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Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 18 December Solstice 1995

Alignments and Orientations Again
by Syanislaw Iwaniszewski

Alignments and ancient observation places (ancient observatories?) are one of the main concerns of archaeoastronomy. In the last issue of A&E NEWS Dave Dearborn addressed a series of questions concerning the nature of observatories. His preoccupation with orientations and observatories mirrors a particular phase of the development of our discipline but our attitudes towards what we define as astronomical orientations and observatories are changing. This essay intends to form part of a larger dialogue concerned with multiple approaches to the study of orientations.

At the beginning of modern archaeoastronomy, the search for astronomical alignments and ancient observatories was a common methodological practice. Early archaeoastronomers (called astro-archaeologists in those times) were really obsessed with very precise astronomical orientations and the monuments and places where such alignments were detected, were naturally considered as ancient observatories. Where less precise alignments were discovered, early archaeoastronomers talked about different levels of astronomical competency and later separated scientific (and more precise) astronomy from ceremonial (less precise) astronomy. At that time alignments and not monuments where the goals of scientific activity.

In archaeoastronomical practice, alignments and orientations have been separated from material objects for a long time. In my view, alignments and orientations form one of the possible classes of attributes that characterize material objects. Archaeologists usually deal with a variety of material culture objects, be they pottery shards, lithic artifacts, iron implements, architectural remains or even human skeletons, and try to order them into a meaningful pattern. This can be achieved through the identification of resources, materials and technologies used for the object fabrication, description of their macroscopic (physical dimensions, color, shape, ornaments, etc.) and microscopic (chemical composition of raw sources, biological identification of organic remains, etc) attributes and the establishment of their spatial and temporal relationships. Therefore, alignments and orientations should be viewed as artifactual (macroscopic) attributes.

Alignments and orientations do not exist without artifacts. Similarly, the quality to be red, or redness when separated from a red jar becomes an abstract concept losing its sense. Redness, particular diameter or an orientation are abstract concepts which manifest themselves in material objects. The visual line that links a particular monument or place with horizon features associated with certain astronomical events, exists through this artifact. So, when we speak of alignments, we cannot separate them from artifacts, ultimately those are the artifacts that have certain meaning and this meaning may be stressed or emphasized by particular alignments.

Traditional archaeology has dealt with orientations in a very narrow sense. Orientations of architectural features or human burials were treated as attributes used for typological purposes. Archaeological reports present summary statistics of how many structures (usually houses, temples or tombs) or skeletons are oriented in such and such direction to conclude that in particular archaeological cultures such were general orientation patterns. In case of human burials differences of gender in respect to certain orientations have been observed. However, it should be emphasized that orientation trends were used only for the establishing of typological criteria.

Processual or "new archaeology" has interpreted orientations in terms of society's adaptation to natural environment. Particular orientations have been analyzed to define their adaptive function (for example in terms of offering a better protection against prevailing winds, minimizing of temperature extremes, or improving air circulation inside structures). Contextual or post-processual archaeology has emphasized orientations' social and symbolic significance. Orientations towards celestial objects or other natural phenomena or objects have been interpreted as strategies that "could have produced a higher authority" of a certain class of monuments. It has been also postulated that where architectural structures or human skeletons were oriented in the same direction, it might have symbolized "social relations of identity between the social groups who erected them".

Landscape archaeology intends to reconstruct ancient cultural landscapes. Such investigation identifies basic landmarks around which cultural landscapes were created. Their location in space may be emphasized through particular orientations which project human attributes onto distant horizons, creating meaningful skyscapes. But there may be also a reverse situation: particular locations of oriented monuments may be explained in terms of visibility of prominent features on horizon with its astronomical associations attached. Each of the currents of modern archaeology treats orientations in a different form. Yet cultural and social anthropology reveal how people use space to mark social distinctions of gender, age, rank, religion, ethnicity, etc.

What I want to say exhibiting these examples is that material objects may possess a variety of meanings. Orientations, considered as an attribute may also carry multiple meanings. Orientations and alignments are polysemous in nature. A particular set of meanings may be attached to orientation patterns of different classes of artifacts. The orientation of the dead does not necessarily express the same patterns as do the tombs in which they are deposited. The (invisible) corpses of the dead may relate to different sets of meanings if compared to the (visible) elaborated funeral monuments. Less precise astronomical observations may appear where previously very precise ones were found. The meanings of locations are not fixed for ever and particular locations and monuments, especially those of long duration, may change their meanings with the passage of time. As Dave observes, today's Intihuantana bears different meanings than some 500 years ago. What was an observational device! yesterday, may be converted into a token today. Another example is the evolution of the use of clocks in culture.

Last but not least, the meaning of alignments depend on our research purposes. Dave trained as a scientist is interested in types of observations performed, and how they were made technically. Trained as an archaeologist I would rather look for the social meaning of such observations, decode their meaning in order to reconstruct the cognitive models of the world, analyze their particular function in culture systems and finally try to associate particular patterns of orientations with other cultural features. Our approaches are different but complementary since both of us study astronomy in its cultural context. Only in this sense archaeoastronomy (as a part of cultural astronomy) involves a true cooperation between physical and social scientists.

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