Pomona College Magazine
Spring 2004
Volume 40, No. 3

Spring 2004 Contents
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Sidebar: Whispers of the Past
Archaeoastronomy Program
Griffith Observatory


An unlikely hybrid of archaeology and astronomy, archaeoastronomy is the study of what happens when human beings dare to look up.

"There are no people, no matter how barbaric and primitive, that do not raise up their eyes, take note and observe with some care and admiration the continuous and uniform course of the heavenly bodies." --Bernabé Cobo (1653)

Since the dawn of civilization, the gaze of humanity has been drawn to the stars. Myths and legends woven around the nighttime sky are as old as imagination itself, inspired by our ancestors' deep-seated need to explain the enigmatic and enforce a sense of order and purpose in a seemingly random world.

Today, archaeoastronomers are listening to those same stars, asking them to retell the old stories so we may better understand the cultures of long-ago stargazers. Archaeoastronomy, an unlikely combination of archaeology and astronomy, allows us to learn more about past civilizations by understanding the nature and meaning of their astronomical practices--including celestial lore, mythologies, architecture, religions and world-views.

"Archaeoastronomy is an interdisciplinary inquiry about the relationship between our brains and the sky," says E.C. Krupp '66, director of the Griffith Observatory and a respected authority in this little-known field. "It is everything that people do that reflects their connection with the sky."

As Krupp says in the foreword to Echoes of the Ancient Skies, one of five books he has written on archaeoastronomy, "It allows at least partial entrance into the belief systems of our ancestors. In this way, we see how they saw the world and their place in it."

The Cherokee believed that long ago, when the world was young and there were not many stars in the sky, an old man and his wife found that their cornmeal had been scattered over the ground. The people of their village determined that the cornmeal had been spilt by a spirit dog from another world. They made a plan to scare the dog so it would never return. Late that night, when the giant dog swooped down from the sky and began to eat great mouthfuls of cornmeal, the people jumped up, beating and shaking noise makers. The noise was so loud that the giant dog turned and ran. As the people chased after him, the dog leaped into the black night sky, cornmeal spilling out of the sides of its mouth, until it disappeared from sight. Each grain of cornmeal that spilled from its mouth became a star, making a pathway across the sky. And that is how the Milky Way came to be.

The modern examination of historical astronomy goes back for centuries. But it wasn't until just before the turn of the 20th century that archaeoastronomy dawned with the work of British astronomer J. Norman Lockyer, the first person to make astronomical interpretations of ancient and prehistoric sites.

Lockyer, on vacation in Greece, noticed that the foundations of some temples had been reoriented long after they were first built. It looked as though the changes were meant to realign the buildings with astronomical events, such as the sunrise at certain times of year. Intrigued, Lockyer took a close look at some Egyptian temples and discovered solar and stellar alignments there, as well. Turning his attention to Stonehenge, he found that the ancient English site was similarly aligned--built to face sunrise at the summer solstice.

Many of the assertions Lockyer made based on his discoveries were later proved false. But it didn't matter. Archaeoastronomy was born.

After his death, Lockyer's legacy was carried on quietly by a handful of others until 1965, when British astronomer Gerald Hawkins ignited international controversy with the publication of Stonehenge Decoded, a sensational book in which he claimed that Stonehenge was a neolithic computer-observatory for predicting eclipses of the sun and moon. "He caught the attention of a lot of people, and I was one of those," says Krupp. "Hawkins made a splash."

Interest was piqued. By the mid-1970s, conferences in archaeoastronomy began to crop up, and astronomers interested in the field began making a concerted effort to acquire a background in archaeology and other relevant sciences. Today, Krupp surmises that there are a few hundred archaeoastronomers in the world, a small field, but one of sufficient size.

"It is sort of like asking how many scholars of 18th-century literature do we need," Krupp says. "I think it would be inappropriate to suggest that archaeoastronomy is a commanding area of inquiry. It should be a part--but only a part--of answering questions about human beings and the world which they inhabit."

The ancient Greeks told how Zeus, king of the gods, seduced the beautiful maiden Callisto, and she bore him a son named Arcas. When Hera, wife of Zeus and queen of the gods, discovered what had happened, she flew into a jealous rage and turned Callisto into a bear condemned to roam the forest. One day, Arcas was hunting in the forest and came upon the bear. Callisto was overjoyed to see her son and rushed toward him. Thinking himself under attack, Arcas raised his bow and prepared to fire. Zeus seeing what was about to happen, turned Arcas into a bear and hurled both mother and son into the safety of the sky, where they still roam as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.

Astronomy is an ancient art, even if the earliest practitioners did not realize their interactions with the heavens embodied a scientific discipline.

"Throughout history, just about every group of people larger than five or six ends up using some sort of astronomy to plan their practices," says Bryan Penprase, associate professor of physics and astronomy, who teaches a popular freshman seminar in archaeoastronomy at Pomona College.

Earlier cultures used astronomical observation to help determine the best times to hunt or migrate, or tracked the cycles of the sun and moon to mark time and create early calendars. As civilizations matured, so did their relationship with the sky.

"As you get a more elaborate culture, you begin to get oral traditions," Penprase says. "It is a natural thing. People just have an intrinsic awe of a dark night sky. And people around the world are not that different. They may group stars differently, but they all look up at the sky and create explanations for what they see."

One constellation known for centuries to countless cultures around the world is Ursa Major, which includes the best-known grouping of stars in North America--the Big Dipper.

To some Native-Americans, the Big Dipper represented a group of hunters pursuing a bear. The English saw the same constellation as the wagon of King Arthur. In France, astronomy met gastronomy in those seven stars, known as a casserole dish. The ancient Chinese perceived the Big Dipper as a group of celestial bureaucrats accompanied by students. The Egyptians saw the hind leg of a bull next to an underworld god that resembled a hippopotamus with an alligator on its back.

While these interpretations differ widely, they all serve the same purpose--to explain the otherwise inexplicable in a way that allows each civilization to find comfort and meaning.

"People try to come to terms with their natural and cultural environment," says Jennifer Perry, assistant professor of anthropology. "We are born into a world that is not easy to understand. Looking at the sky is a natural curiosity and it fits into that scheme of explanation."

The ancient Egyptians said the world was created when Ra, the sun god, emerged from the chaotic waters that covered the entire earth. Ra, by himself, gave birth to Shu and Tefnut. Shu, the god of air, and Tefnut, the goddess of moisture, gave birth to Geb and Nut, the earth god and the sky goddess, creating the physical universe. Men were created from Ra's tears, but proved to be ungrateful so Ra ordered them destroyed. Almost all humans had been slaughtered when Ra relented and spared the few remaining people, creating the present world. Against Ra's orders, Geb and Nut married. Ra was incensed and demanded they be separated. But Nut was already pregnant, although unable to give birth as Ra had decreed she could not give birth in any month of any year. Thoth, the god of learning, decided to help her and, gambling with the moon for extra light, added five extra days to the 360-day calendar. On those five days Nut gave birth to Osiris, Horus the Elder, Set, Isis and Nephthys. Osiris became the symbol of good, while Set became the symbol of evil. And thus the two poles of morality were fixed for all time.

While it's easy to claim that an ancient civilization had astronomy in mind when building a certain temple or crafting a particular tale, providing irrefutable proof of this connection is another thing entirely.

To take a modern-day example, if archaeoastronomers of the future were to look back at present-day Los Angeles, it wouldn't be difficult to determine that the Griffith Observatory foundation has a cardinal orientation--a deliberate construction--and Wilshire Boulevard lines up with the equinox sunset--an unintentional alignment. But, lacking further information, those scientists of the future would be hard pressed to conclusively determine which construct was calculated and which a coincidence.

In the study of ancient and prehistoric astronomy, that additional information can be close to impossible to come by, depending on how much is known about the civilization in question. It's easy for us to see connections to astronomy in Mayan society because of the discovery of detailed glyphs describing Mayan life. Far less is known about the prehistoric peoples of the British Isles who created some 900 stone circles, which, despite many conjectures made about their possible purpose, still remain cloaked in mystery.

"The criteria for proof are not simple," says Krupp. "In a physics experiment, the evidence is categorical. In astronomy, it's a little softer, but you can still make very deliberate connections. But in the study of the past, there are all these pieces missing. When you see an alignment, you have to determine if it is intended or an element of chance. When you have limited evidence, you can find yourself with an incomplete argument."

This is where a strong background in archaeology, anthropology and other sciences comes in handy.

An astronomer can look at the copious records made by ancient Chinese astronomers and determine that a comet or sunspot was observed at a certain point in time. But an anthropologist can put that same observation into an interesting light by considering historical context.

"You need to ask why the records were kept," says Krupp. " You find out that astronomy was at the very basis of the Chinese emperor's mandate to rule. That emperor was able to operate because he was perceived as having a supernatural bond with the sky, which was expressed by the astronomers who were working for the emperor."

This revelation is akin to realizing that Neil Armstrong's 1969 moonwalk was less the result of our country's commitment to space exploration than it was due to the frenetic "space race" engaged in by the United States and the Soviet Union to prove which country was technologically superior.

The Australian Aborigines told a story about Rolla-Mano, the ruler of the sea, who went one day to fish in a lonely mangrove swamp. He caught many fish and cooked them over a fire. While eating his meal he noticed two women approach him. Their beautiful bodies were as lithe and graceful as the wattle tree, and in their eyes was the soft light of the dusk. Determined to capture them, Rolla-Mano hid in the branches of the mangrove tree and threw his net over the women. One, however, escaped by diving into the water. Enraged, Rolla-Mano jumped in after her with a burning fire stick in his hand. As soon as the fire stick touched the water, the sparks hissed and scattered to the sky, where they remain as golden stars to this day. After a fruitless search, Rolla-Mano returned to the shore and took the other woman to live with him forever in the sky, where she is the evening star.

Today, our connection with the nighttime sky is much more tenuous than in the past. Just as the sacred has ceased to be the centerpiece of our culture, no longer do the stars play a crucial role in our lives. Instead, most of us spend our nights closeted inside our homes, away from the beauty of the heavens, transfixed instead by the glow of our televisions, while outside the ambient light from our communities obscures from sight all but the brightest of stars.

Despite this, the sky has not lost its power to instill in us a sense of mystery and wonder. We may no longer be creating myths to explain the heavens, but the stars have many tales yet to tell us, many secrets still to reveal. Archaeoastronomers are listening.

"There is still a mythic and romantic character to the sky," says Krupp. "Archaeoastronomy commands so much interest because there is this romantic component. I don't think that is going to go away."

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