Pomona College Magazine
Spring 2004
Volume 40, No. 3

Spring 2004 Contents
PCM Archives

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Main: Ancient Skies
Archaeoastronomy Program


Sidebar: Whispers of the Past

Long-ago astronomers are still telling their stories to Pomona students...

In a lonely valley, a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, long-ago native astronomers spoke from across the centuries to a group of Pomona College students and professors through strange and mysterious drawings the Chumash Indians had left on cave walls.

The class had traveled to Vandenberg Air Force Base to observe these and other petroglyphs--art carved into rock faces by the native people who lived there thousands of years ago--and to speculate about their astronomical significance.

"No matter what you say in a classroom or how many books you read, there is just no substitute for being out there," says Bryan Penprase, associate professor of physics and astronomy, who arranged this field trip so his archaeoastronomy class could see tangible evidence of the ancient civilizations they were studying.

This was one of at least three field trips Penprase's class typically takes each semester to view petroglyphs, stargaze at the night sky and witness for themselves the same stars and monuments that awed ancient astronomers.

And, since ancient astronomy could not exist in a vacuum, Penprase invites professors of related fields along to give their scientific perspective of the sites.

Rick Hazlett, Stephen M. Pauley M.D. '62 Professor of Environmental Studies and associate professor of geology, has gone on trips to two petroglyph sites--one in the Mojave Desert and another just east of Barstow--to inform students about the geology the students are witnessing. Hazlett discovered the rock art sites himself while mapping both areas.

"It is a whisper of the past out in the most raw, open wilderness" Hazlett says of the rock art. "It is just a great thing for people to see."

Jennifer Perry, assistant professor of anthropology and an expert on Chumash culture, accompanied the class to Vandenberg Air Force Base. There, she was able to explain the cultural significance of the rock art, like one prominent petroglyph of a swordfish, an animal highly revered in Chumash culture and regarded as the "people" of the sea.

"It conveys to the undergraduates that although we slice knowledge up into all these different departments, it is all interrelated," says Perry. "A field trip like that is so tangible and in your face you can't ignore there being those connections."

Summer Gray '06 says she found the field trips essential to the course. "The study of archaeoastronomy involves the study of many different cultures and civilizations," says Gray. "Getting out of the classroom was very important for developing an appreciation for the many cultures that contributed to our current understanding of the universe."

That appreciation is often evident in the final projects submitted by students in the archaeoastronomy class, including Gray's stunning, artistically rendered model of the many-layered Mayan universe.

For her final project, Kira Del Mar '07 created a medicine wheel--a type of ancient astronomical observatory used by Native Americans. A medicine wheel is a large circle of carefully placed rocks that line up with certain astronomical occurrences. "It amazed me that ancient cultures could have been so accurate and precise in their measurements," she explains. "It took me several days to figure it out using computer programs and calculators."

Photo by Phil Channing

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