Overview (The Solar System)
Archaeoastronomy combines Astronomy and archaeology into a study of ancient civilizations that focuses on the relationship between their observations of sky phenomena and their science, religion, architecture, and cultural practices. In advancing the discipline, astronomers and archaeologists work alongside ethnographers, geographers, anthropologists, mathematicians, historians, and others. However, many of the interpretations of archaeoastronomy are controversial and open to alternate explanations.
Archaeoastronomy dates back to the late 1600’s and early 1700’s, when the connection between ancient human-constructed structures and astronomical events was first made. Antiquarians like John Aubrey in 1678 and Henry Chauncy in 1700, studied the astronomical alignments of churches. Initial studies dealt with Middle Eastern and European cultures. Suggested by Euan MacKie, the term “archaeoastronomy” was first used in 1973 by Elizabeth Chesley Baity. Today, locations throughout the world are investigated.
The best-known archaeoastronomy site is Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. The current structure at the site has been dated to 2500 b.c.e. There is evidence of an older stone structure on the same site. An earthen bank and ditch that encompass the stones has been dated to 3100 b.c.e. The circular bank-and-ditch system measures 110 meters in diameter and has a large opening in the northeast and a smaller one to the south....
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Methods of Study (The Solar System)
There are two main methodologies used by archaeoastronomers. Green archaeoastronomy relies only on alignments and is used when little or nothing is known about the builders of a site. Some scientists criticize this approach because it postulates that the ancients were interested in astronomy but offers no insights into why or what role it played in their cultures. Brown archaeoastronomy, by contrast, is often compared with cultural history or the history of astronomy. Brown archaeoastronomy studies historical and ethnographic records to learn about the roles astronomy played in ancient cultures. (The names of these two methods have no import other than their reference to the colors of the covers of the first published texts proposing and explaining the nature of each technique; green came first, followed by brown.)
At some sites, both methods are used. Alexander Thom developed many of the methods used in green archaeoastronomy. He examined British sites, looking for evidence of astronomy in the builders’ society. Thom looked for alignments with the Sun (on solstices and equinoxes), the Moon, and the stars. One significant alignment, he believed, could be the result of chance, but more than one, he postulated, indicated deliberate attention to celestrial objects on the part of the ancient builders. Euan MacKie, one of Thom’s strongest supporters, studied British and Mayan sites, looking for proof of a link between the two...
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Context (The Solar System)
Although controversial, archaeoastronomy—the study of the beliefs, religions, science, architecture, and Cosmology of ancient cultures—is an increasingly important scientific field. The astronomical alignments of buildings, structures, and cities not only provide a new way of thinking about ancient societies but also elucidate what was known about the solar system before modern astronomy arose in the sixteenth century. The organizational, engineering, scientific, and mathematical skills of these cultures are showcased by their archaeoastronomy sites. Archaeoastronomy also expands the study of the history of science and religion further into the past than has been possible by the study of written records.
However, many questions remain unanswered. What caused societies in Russia, China, Egypt, Spain, and in other parts of the world to build pyramid-shaped structures? What led these cultures to study and worship the heavens? The study of archaeoastronomy can also reveal some things about ourselves. Many people today pay no attention to the night sky. Most cannot explain what an Eclipse or solstice is. Interest in the exploration of the solar system has declined since the 1960’s even as the technology to discover more about the solar system and the universe beyond has expanded greatly. Less than one-third of all Americans and Europeans can see the Milky Way from their own backyards because of urban light pollution. Today’s...
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Further Reading (The Solar System)
Aveni, Anthony. Stairways to the Stars: Skywatching in Three Great Ancient Cultures. New York: Wiley, 1997. An informative work focusing on the Mayan Great Pyramid, the Incan capital Cuzco, and Stonehenge. Aveni speculates about how these ancient structures were built and discusses the various theories for their usage and origins.
Chamberlain, Von Del, John B. Carlson, and M. Jane Young. Songs from the Sky: Indigenous Astronomical and Cosmological Traditions of the World. College Park, Md.: Ocarina Books, 2005. A collection of papers written by scientists from various fields dealing with cultures of the early Americas and the Near East. Astronomy and cosmology in these societies are investigated, including their roles in architecture.
Fountain, John, and Rolf Sinclair. Current Studies in Archaeoastronomy: Conversations Across Time and Space. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2005. A collection of papers from the fifth Oxford Conference on Archaeoastronomy focusing on sociology, astronomy, and culture of various ancient civilizations.
Kelley, David, and Eugene Milone. Exploring Ancient Skies: An Encyclopedia Survey of Archaeoastronomy. New York: Springer, 2004. A comprehensive look at archaeoastronomy, focusing on observational astronomy and its history. Examines the ways ancient cultures watched celestial objects and used them to keep time and develop calendars. Discusses...
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Archaeoastronomy (Encyclopedia of Science)
Archaeoastronomy is the study of the astronomy of ancient people. As a field it is relatively young, having formally begun only in the 1960s. Archaeoastronomers seek to know what celestial observations were made by an ancient society or culture. They then try to understand how those observations were made a part of the ancient society's religious customs, political life, and agricultural or hunting-gathering practices. For this reason, archaeoastronomy is often known as cultural astronomy.
Most ancient people developed a cosmology, or an understanding of the formation and structure of the universe and their place in it. Some of these people thought the sky was inhabited by Sky People, gods, departed ancestors, or other forces. While ancient people worshiped these sky powers, they also believed the powers could be used to serve human goals. Thus a moon associated with important periods in the agricultural or hunting cycle would be honored to ensure better food supplies. A desire to have the sky powers serve the needs of humans may have motivated ancient societies to take up regular observations of the skiesn other words, astronomy.
Although any written records of ancient celestial observations have been lost to history, some of the physical signs of those activities remain. Among the...
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