Review: Archaeoastronomy

Archaeoastronomy, the subdiscipline, is the study of the relationship between ancient material culture and ancient beliefs and behaviours with respect to phenomena in the sky. Archaeoastronomy, the blog, is the web presence of Ph.D candidate Alun Salt, who is a classical archaeoastronomer (Salt and Boutsikas 2005) and in my opinion, one of today’s finest public thinkers on matters related to ancient science. I’ve never met him nor even corresponded with him, but the Archaeoastronomy blog (in its various incarnations over the years) has been a regular source of interest for me for some time.

The trick about archaeoastronomy is that it is really an effort to reconstruct prehistoric cognition, which is a very tricky task given the limitations of the archaeological record. It is thus generally a part of the broader subfield of cognitive archaeology (Renfrew and Zubrow 1994) and cognitive anthropology (d’Andrade 1995), of which I consider myself to be a part. It is practically self-evident that the cross-cultural study of astronomy and the cross-cultural study of mathematics have much in common. The central issues of cognitive archaeology are epistemological in nature. How do we reliably obtain knowledge of ancient astronomical concepts given only the record of megalithic architecture, pictographic star-charts, and (if we are very fortunate) ancient (but easily misinterpreted) texts? And how do we, as fallible scientists, distinguish patterns that were meaningful to ancient peoples from the archaeological equivalent of Rorshach tests, patterns constructed by the archaeologist out of random noise? Establishing that the alignment of a particular archaeological feature with a particular astronomical event was intentional and meaningful is exceptionally difficult, which is one of the reasons why archaeoastronomy is more heavily burdened with pseudoscientific nonsense than practically any other endeavour.

This, I think, is why the Archaeoastronomy blog is so timely: it doesn’t retreat from this challenge, but instead helps the reader to see how the act of interpretation is fraught with peril, and yet it can be done. Alun Salt’s description of the field is perhaps the clearest I’ve ever read. Beyond this, it illustrates the political and social dimensions of interpretation in a field where attributing great works to one’s putative ancestors is part of keeping the public’s interest. And beyond that still, it’s a well-written and sometimes hilarious blog that neither sinks to the lowest common denominator nor appeals only to the specialist. It hasn’t been as active lately as one would like (something about finishing a dissertation, I hear …) but it is an extraordinary and fascinating resource.

Posts of interest
Monet the astronomer
The Antikythera Mechanism
Inspired by Nebra

Works cited
Aveni, A. F. 2001. Skywatchers. University of Texas Press.
D’Andrade, R. 1995. The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. Cambridge University Press.
Renfrew, C., and E. B. W. Zubrow. 1994. The Ancient Mind: Elements of Cognitive Archaeology. Cambridge University Press.
Salt, A., and E. Boutsikas. 2005. Knowing when to consult the oracle at Delphi. Antiquity 79, no. 305: 564-572.

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