An Overview of Archaeoastronomy

The summer of 2013 has been my summer of astronomy. I just finished my summer research program, Undergraduate Research in Computational Astrophysics, at North Carolina State University at which I simulated the way that matter interacts and moves around neutron stars producing x-ray flares. I am also in the preliminary stages of a neutrino research project in William & Mary’s Department of Physics. Upon my return from North Carolina, I began a series of readings on archaeoastronomy. Archaeoastronomy is a fusion of archaeology and astronomy in which the way past cultures viewed and interpreted the heavens is studied.

My first reading, In Search of Ancient Astronomies by E.C. Krupp, provides an introduction to archaeoastronomy, focusing on many different regions, cultures, and time periods. Although largely anglocentric, Krupp discussed numerous archaeological sites with astronomical significance across the globe. Most archaeoastronomical studies involve measuring alignments of particular structures to astronomically significant features or events. Common alignments include the following astronomical events:

  • summer solstice- northern-most sunrise of the year
  • winter solstice- southern-most sunrise of the year
  • equinox- days with daytime and nighttime equaling in length
  • heliacal risings- brief appearances of an astronomical object just before sunrise after a brief period of time in which the object was not visible due to the position of the sun.

A large section of In Search of Ancient Astronomies was devoted to a discussion of Stonehenge. Gaps between certain stones provide lines of sight for sunrise of the summer solstice, sunrise of the winter solstice, or the corresponding maximum and minimum moonrises. Stonehenge’s Heel Stone was used as an indicator for lunar eclipses. Krupp provided details on many other astronomical alignments of which I will share the ones that I found to be interesting. The Cahokia Mound Site near St. Louis, Missouri contains numerous circular ceremonial earth mounds. Near the mounds, several postholes were found placed in a circular pattern in which specific posts were thought to indicate solstice and equinox sunrises. The Big Horn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming indicated solstice risings in addition to the heliacal risings of the stars Aldebaran, Rigel, and Sirius. Several Aztec temples were found to have gaps in the temple walls through which the sun would appear only on the equinox. A Zapotec observatory in the ancient city of Monte Alban in Mexico provides an indicator of the heliacal rising of the star Capella which occurs on precisely the same day as the first yearly passage of the sun across the zenith at Monte Alban.

Krupp describes sites in the Americas, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Europe with only one brief mention of Sub-Saharan Africa (the Dogon people, which I will study later in my project through a reading of Laid Scranton’s The Science of the Dogon) and no mention of Oceania. As stated in my project proposal and abstract, I intend to focus on African and Australian archaeoastronomy, or, more specifically, Sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania. These regions tend be overlooked in the average glance at archaeoastronomy. In my future readings, I will focus on archaeoastronomical studies from these areas.

Krupp, E.C. In Search of Ancient Astronomies. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978. Print.

Comments

  1. kavachris says:

    This looks so cool. It’s neat to think how an ancient astronomer would think, with no knowledge of a heliocentric solar system or any modern astrophysics the skies must have been a subject of great mystery. Not to toot my own horn, but I have visited Stonehenge, and it’s a little surreal. It just feels so old, especially since it’s just in the middle of absolutely nowhere and is surrounded by ancient burial mounds. It is so human, to be curious and to try to measure and observe the heavens.

    Wow this comment is getting too poetic. Anyway, your focus on Oceania and Sub-saharan Africa seems rather interesting, since you’ll be focusing on the summer hemisphere, where the stars are all different and the winter solstice is actually in July.

    One last thing. This isn’t actually archaeoastronomy, as it’s much more modern and also probably an unintentional fluke, but I think it’s neat. As you know, the sun lines up with Stonehenge twice a year, but did you know it also lines up with Manhattan’s street grid? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manhattanhenge

  2. Hey Eve! It’s Isaac. This is a really cool topic you’ve chosen to study. After all, the celestial bodies were the only means of timekeeping for the ancients (with the exception of the rather cumbersome water clock). From what I’ve read in your posts, it looks like most of your research is focused archaeoastronomy of civilizations in the southern hemisphere and near the equator. I’m interested to see what you find out about the celestial landmarks used by these cultures, because the night sky for their latitudes is entirely different than that experienced by the European and Mesopotamian cultures. Looking forward to reading your future posts!

  3. This sounds like an amazing area of study – I didn’t even know that such a field existed! How did you find out about archaeoastronomy? Is it relatively new or well established? It’s nice to find out what field explains sites such as Stonehenge or constructions from indigenous tribes from North and South America. I’m thinking that for researchers in archaeoastronomy, they would also have to be cultural experts of the cultures they are looking at – meaning that they usually would be able to study only a few cultures all within a similar region? And why are Oceania and Sub-Saharan Africa overlooked? You’ll probably answer a few of these questions once you’re finished with your research, and I can’t wait to read about it! Good luck and keep up the good work!