From time immemorial humans have looked heavenward attempting to decipher the meaning of the steady yet changing course of the sun, the wandering stars and the slower moving twinkling starry background of the night sky. We are learning more and more how these movements were tracked and often echoed, coded and marked on the earthly landscape.
Here in the American west, the calendrical value of native “medicine wheels has long been recognized. Yet even after 19th century diffusionist scholars noted the resemblance of many New England stone ruins to counter parts in Europe, little thought was given to indigenous ways of the charting the sky and marking time.
That changed in New England with the publication of a definitive study titled Manitou, the Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilization by Byron Dix and James Mavor where astronomy and archaeology merge. Ever since, the subjecthas slowly gained acceptance by a larger and increasingly academic audience.
The rising sun creeps into a Vermont chamber on the winter solstice. Photo by Edward Bochnak
Looking back at the sunrise from the back of the chamber. Photo by Edward Bochnak
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Archaeoastronomy is the study of how people in the past "have understood the phenomena in the sky, how they used phenomena in the sky and what role the sky played in their cultures." Clive Ruggles argues it is misleading to consider archaeoastronomy to be the study of ancient astronomy, as modern astronomy is a scientific discipline, while archaeoastronomy considers other cultures' symbolically rich cultural interpretations of phenomena in the sky. It is often twinned with ethnoastronomy, the anthropological study of skywatching in contemporary societies. Archaeoastronomy is also closely associated with historical astronomy, the use of historical records of heavenly events to answer astronomical problems and the history of astronomy, which uses written records to evaluate past astronomical practice.
Archaeoastronomy uses a variety of methods to uncover evidence of past practices including archaeology, anthropology, astronomy, statistics and probability, and history. Because these methods are diverse and use data from such different sources, the problem of integrating them into a coherent argument has been a long-term issue for archaeoastronomers.
Archaeoastronomy fills complementary niches in landscape archaeology and cognitive archaeology. Material evidence and its connection to the sky can reveal how a wider landscape can be integrated into beliefs about the cycles of nature, such as Mayan astronomy and its relationship with agriculture. Other examples which have brought together ideas of cognition and landscape include studies of the cosmic order embedded in the roads of settlements.
Archaeoastronomy can be applied to all cultures and all time periods. The meanings of the sky vary from culture to culture; nevertheless there are scientific methods which can be applied across cultures when examining ancient beliefs. It is perhaps the need to balance the social and scientific aspects of archaeoastronomy which led Clive Ruggles to describe it as: "...[A] field with academic work of high quality at one end but uncontrolled speculation bordering on lunacy at the other."
Read the full Wikipedia article on Archeaoastronomy.