The First Stargazers

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

In The First Stargazers, James Cornell has produced a pleasant sort of book, a book that has some difficulty withstanding close scrutiny but serves its purpose well enough. That purpose is to provide a layman’s introduction to the recently created subject of “archaeoastronomy,” which could be described in turn as the attempt to assess the cosmological views and astronomical knowledge of preliterate man. Cornell is convinced that archaeoastronomy provides a picture of science’s earliest beginnings. He succeeds in convincing the reader that he is probably at least partly right.

Archaeoastronomy had its beginnings as a legitimate field of scientific research about twenty years ago, when a young American scientist named Gerald Hawkins proposed a new theory to explain the origin of Stonehenge. Set in the midst of a large, grassy plain, Stonehenge consists of several dozen very large rocks set on end and arranged more or less symmetrically in several concentric circles. It has been established for some time that Stonehenge was erected in stages between 3000 B.C. and 1500 B.C., at a time when England was supposed to have been inhabited by very primitive tribes who have left almost no other signs of civilization behind. The obvious and long-standing question is how these tribes could have acquired the technical skill required to build the monument, and why they would bother.

Hawkins, after visiting Stonehenge, speculated that the arrangement of stones might have been useful in watching the sky. The sighting lines provided by sets of arranged stones would provide a more precise means of watching particular stars (as well as the moon and sun) than is otherwise possible. He drew such lines from the Stonehenge site, and then matched these with calculations of where the moon and stars were during the period when Stonehenge was erected. The result was a surprising number of correlations that tied into the lunar cycle. Hawkins was eventually able to argue plausibly that Stonehenge could have been used to sight and predict lunar eclipses.

Hawkins’ theory was widely publicized in the early 1960’s, and soon followers of the theory were examining archaeological sites all over the world to find similar astronomical connections. Cornell takes the reader on a tour of the “discoveries” that have resulted from this search: etchings of supernovas on ancient rocks; the construction of Mayan temples to create certain shadows on holy days; the alignment of African temples to match star azimuths; and the erection of wood piles in pre-European America that permitted the accurate determination of the start of summer.

If some or all of these speculations are true, they would necessitate substantial rethinking of many assumptions about primitive man. They would require that some preliterate societies had a fairly sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, a strong understanding of some basic mathematical principles, and enough knowledge of engineering principles to build the monuments (or “observatories”) that tested and used the astronomical knowledge acquired. This suggests, in turn, that science played a central role in these societies, even if that role was only to buttress existing myths. If all this is true, then man’s intellectual development predated the establishment of the very large and highly organized cultures in Egypt, Sumeria, and China that have long been regarded the first civilizations.

The key problem with archaeoastronomy, of course, is that there is no direct evidence of the motives behind the construction of any very ancient monument. Since most of the...

(The entire section is 1482 words.)