Archeoastronomy: A New Frontier in Science
Among the many scientific journals which wend their way to our doorstep is Technology Review, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I was about to let it lapse when they tempted me by notice of a coming article on the search for the Loch Ness monster. The December, 1977 issue was pure serendipity—a whole issue with a focus on archeoastronomy, headlined as “The Origins of Science; the Astronomy of the Ancients.” Titles and brief descriptions of articles include:
“Medicine Wheels and Plains Indian Astronomy” by John Eddy. Little is known about the nomadic tribes that once populated this continent. But it now appears that they made sophisticated observations of events in the sky.
“Pictographs and Petroglyphs of the Southwest Indians” by John Brandt. It has long been known that the Chinese observed a supernova in 1054 A.D. and recorded the event. Perhaps the Indians of the American Southwest did so as well.
“The First Scientific Instruments” by Sharon Gibbs. The surviving instruments are often so fragmentary that considerable imagination is required to unravel their construction and use.
“Sirius Enigma” by Kenneth Brecher. Ancient records suggest that Sirius was red, not blue white, 2,000 years ago. And that’s just one of the mysteries surrounding the brightest star in the sky.
“The Basic Astronomy of Stonehenge” by Owen Gingerich. The stark, majestic circle of stone may be an ancient monument on the site of a still more ancient observatory.
“The Gorgon’s Eye” by Jerome Lettvin. Before a myth can refer to the sky, it must refer to the earth. Here are the meanings—earthly and celestial—hidden in the encounter between Perseus and the Gorgon Medusa.
“The Language of Archaic Astronomy: A Clue to the Atlantis Myth?” by Harald Reiche. Scholars have long searched the Earth for evidence of the lost civilization called Atlantis. It seems, however, that Plato’s story may not refer to Earth at all.
The central theme of this issue of Technology Review, and of a number of recent books on this general area, is the extent to which ancient humans were concerned with the sky. Of course, since the authors are “scientists”, they use the word “astronomy” and can account for this widespread and long-lasting concern only by suggesting that even “primitive” people were driven by a desire for “pure knowledge”, or they speak vaguely of religion and superstition being involved. The idea that astrology could be a body of knowledge with pragmatic usefulness is totally foreign to the basic premises of the authors. One can see the fear of being even remotely connected to astrology when the opening article defends archeoastronomy against the suspicion that it is a field of quacks, and mentions that even witch doctors are bothered by quacks. Without ever using the word “astrology”, one receives the impression that it is somewhat more reasonable to be a witch doctor. Over and over again, one is struck by the importance of basic premises and the degree to which they limit our concepts. But, for all their limitations, the articles and books are exciting to read. Far better their cautious scholarship than the nonsense of a Von Daniken.
Eddy mentions that at least 900 stone structures and alignments like Stonehenge (many of them smaller, of course) exist in the British Isles, with a great many more in Western Europe. He writes that many of the British alignments “demonstrate an early interest in astronomy. In part by this weight of evidence a basic tenet of prehistory has now been reversed; we must now give up the idea that advanced human knowledge originated only in the Middle East. Evidently Bronze Age astronomy and architecture were fully as advanced in the British Isles as in the Fertile Crescent.” p.18.
Eddy goes on to include the Great pyramid at Giza in Egypt as one of the structures with a celestial alignment, its north passage being aligned to the lower culmination of the pole star at the time the Pyramids were built. Eddy continues “probably the clearest case of man’s early interest in the skies comes from Central America, where astronomers were priests and priests were astronomers, and the destinies of individuals, of cities, and of nations were thought predetermined by the inexorable clockwork of the sky. Among the Classic Maya, astronomy was not so much an intellectual adventure as a deadly serious game, one that fixed rigid rules for public and private life. It became, in effect, the basis for the highest civilization of the pre-Columbian New World.” pp 18-19.
Eddy describes the Dresden Codex, one of three Mayan books saved from the bonfires of Spanish priests, as ephemerides indicating three different calendars, for Sun, Moon, and Venus, and demonstrating knowledge of the synodic period of Venus. He deplores the fact that soldiers came from Spain, instead of scientists, and that they “not only overlooked the amazing accomplishments in the New World of learning, but destroyed the civilization that had made them. How sad it is that we didn’t give the Mesoamericans another century or two to let them advance their discoveries of the sky and perhaps create, independently, their own physical model of the cosmos. For how exciting it could have been, when the two Worlds met, to compare separate concepts of the universe; that of the Old World, which had long been obsessed with the Earth, and that of the New World of America, which had always been more concerned with the sky.” p. 19.
Eddy notes that “the lunar zodiac employed by the Mayans was remarkably like that used by the Chinese and Indian peoples; in both systems, the moon occupies 28 stations in its path around the sky.” p. 20. This, of course, corresponds to the average daily motion of the moon, with its sidereal period of almost 28 days, and would not be sufficient to imply personal contact and borrowing between the cultures, a possibility being considered by archeoastronomers. But other cultural similarities in pottery, masks, toys, etc. might strengthen the case for diffusion.
The primary focus of Eddy’s article is the stone alignments built by the Plains Indians, including some stone patterns called “medicine wheels”. One of these wheels exists in the Bighorn Mountains, in an uninhabited area at about 10,000 feet elevation. Eddy realized that the 28 spokes of the wheel could represent the number of days in a lunar month, and found by observation on June 20 that sighting across the center hub of the wheel from two different rock cairns pointed to the spots where the sun rose and set on the day of summer solstice. By having two sighting points, if the dawn were cloudy, they could use the sunset, or vice versa. There were no cairns to mark the winter solstice, which was not surprising since the site was covered by deep snow during the winter. Other cairns lined up with bright stars, especially with Aldebaran which would have risen at dawn of the day of the summer solstice at the time the medicine wheel was built, about 200 to 400 years ago according to archeologists. Eddy writes “How would the sky have looked if you had stood at the top of Medicine Mountain before dawn on the day of summer solstice several centuries ago? About an hour before dawn, Aldebaran would rise. The pre-dawn sky would already be blue, and all the dim stars would be gone. Indeed, the coming sun would be brightening the sky so rapidly that on this particular day Aldebaran would flash out like a beacon near the horizon, lasting only a matter of minutes before disappearing in the pre-dawn glare. That phenomenon would make this day a distinctive one, for on the previous day Aldebaran would not have been seen at all (the sun’s light would have masked it) and on the day after it would have persisted far longer. In short, watching for Aldebaran’s flash at dawn would have given a precise indication of the solstice, accurate to within a day or two.” p. 25.
Eddy continues that Rigel would offer a similar brief flash at dawn 28 days after the summer solstice, sighting along a different line of cairns. Another 28 days later, Sirius would flash briefly at dawn above the third of the cairn alignments. Other medicine wheels are described more briefly, including some photographs and drawings. A simpler and probably older medicine wheel at Moose Mountain in Canada has five spokes. Eddy wrote that it was cloudy the day they visited, but their calculations suggested that the sunrise was only about 1/2 degree off the long spoke, and the other cairns pointed to the same bright stars as did the Bighorn wheel if the Moose Mountain wheel was built earlier, around the time of Christ. Charcoal found later permitted a radio-carbon date of around 2,600 years ago, supporting the antiquity of the site and alignments with the stars.
Accompanying Eddy’s article, in the same issue of Technology Review, Sharon Gibbs describes additional evidence for an early concern with the sky. She mentions the work of Marshack who believes that a carved bone estimated to be 8,500 years old, found at Lake Edward, Africa, is a representation of lunar phases. Several thousand years later, a sun dial or “shadow clock” was depicted on the ceiling of the grave of Seti I, an Egyptian pharaoh who ruled around 1300 B.C. Numerous sun dials from the Greco-Roman period have survived, but the most fascinating of the early astronomical instruments was recovered from the wreck of an ancient ship between Crete and mainland Greece. The mechanism has been dated at 87 B.C., and appears to be a calendrical Sun and Moon computing device consisting of a series of gears built on bronze plates. It was thought previously that the differential gear was originated just before the Renaissance. A single turn of the drive wheel introduced two different rates of rotation to the differential turntable. The revolutions were associated with the Metonic cycle of about 19 years when a given phase of the moon will recur on about the same calendar date. Gibbs also describes the round tower at Chichén Itzá which has three asymmetrically oriented windows at the top of the tower, as well as asymmetrically oriented bases. It has now been recognized that the windows and bases are directed toward important setting positions of Venus, including the maximum northerly and southerly such points. The Maya were very concerned with Venus, especially with its appearance on the eastern horizon after it had disappeared from the sky in the west. Round towers are known to be associated with Venus as the god of wind.
Additional articles will be discussed in future issues of The Mutable Dilemma. Now that science is turning its attention to early human involvement with the sky, we can expect a rapid proliferation of such evidence. The one remaining step is the recognition that the interest in celestial patterns was not just idle curiosity or baseless superstition. Only those committed to the philosophy of materialism deny any inherent meaning in the cosmos, and remain unaware of the great parallels of macrocosm and microcosm.
Technology Review, Mass. Institute of Technology, Vol. 80, #2, Dec. 1977.