remaining half of the cycle the Moon never exceeds the limits of the range of sunrise. However, much lunar observation was concerned with the phase of the Moon. The cycle from one New Moon to the next runs on an entirely different cycle, the Synodic month.[107] Thus when examining sites for lunar significance the data can appear sparse due the extremely variable nature of the moon. See Moon for more details.

Stellar positioningMain article: Precession of the equinoxes

Precessional movement.

Finally there is often a need to correct for the apparent movement of the stars. On the timescale of human civilisation the stars have maintained the same position relative to each other. Each night they appear to rotate around the celestial poles due to the Earth's rotation about its axis. However, the Earth spins rather like a spinning top. Not only does the Earth rotate, it wobbles. The Earth's axis takes around 25,800 years to complete one full wobble.[108] The effect to the archaeoastronomer is that stars did not rise over the horizon in the past in the same places as they do today. Nor did the stars rotate around Polaris as they do now. In the case of the Egyptian pyramids, it has been shown they were aligned towards Thuban, a faint star in the constellation of Draco.[109] The effect can be substanstial over relatively short lengths of time, historically speaking. For instance a person born on 25 December in Roman times would have been born with the sun in the constellation Capricorn. In the modern period a person born on the same date would have the sun in Sagittarius due to the precession of the equinoxes.

Transient phenomena

Halley's Comet depicted on the Bayeux tapestryAdditionally there are often transient phenomena, events which do not happen on an annual cycle. Most predictable are events like eclipses. In the case of solar eclipses these can be used to date events in the past. A solar eclipse mentioned by Herodotus enables us to date a battle between the Medes and the Lydians, which following the eclipse failed to happen, to 28 May, 585 BC.[110] Other easily calculated events are supernovae whose remains are visible to astronomers and therefore their positions and magnitude can be accurately calculated.

Some comets are predictable, most famously Halley's Comet. Yet as a class of object they remain unpredictable and can appear at any time. Some have extremely lengthy orbital periods which means their past appearances and returns cannot be predicted. Others may have only ever passed through the Solar System once and so are inherently unpredictable.[111]Meteor showers should be predictable, but some meteors are cometary debris and so require calculations of orbits which are currently impossible to complete.[112] Other events noted by ancients include aurorae, sun dogs and rainbows all of which are as impossible to predict as the ancient weather, but nevertheless may have been considered important phenomena.

Major topics of archaeoastronomical researchWhat has astronomy brought into the lives of cultural groups throughout history? The answers are many and varied...

Von Del Chamberlain and M. Jane Young[113]The use of calendarsA common justification for the need for astronomy is the need to develop an accurate calendar for agricultural reasons. Ancient texts like Hesiod's Works and Days, an ancient farming manual, would appear to contradict this. Instead astronomical observations are used in combination with ecological signs, such as bird migrations to determine the seasons. Ethnoastronomical work with the Mursi of Ethiopia shows that haphazard astronomy continued until recent times in some parts of the world.[114] All the same, calendars appear to be an almost universal phenomenon in societies as they provide tools for the regulation of communal activities.

An example of a non-agricultural calendar is the Tzolk'in calendar of the Maya civilization of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, which is a cycle of 260 days. This count is based on an earlier calendar and is found throughout Mesoamerica. This formed part of a more comprehensive system of Maya calendars which combined a series of astronomical observations and ritual cycles.[115]Other peculiar calendars include ancient Greek calendars. These were nominally lunar, starting with the New Moon. In reality the calendar could pause or skip days with confused citizens inscribing dates by both the civic calendar and ton theoi, by the moon.[116] The lack of any universal calendar for ancient Greece suggests that coordination of panhellenic events such as games or rituals could be difficult and that astronomical symbolism may have been used as a politically neutral form of timekeeping.[117] Orientation measurements in Greek temples and Byzantine churches have been associated to deity's name day, fectivities,and special events < Liritzis.I and Vassiliou.H (2002) Astronomical orientations of ancient temples at Rhodes and Attica with a tentative interpretation. Mediterranean Archaeology & Archaeometry, vol.2, No 1, 69-79; Liritzis.I and Vassiliou.H (2006) Were Greek temples oriented towards aurora? Astronomy & Geophysics, vol.47, 2, 1.14-1.18; Liritzis.I and Vassiliou.H (2006) Does sunrise day correlate with eastern orientation of Byzantine Churches during significant solar dates and Saints day name? A preliminary study. Byzantinische Zeitscrift (K.G.Saur Munchen, Leipzig) 99, 2, 523-534>.

Myth and cosmology

The constellation Argo Navis drawn by Johannes Hevelius in 1690.

Another motive for studying the sky is to understand and explain the universe. In these cultures myth was a tool for achieving this and the explanations, while not reflecting the standards of modern science, are cosmologies.

The Incas arranged their empire to demonstrate their cosmology. The capital, Cusco, was at the centre of the empire and connected to it by means of ceques, conceptually straight lines radiating out from the centre.[118] These ceques connected the centre of the empire to the four suyus, which were regions defined by their direction from Cusco. The notion of a quartered cosmos is common across the Andes. Gary Urton, who has conducted fieldwork in the Andean villagers of Misminay, has connected this quartering with the appearance of the Milky Way in the night sky.[119] In one season it will bisect the sky and in another bisect it in a perpendicular fashion.

The importance of observing cosmological factors is also seen on the other side of the world. The Forbidden City in Beijing is laid out to follow cosmic order though rather than observing four directions. The Chinese system was composed of five directions: North, South, East, West and Centre. The Forbidden City occupied the centre of ancient Beijing.[120] One approaches the Emperor from the south, thus placing him in front of the circumpolar stars. This creates the situation of the heavens revolving around the person of the Emperor. The Chinese cosmology is now better known through its export as Feng Shui.

There is also much information about how the universe was thought to work stored in the mythology of the constellations. The Barasana of the Amazon plan part of their annual cycle based on observation of the stars. When their constellation of the Caterpillar-Jaguar (roughly equivalent to the modern Scorpius) falls they prepare to catch the pupating caterpillars of the forest as they fall from the trees.[121] The caterpillars provide food at a season when other foods are scarce.[122]A more well-known source of constellation myth are the texts of the Greeks and Romans. The origin of their constellations remains a matter of vigorous and occasionally fractious debate.[123]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-124" [124]The loss of one of the sisters, Merope, in some Greek myths may reflect an astronomical event wherein one of the stars in the Pleiades disappeared from view by the naked eye.[125]Giorgio de Santillana, professor of the History of Science in the School of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with Hertha von Dechend believed that the old mythological stories handed down from antiquity were not random fictitious tales but were accurate depictions of celestial cosmology clothed in tales to aid their oral transmission. The chaos, monsters and violence in ancient myths are representative of the forces that shape each age. They believed that ancient myths are the remains of preliterate astronomy that became lost with the rise of the Greco-Roman civilization. Santillana and von Dechend in their book Hamlet's Mill, An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time (1969) clearly state that ancient myths have no historical or factual basis other than a cosmological one encoding astronomical phenomena, especially the precession of the equinoxes.[126] Santillana and von Dechend's approach is not widely accepted.

Displays of power

The Precinct of Amun-Re was aligned on the midwinter solstice.

By including celestial motifs in clothing it becomes possible for the wearer to make claims the power on Earth is drawn from above. It has been said that the Shield of Achilles described by Homer is also a catalogue of constellations.[127] In North America shields depicted in Comanche petroglyphs appear to include Venus symbolism.[128]Solsticial alignments also can be seen as displays of power. When viewed from a ceremonial plaza on the Island of the Sun (the mythical origin place of the Sun) in Lake Titicaca, the Sun was seen to rise at the June solstice between two towers on a nearby ridge. The sacred part of the island was separated from the remainder of it by a stone wall and ethnographic records indicate that access to the sacred space was restricted to members of the Inca ruling elite. Ordinary pilgrims stood on a platform outside the ceremonial area to see the solstice Sun rise between the towers.[129]In Egypt the temple of Amun-Re at Karnak has been the subject of much study. Evaluation of the site, taking into account the change over time of the obliquity of the ecliptic show that the Great Temple was aligned on the rising of the midwinter sun.[130] The length of the corridor down which sunlight would travel would have limited illumination at other times of the year.

In a later period the Serapeum in Alexandria was also said to have contained a solar alignment so that, on a specific sunrise, a shaft of light would pass across the lips of the statue of Serapis thus symbolising the Sun saluting the god.[131]Major sites of archaeoastronomical interestMain article: List of archaeoastronomical sites sorted by countryClive Ruggles and Michel Cotte recently edited a book on heritage sites of astronomy and archaeoastronomy that provides a list of the main sites around the world.[132]At Stonehenge in England and at Carnac in France, in Egypt and Yucatn, across the whole face of the earth, are found mysterious ruins of ancient monuments, monuments with astronomical significance... They mark the same kind of commitment that transported us to the moon and our spacecraft to the surface of Mars.

Edwin Krupp[133]Newgrange

The sunlight enters the tomb at Newgrange via the roofbox built above the door.

Main article: NewgrangeNewgrange is a passage tomb in the Republic of Ireland dating from around 3,300 to 2,900 BC[134] For a few days around the Winter Solstice light shines along the central passageway into the heart of the tomb. What makes this notable is not that light shines in the passageway, but that it does not do so through the main entrance. Instead it enters via a hollow box above the main doorway discovered by Michael O'Kelly.[135] It is this roofbox which strongly indicates that the tomb was built with an astronomical aspect in mind. Clive Ruggles notes:

...[F]ew people - archaeologists or astronomers- have doubted that a powerful astronomical symbolism was deliberately incorporated into the monument, demonstrating that a connection between astronomy and funerary ritual, at the very least, merits further investigation.[105]Egypt

The pyramids of Giza.

Main article: Giza NecropolisSince the first modern measurements of the precise cardinal orientations of the pyramids by Flinders Petrie, various astronomical methods have been proposed for the original establishment of these orientations.[136]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-137" [137] It was recently proposed that this was done by observing the positions of two stars in the Plough / Big Dipper which was known to Egyptians as the thigh. It is thought that a vertical alignment between these two stars checked with a plumb bob was used to ascertain where north lay. The deviations from true north using this model reflect the accepted dates of construction.[138]Some have argued that the pyramids were laid out as a map of the three stars in the belt of Orion,[139] although this theory has been criticized by reputable astronomers.[140]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-Krupp-141" [141]The astronomical ceiling of the tomb of Senenmut contains celestial observations as well.[citation needed]El Castillo

Plumed Serpent

Main article: El Castillo, Chichen ItzaEl Castillo, also known as Kukulcn's Pyramid, is a Mesoamerican step-pyramid built in the centre of Mayan center of Chichen Itza in Mexico. Several architectural features have suggested astronomical elements. Each of the stairways built into the sides of the pyramid has 91 steps. Along with the extra one for the platform at the top, this totals 365 steps, which is possibly one for each day of the year (365.25) or the number of lunar orbits in 10,000 rotations (365.01). A visually striking effect is seen every March and September as an unusual shadow occurs on the equinoxes. A shadow appears to descend the west balustrade of the northern stairway. The visual effect is of a serpent descending the stairway, with its head at the base in light. Additionally the western face points to sunset around 25 May, traditionally the date of transition from the dry to the rainy season.[142]Stonehenge

The sun rising over Stonehenge at the 2005 Summer Solstice.

Main article: Archaeoastronomy and StonehengeMany astronomical alignments have been claimed for Stonehenge, a complex of megaliths and earthworks in the Salisbury Plain of England. The most famous of these is the midsummer alignment, where the Sun rises over the Heel Stone. However, this interpretation has been challenged by some archaeologists who argue that the midwinter alignment, where the viewer is outside Stonehenge and sees the sun setting in the henge, is the more significant alignment, and the midsummer alignment may be a coincidence due to local topography.[143]As well as solar alignments, there are proposed lunar alignments. The four station stones mark out a rectangle. The short sides point towards the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. The long sides if viewed towards the south-east, face the most southerly rising of the moon. Aveni notes that these lunar alignments have never gained the acceptance that the solar alignments have received.[144] Jacobs[145] noted the Heel Stone azimuth is one-seventh of circumference, matching the latitude of Avebury, while summer solstice sunrise azimuth is no longer equal to the construction era direction.


The interior of Maeshowe chambered tomb.

Main article: MaeshoweThis is an architecturally outstanding Neolithic chambered tomb on the Mainland of Orkney probably dating to the early 3rd millennium BC, and where the setting sun at midwinter shines down the entrance passage into the central chamber (see Newgrange). In the 1990s further investigations were carried out to discover whether this was an accurate or an approximate solar alignment. Several new aspects of the site were discovered. In the first place the entrance passage faces the hills of the island Hoy, about 10 miles away. Secondly, it consists of two straight lengths, angled at a few degrees to each other. Thirdly, the outer part is aligned towards the midwinter sunset position on a level horizon just to the left of Ward Hill on Hoy. Fourthly the inner part points directly at the Barnhouse standing stone about 400m away and then to the right end of the summit of Ward Hill, just before it dips down to the notch between it at Cuilags to the right. This indicated line points to sunset on the first Sixteenths of the solar year (according to A. Thom) before and after the winter solstice and the notch at the base of the right slope of the Hill is at the same declination. Fourthly a similar 'double sunset' phenomenon is seen at the right end of Cuilags, also on Hoy; here the date is the first Eighth of the year before and after the winter solstice, at the beginning of November and February respectively the Old Celtic festivals of Samhain and Imbolc. This alignment is not indicated by an artificial structure but gains plausibility from the other two indicated lines. Maeshowe is thus an extremely sophisticated calendar site which must have been positioned carefully in order to use the horizon foresights in the ways described.[61]Uxmal

The Palace of the Governor at Uxmal.

Main article: UxmalUxmal is a Mayan city in the Puuc Hills of Yucatn, Mexico. The Governor's Palace at Uxmal is often used as an exemplar of why it is important to combine ethnographic and alignment data. The palace is aligned with an azimuth of 118 on the pyramid of Cehtzuc. This alignment is also towards a southerly rising of Venus which occurs once every eight years. By itself this would not be sufficient to argue for a meaningful connection between the two events. The palace has to be aligned in one direction or another and why should the rising of Venus be any more important than the rising of the Sun, Moon, other planets, Sirius et cetera? The answer given is that not only does the palace point towards the rising of Venus, it is also covered in glyphs which stand for Venus and Mayan zodiacal constellations.[146] It is the combination of the alignment and the ethnography which suggests that the city was built with cosmic order in mind.

Chaco Canyon

The Great Kiva at Chaco Canyon.

In Chaco Canyon, the center of the ancient Pueblo culture in the American Southwest, numerous solar and lunar light markings and architectural and road alignments have been documented. These findings date to the 1977 discovery of the Sun Dagger site by Anna Sofaer.[147] Three large stone slabs leaning against a cliff channel light and shadow markings onto two spiral petroglyphs on the cliff wall, marking the solstices, equinoxes and the lunar standstills of the 18.6 year cycle of the moon.[95] Subsequent research by the Solstice Project and others demonstrated that numerous building and interbuilding alignments of the great houses of Chaco Canyon are oriented to solar, lunar and cardinal directions.[148]

HYPERLINK "" \l "cite_note-149" [149] In addition, research shows that the Great North Road, a thirty-five mile engineered road, was constructed not for utilitarian purposes but rather to connect the ceremonial center of Chaco Canyon with the direction north.[150]Fringe archaeoastronomyFurther information: Archaeoastronomy and Vedic chronologyAt least now we have all the archaeological facts to go along with the astronomers, the Druids, the Flat Earthers and all the rest.

Sir Jocelyn Stephens[151]Archaeoastronomy owes something of this poor reputation among scholars to its occasional misuse to advance a range of pseudo-historical accounts. During the 1930s Otto S. Reuter compiled a study entitled Germanische Himmelskunde, or "Teutonic Skylore". The astronomical orientations of ancient monuments claimed by Reuter and his followers would place the ancient Germanic peoples ahead of the Ancient Near East in the field of astronomy, demonstrating the intellectual superiority of the "Aryans" (Indo-Europeans) over the Semites.[152]Since the Nineteenth Century numerous scholars have sought to use archaeoastronomical calculations to demonstrate the antiquity of Ancient Indian Vedic culture, computing the dates of astronomical observations ambiguously described in ancient poetry to as early as 4000 BCE.[153] David Pingree, a historian of Indian astronomy, condemned "the scholars who perpetrate wild theories of prehistoric science and call themselves archaeoastronomers."[154]More recently Gallagher,[155] Pyle,[156] and Fell[157] interpreted inscriptions in West Virginia as a description in Celtic Ogham alphabet of the supposed winter solstitial marker at the site. The controversial translation was supposedly validated by a problematic archaeoastronomical indication in which the winter solstice sun shone on an inscription of the sun at the site. Subsequent analyses criticized its cultural inappropriateness, as well as its linguistic and archeaoastronomical[158] claims, to describe it as an example of "cult archaeology".[159]Archaeoastronomical organisations and publicationsThere are currently three academic organisations for scholars of archaeoastronomy. ISAACthe International Society for Archaeoastronomy and Astronomy in Culturewas founded in 1995 and now sponsors the Oxford conferences and Archaeoastronomy the Journal of Astronomy in Culture. SEAC La Socit Europenne pour lAstronomie dans la Cultureis slightly older; it was created in 1992. SEAC holds annual conferences in Europe and publishes refereed conference proceedings on an annual basis. There is also SIAC La Sociedad Interamericana de Astronoma en la Cultura, primarily a Latin American organisation which was founded in 2003.

Additionally the Journal for the History of Astronomy publishes many archaeoastronomical papers. For twenty-seven volumes (from 1979 to 2002) it published an annual supplement Archaeoastronomy. The Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage (National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand) and Culture & Cosmos (University of Wales, UK) also publish papers on archaeoastronomy.

Various national archaeoastronomical projects have been undertaken. Among them is the program at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research named "Archaeo Astronomy in Indian Context" that has made interesting findings in this field.[160]See also Cultural astronomy List of archaeoastronomical sites sorted by country Sites where claims for the use of astronomy have been made.

List of artefacts of archaeoastronomical significance Artefacts which have been interpreted as being used for some astronomical purpose.

European Megalithic Culture Australian Aboriginal Astronomy

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At the crossroads of the earth and the sky: an Andean cosmology. University of Texas. ISBN0-292-70349-X. van Driel-Murray, C. (2002). "Regarding the Stars". In M Carruthers, C. van Driel-Murray, A. Gardner, J. Lucas, L. Revell and E. Swift. Oxbow Books. TRAC 2001: Proceedings of the Eleventh Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference Glasgow 2001. pp.96103. ISBN1-842170759. Wise, R.B. (2003). "The Observations of the 2002 Winter Solstice at Luther Elkins Petroglyph (46 Wm 3)". Council for West Virginia Archaeology. Retrieved 2008-03-22. Williamson, Ray A. (1987). "Light and Shadow, Ritual, and Astronomy in Anasazi Structures". In John B. Carlson and W. James Judge. Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest. Papers of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology 2. Albuquerque, NM. pp.7188. ISBN0-912535-03-2. Witzel, M. (May 2001). "Autochthonous Aryans? The Evidence from Old Indian and Iranian Text". Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 7 (3): 2830. Xu, Z. Pankenier, D.W. and Jiang, Y. (2000). East Asian Archaeoastronomy: Historical Records of Astronomical Observations of China, Japan and Korea. Amsterdam: Gordon & Breach Science Publ. ISBN90-5699-302-X. Young, M.J. (2005). "Ethnoastronomy and the Problem of Interpretation: A Zuni Example". In Von Del Chamberlain, John Carlson and M. Jane Young. Songs from the Sky: Indigenous and Cosmological Traditions of the World. Ocarina Books. ISBN0-9540867-2-4. Zeilik, M. (1985). "The Ethnoastronomy of the Historic Pueblos, I: Calendrical Sun Watching". Archaeoastronomy:Supplement to the Journal for the History of Astronomy. 8 (16): S1S24. Zeilik, M. (1986). "The Ethnoastronomy of the Historic Pueblos, II: Moon Watching". Archaeoastronomy:Supplement to the Journal for the History of Astronomy'. 10 (17): S1S22.External linksLook up archaeoastronomy in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

Archaeoastronomy A Thinkquest website surveying archaeoastronomical sites across the world.

Astronomy before History, by Clive Ruggles and Michael Hoskins, a chapter from The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy, Michael Hoskin ed., 1999

Clive Ruggles's webpage: images, bibliography, software, and synopsis of his course at the University of Leicester Space Imagings Ancient Observatories gallery Satellite pictures of ancient observatories.

Traditions of the Sun NASA and others exploring the world's ancient observatories.

Ancient Observatories: Timeless Knowledge NASA Poster on ancient (and modern) observatories.

Mesoamerican Archaeoastronomy - A Review of Contemporary Understandings of Prehispanic Astronomic Knowledge.

Societies ISAAC, The International Society for Archaeoastronomy and Astronomy in Culture.

SEAC La Socit Europenne pour lAstronomie dans la Culture. Site in English.

SIAC La Sociedad Interamericana de Astronoma en la Cultura.

Society for the History of AstronomyJournals Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy News Archaeoastronomy: Supplement to the Journal for the History of Astronomy Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture Culture and Cosmos Journal for the History of Astronomy[hide]

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