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Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 14 December Solstice 1994

Reflections on Rock Art & Astronomy
by Von Del Chaimberlain, Hansen Planetarium

Sometimes ideas are so exciting that they put our imagination into high gear. It shoot us off on a joyride that can be lots of fun as it gets out of control, leaving casualties all along the way. Science is like that: imaginative thinking by a few leads to postulates that get others on board what becomes a massive movement crashing along a path of least resistance. New ideas flow into the fuel tank, producing bursts of power and explosions that scatter pieces over the landscape of the field of investigation. Eventually, the process corrects itself and things settle down in the form of knowledge that can be agreed upon. By that time, however, lots of distortion may enter the public mind, lasting there for many years.

I suppose it was the article in Plateau, in 1955, by Bill Miller, that started people looking at possible astronomical interpretations of Native American rock art. The idea that a simple picture on a rock could represent something as dramatic as a supernova took hold of our minds, and candidate "supernova glyphs" came out of the rocks onto the printed page. It took took people outside the discipline where the supernova event was recognized as universe- shaking, and inside the disciplines that knew something about the cultures that produced the rock art to help us begin to get our thinking on a more objective path. How quickly the many photos got in books--the number grows day to day-- to plant the idea that Native Americans DID record the crab Supernova on the rocks.

Then an artist, Anna Sofaer, published about an interaction between sunlight and a human-made picture on rock, and the process started again. This time the subject offered many more variations and a host of people were ready to leave no piece of rock art untouched by sunlight, moonlight, starlight, inferred light, or the absence of any of these. The quest for light and shadow casting on rock art seems close to being a religion with devotes scrambling over the rocks at solstice, equinox, and more recently cross-quarter dates to watch in awe as photons beam or developing shadows touch the enchanting figures left by ancient peoples.

Recently, I was among a group gathered in the "Sunroom" near Holly House in Hovenweep National Monument on a morning near the time of the summer solstice. We watched the first point of sunlight fall upon the wall near a set of concentric circles and two spirals. Then, we observed the symphony of light playing on the rock, intermingling with the lines made by human hands hundreds of years ago. It was, to put it mildly, inspiring and emotional! It increased the motivation of everyone of us gathered at that place to be open to, indeed to look for, other examples of rockart that might have been designed to interact with observable natural phenomena that are vital to human and other life on Earth.

Practitioners, within the growing troops referring to themselves as archaeoastronomers, look at the intrigueing figures we find on rock with eyes and minds ready to recognize anything that might have intended astronoical meaning. Sunbursts; starbursts; star-crosses; patterns that resemble groups of stars; crescents, full and partial circles or disks; collections of dots, lines or other items that total 12 or 13, 28, 29, or 30, 365 or other cosmically definable numbers dominate our perspectives as we admire and enjoy the collections of figures painted, pecked, or scratched on rocks along water-ways and on hillsides.

The figure of a sheep with sunburst head stands over a zigzag line inspireing the concept that this solar-sheep might have been intended to march back and forth along a range of jagged mountains as the years passed. In the minds of those who began to think about this, the idea caught fire so that now other sheep, with traditional heads, might also represent the calendric sun. Before long, they suggest that any sheep figure, of which there are plenty to be found, might be considered to portray a calendar and the movement of the sun. A commendable idea has evolved into a ridiculous interpretation that can never be proven, yet which could become accepted by a large and ready-to-accept- nearly-anything public.

What is the point of all of this? Even through the thrill of discovery should motivate our work, it is important that we consider with GREAT CARE what we publicize. If we are going to work in a field that involves disciplines that we are not well versed in, we MUST take the time to get our intellectual feet on the ground before running forth to the publisher. The discoveries that we make as we "follow our bliss" involve both our intellects and out emotions. As we become personally invested, it is only natural and correct that we work with vigor and enthusiasm and that we share our insights with friends and colleagues. At the same time it is our scientific responsibility to evaluate, over and over again, to seek input from the best minds in related fields and to accept suggestions and criticisms from others. Then what we say and write in scientific and popular dialogue will inspire quality work and will not be as apt to be misunderstood by the interested public.

Here are a few examples of the kind of work that we should emulate. (1) Ray Williamson and Carol Ambruster have used careful language in presenting a solid case for astronomical interpretation of light interaction with rock art at Holly House in Hovenweep. They have observed throughout the period of time light enters the shelters and they continue their observational work. Their interpretations make use ofwhat is known of the ethnographic record and from other well established work at Hovenweep and throughout the Southwest. (2) Jane Young studied rockart at Zuni over several years of time and then carefully summerized the work, including some classic examples of how careful we should all be in evaluating even the contemporary interpretations of people whose ancestors made the rock art. (3) There are other examples that could be cited (editors note: including the work of Von Del), but lets end with one that is hypothetical. Lets hope that there are many workers currently making careful observations and gathering data relateing to possible astronomical interpretations of rock art, who are patiently waiting to see if the ideas they have had over the period oftheir research have the proper foundation BEFORE making public announcement of the many possibilities that they have considered. Ideally they have been discussing their thoughts with others, but resisting the temptation of scattering the popular environment with improperly documented concepts in spite of how exciteing they might be. These "real scientists" will only announce findings that are verifiable, and will do so within the context of overall knowledge about the rock art they studied. They will be willing to toss out ideas that occur along the way that have the potential of exceptional public attention, but do not have strong objective analytical verification from a suitable combination of site data and comparative archaeological and ethnographic study.

The question is not so much what we do as how we do it. It really is difficult to temper enthusiasm with objectivity, but doing so established credibility. In another decade the modern study of astronomical interpretations of rock art will be half a century old. Thus, by human standards, this interest could be considered to have reached maturity. It will be interesting to see if it takes on the wisdom that should come with old age.

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