CfArch journal header
Center for Archaeoastronomy Main Page
Find Out More
What is Archaeoastronomy?
More About the Center for Archaeoastronomy
More About ISAAC
Publications of the Center
Lost Codex Used Book Sale
Outside Links
History of Science

Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 11 March Equinox 1994

Cultural Astronomy in Europe
by Stan Iwanisczewski

The last OXFORD conference held in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria raised some questions on the state of European (Continental) archaeoastronomy. Until now, European archaeoastronomy has followed the "green" approach which developed mainly in the British Isles and set rigorous criteria for selecting data in the most objective (i.e. "scientific") way. Continental European archaeoastronomy developed at the periphery of the current archaeological research, and three decade after Gerald S. Hawkins published his first paper on Stonehenge, it is still difficult to speak of an European (continental) archaeoastronomy.

Although European archaeoastronomy does not exist as an independent approach, a set of common features clearly appear in the published works. Until recent times, European archaeoastronomy (in most cases limited to the study of calendrics and astronomy in the past) has been carried out by a small group of scholars scattered oven a dozen countries, working in relative isolation. Judging from the bibliographical references, more or less regular investigation has occurred in Italy, France, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. In other countries such as Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Rumania, Lithuania, Russia and Armenia the studies are less advanced. The bulk of the research, in all these countries, has been done by individuals who conducted investigations in parallel to their professional jobs, and disseminated the concepts of archaeoastronomy to others. In Poland the situations appears to be exceptional, because a group of students interested in Latin American archaeo- and ethnoastronomy has stimulated research in the country itself.

A great deal of archaeoastronomical fieldwork has been done or inspired by professional archaeologists (a difference as compared to the situation in the British Isles). The published materials are not focused on proving the reality of astronomical alignments through statistical procedures, but have been used to corroborate other archaeological and historical data (this is in part due to the fact that the structures to be studied were seldom built of stone, thus they could not give very exact azimuths). For example, the Central European studies of circular and rectangular earthwork enclosures utilized archaeoastronomical results to support the idea of their ritual significance. Church orientations have also been used to validate written sources reporting on the dates of the most important feasts or patrons associated with those churches. Archaeoastronomy has been useful in offering additional data.

Isolation among Europeans finally broke down at the end of the 1980's, when the need for communication led to annual meetings in different countries. We can trace the beginnings of such conferences to 1988, and in the last 6 years the following international conferences were held in Europe:

    1988, Tolbukhin (today's Dobrikh), Bulgaria. Proceedings published in 1990 and 1991 (two volumes).

    1989, Venice, Italy. Proceedings published in 1991. 1990, Warsaw, Poland. Proceedings published in 1992. 1991, Szekesfehervar, Hungary. Proceedings in press. 1992, Strasbourg, France. Proceedings in press. 1993, Smolyan, Bulgaria. To be published. 1994, Bochum, Germany.

The next step towards cooperation within Europe was the creation of a European Society for Astronomy in Culture (ESAC). This idea was for years advocated by Professor Carlos Jaschek from the Strasbourg Observatory, who since 1986 has organized a series of semi-annual meetings, in collaboration with Pierre Ernyalso. The papers were subsequently published in volumes of ASTRONOMIE ET SCIENCES HUMAINES. The Society was finally created in 1993 with Clive Ruggles as its first president. The development of a common data base system and a creation of a common pan- European research project were also initiated.

In spite of this recent progress, European archaeoastronomy still shows serious deficiencies. Knowledge of the Western literature diminishes as one moves from West to East, but even in Western European countries the editions of OXFORD proceedings are little known. Because they were translated in Russian, the best known books in the East are those by Hawkins and White on Stonehenge and by Wood on British megaliths. However, these books reflect the state of our discipline in the 60s and 70s, not today. Other deficiencies include:

    a) the language: Publications in French, Spanish or German (not to mention other languages) are not normally read by native English speakers.

    b) the place of publication: Even the most prestigious journals with English articles listed in the SSCI are often not accessible to our colleagues in the Americas.

In spite of this, European archaeoastronomy offers some specific contributions. We should mention here: a typological-historical approach to the study of ancient calendars and astronomy, and the concept of "astrobiological ideological system". However, European studies cover a variety of topics. Among the most outstanding are:

    a) alignment studies of the earthwork enclosures and megalithic structures from the Neolithic and Eneolithic times (5th - 3rd millennium BC) - Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Poland.

    b) burial orientations (Germany, Italy, Denmark, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria).

    c) church orientations (Italy, France, Austria, Czech republic, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria).

    d) astronomical knowledge codified in architecture and art objects (France, Poland).

    e) studies on the different functions of calendar feasts and rituals in various social groups (classic ethnographic-folkloric investigations - Russia,France, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Germany), but this topic does not necessarily fit the concept of cultural astronomy (see the remarks of Stephen McCluskey in the last issue of A&E News).

    f) calendric-astronomical content of mythology and popular beliefs (practically all European countries).

Thanks to the establishment of communication ties and progress made in the area of international collaboration, we may expect the rapid development of cultural astronomy in the near future in Europe.

Copyright © 2002 Center for Archaeoastronomy. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.