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Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 33 Sepember Equinox 1999



A Professor of Our Own
by John Carlson

On 1 October 1999, Clive Ruggles will be promoted to a personal chair at Leicester University, and will be given the title Professor of Archaeoastronomy. This is the culmination of a very unusual career path in which Clive has worked in departments of astrophysics, archaeology, statistics, computer science, mathematics, geography, information systems, and even Irish studies. For a period, he was also seconded to Academic Services to run cross-disciplinary projects in teaching and learning technology. Of course, it is his work in archaeoastronomy that will be familiar to readers of A&E News, and especially his books Astronomy and Society (1981), Megalithic Astronomy (1984), Records in Stone (1988), Archaeoastronomy in the 1990's (1993), Astronomies and Cultures (with Nicholas Saunders, 1993), and most recently Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, published by Yale University Press in May (UK) / August (US) of this year.

The full professorship comes as welcome recognition, not only of Clive's contribution to archaeoastronomy, but also of the status of archaeoastronomy itself. In an area of extreme polarization (megalithic astronomy), Clive's meticulous and careful research has promoted archaeoastronomy as a serious and valuable field of academic inquiry at the cross-over between several mainstream disciplines. Clive writes:

    "Throughout my career, I have been striving to place archaeoastronomy on firm theoretical and methodological foundations, so that ground-breaking work in the field is taken seriously by our academic peers in the very different mainstream disciplines to which it relates. I have felt for a long time (and I am not alone) that we archaeoastronomers need to be talking rather less to each other and far more to our anthropological, archaeological, historical, and astronomical colleagues, but they need to be persuaded to listen. The existence of an academic body, ISAAC (of which Clive is a founding member and officer - ed.), will help, but above all what we have to say has to make good sense and be relevant to them-and that means addressing questions that they will also see as important using methods that, from their own disciplinary perspective, they accept as sound."

In his lectures (information available at here) Clive has characterized archaeoastronomy as "a field with academic work of high quality at one end but uncontrolled speculation bordering on lunacy at the other." Without mincing words, he has criticized colleagues who became "surprisingly uncritical when moving outside their own disciplines." Such criticism, however, is accompanied with thoughtful encouragement for the maintenance of rigorous academic standards by both word and example.

It is certainly true that academics construct "brick walls" around their own disciplines, and the compartmentalized university system can easily encourage this. As an example of academic masonry (from Clives pedigree), computer scientists see a world of mathematical theories and methods of software development. They tended to look down upon other computer users as mere hackers. On the other side, non-computer scientists see computer scientists as mere programmers whose ultimate purpose in life is to provide a support service for higher pursuits. Being interdisciplinary involves being aware of the non-superiority of one's own disciplinary view, seeing one's own deficiencies when stepping into a new field, and listening to what those already there have to tell us. Only then can we establish a working communication that will require and entice the practitioners of individual disciplines to listen and appreciate. When we have difficulty publishing, or worse yet, interesting academics in our results, we must look first to ourselves.

The majority of people doing ground-breaking work in archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy will have found themselves breaching disciplinary boundaries in earnest. All will have been through the process of confronting their own ignorance, and will have had to work swiftly to achieve an acceptable level of discourse with previously undiscovered sets of academic peers. This is difficult enough for an established academic, but consider the problems facing potential students. A student wishing to train seriously for a research career in archaeoastronomy needs a broad-based graduate program that imparts a balanced interdisciplinary view. The lack of suitable opportunities at graduate level must surely be a major concern faced by archaeoastronomy.

Clive's new position as Professor of Archaeoastronomy is a step towards answering this concern, as is the establishment of ISAAC. We must follow Clive's example of forging closer links with colleagues and with the academic establishment in the mainstream disciplines. The key to achieving secure ties in the longer term rests in producing a new generation of leading young researchers with truly interdisciplinary perspectives who really can converse meaningfully with anthropologists, historians, astronomers, or whatever. Even if they do not go on to become archaeoastronomers, such training provides a broad set of skills for life. There's the challenge. To see how we respond over the coming years, watch this space!


News from Oxford 6
by Stephen McCluskey

The sixth in a series of international conferences on archaeoastronomy, inaugurated at Oxford in 1981 by Michael Hoskin, convened this June in the City of La Laguna on the Island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Oxford 6 was held in conjunction with the sixth annual Meeting of the Société Européenne pour l'Astronomie dans la Culture (SEAC) and was dedicated to the memory of the astronomer Carlos Jaschek. For many years Jaschek had conducted a seminar on Astronomie & Sciences Humaines at Strasbourg Observatory. He then stimulated the founding of SEAC to continue this work, and until his untimely death had been president of the local organizing committee for Oxford 6. The meeting continued the tradition of scholarship he had long encouraged.

Some 80 papers were presented at the scholarly sessions, held at the Museo de la Ciencia y el Cosmos in La Laguna and hosted by the museum, the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, and the Universidad de La Laguna. Our hosts, and especially the conference organizers Juan Antionio Belmonte and César Esteban, provided unprecedented support and facilities for the conference. The generous travel funds, provided to scholars who would otherwise have found it difficult to attend, contributed to the diversity of the presentations.

The theme of the conference was astronomy and cultural diversity, and the presentations reflected an awareness of the need to place astronomies in their cultural contexts to understand how they relate to their society, and how the study of astronomy can draw from and contribute to the studies of other cultural elements. The papers illustrated how different kinds of astronomies suit specific cultural requirements (ranging from agricultural and ritual calendars to spiritual and political ideologies), and how shared astronomies can be used as identifying characteristics (analogous to shared pottery styles) to trace historical influences in the development of cultures. (In this sense archaeoastronomy functions as an ancillary discipline of archaeology.)

Eleven invited review papers and three keynote addresses focused on individual geographical areas or modes of approach. The mere fact that it was possible to produce substantive reviews in so many different areas speaks volumes about the maturity of our discipline. While most of these covered familiar territory, the review papers by César Esteban and Juan Antonio Belmonte and the keynote paper by Michael Hoskin illuminated the active archaeological investigations of a previously neglected area, the early Mediterranean before the Greek and Phoenician expansion. Here alignments testify to early interests in the heavens, which varied from place to place, while differences and similarities of these interests were used to support inferences about cultural relations drawn from traditional archaeological evidence.

Other invited papers reflected the increasing methodological complexity of the discipline, whether from an astronomical perspective (Bradley Schaeffer), an anthropological one (W. Breen Murray), a historical one (Stephen McCluskey) or an archaeological one (Clive Ruggles).

The conference also attracted a number of new scholars. An Australian doctoral student, Gail Higginbottom, presented preliminary results of a critical reassessment of Ruggles's Western Scottish sites survey of 15 years back, using digitized terrain data to draw new nuances from his old data. She found more significant astronomical alignments than Ruggles, although her reevaluation, if it holds up, will represent a modest shift rather than a return to the old quest for highly precise alignments.

From the greater southwest, Eve Ewing discussed a new solar marker found in Baja California, where the projected image of the sun (a sun dagger) enters a petroglyph of a house at the summer solstice. Recalling that ethnographers working among various puebloan and California Indians have recorded the phrase, "the Sun is entering his house" as the term for his arrival at the solstices, she suggests that solar marking petroglyphs may have been used to record this concept.

There were also many papers showing the spread of archaeoastronomical inquiry to new areas in Eastern Europe, Western Asia, and India. Investigators drew on evidence as diverse as alignment studies, historical texts, folklore, and pilgrimage practices. Here the papers were mixed, the less successful of them reflecting the influence of older and widely criticized models of inquiry. Some assumed that all astronomy is a natural human activity driven by the same concerns for abstract knowledge and precision and developing the same kinds of intellectual models (e.g., a zodiac). Others treated astronomy as a product of a superstitious awe of the heavens, with little specific definition of the interactions between religious and astronomical concepts, and without making specific connections between claimed astronomical observations and ethnographically attested ritual calendars. This use of outdated methodologies highlights the difficulties many of our colleagues have in obtaining current books and journals, as well as the lack of a formal process for training students entering this interdisciplinary field (as discussed in the Editorial of this issue). In the absence of such training, support for access to journals and for attendance at meetings is critically important for improving methodologies and standards.

In sum, the conference demonstrated that new areas are being explored, methodological issues are being elaborated, and previous findings are being reexamined. The anticipated proceedings of the conference will be a valuable contribution to the discipline.

Another View of Oxford VI and SEAC 99 by Bradley E. Schaefer

This conference titled Astronomy and Cultural Diversity brought together two venerable series to the beautiful location of La Laguna, Tenerife in June 1999. Much of the value of this series is the bringing together of researchers from a wide range of fields and providing an opportunity for newcomers to learn techniques/examples from leading workers.

The conference had many highlights, with the following as my favorites. Valerie Shrimplin proved that Michelangelo incorporated significant Copernican symbolism into his Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, despite its completion occurring two years before the publication of De Revolutionibus. Nicholas Campion demonstrated both that the Age of Aquarius is a modern constellation myth dating to 1875, and that astrology is a major historical force unjustly ignored by mainstream historians. Juan Belmonte, Cesar Esteban (the two lead organizers), Michael Hoskin, Frank Prendergast, Frank Ventura, and Clive Ruggles gave impressive multisite surveys of prehistoric tombs around the Mediterranean and the British Isles that prove the intent of astronomical alignment for many locations. Angela Rogers reported observations of light and shadow play appearing on a modern sculpture, with the moral that roughly half the discovered "events" were not intended by the artist. John Mooney told of his several symbolic and functional reasons for selecting a spiral shape within his design of a large public sculpture in Corpus Christi, with the moral that no future archaeologist could recover his thinking without explicit ethnographic evidence from the artist.

This well-organized conference included researchers from far outside the traditional areas (Chile, Kazakhstan, India, Armenia, and Argentina) and topics (lexicography, art history, ethnomathematics, and astrology) that are expanding the field. The next Oxford conference (perhaps in Veracruz) may, we hope, include the cultures of Amazonia, the Far East, and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as studies by religious scholars, architects, and geographers.

ISAAC News: The First General Meeting of the International Society for Archaeoastronomy and Astronomy in Society (ISAAC) was held on 26 June 1999 in conjunction with the Sixth Oxford International Conference on Archaeoastronomy. After a president's report, outlining the past activities of the society and a treasurer's report, noting a current cash balance of $916.86, the meeting dealt with a number of questions. Membership fees were set at $20.00/13.00, not including an optional subscription to Archaeoastronomy, the Journal of Astronomy in Culture, with a reduced rate of $2.00/1.30 for members in soft-currency countries.

The meeting approved a mail ballot to formally elect the officers of the society. In the course of the meeting, the members discussed development of an on-line list of publications, formation of a working group on the teaching of archaeoastronomy, and formally endorsed the formation of a Latin American society for the study of astronomy in culture. Further details are in the minutes which were sent to all current members.

The ballots received as of the close of voting on 31 August had the following results: elected as president, Clive Ruggles; as vice-president / president elect, Johanna Broda. The six additional seats on the council will be filled by the following candidates (listed in order of the number of votes each received): Anthony Aveni, Victoria Bricker, David King, Mariusz Ziolkowski, Johanna Broda, and Peter Roe. As Johanna Broda also holds a seat on the council as vice-president, her seat on the council was available to the candidate receiving the next number of votes. Ed Krupp and Alexander Gurshtein having received the same number of votes, a coin toss determined that Alexander Gurshtein will serve on the council. The council will, in due time, consider the formal appointment of a member of the society as secretary/treasurer.

Although the election is over, members are reminded to submit their dues to the secretary/treasurer.

The Ivan Slade Prize: The British Society for the History of Science is pleased to anounce the inauguration of a new prize generously donated by member, Dr. Ivan Slade. The competition will take place biennially, and the prize of GBP 300 is offered for an essay (published or unpublished) that makes a critical contribution to the history of science. Examples would be scholarly work that critically engages a prevalent interpretation of a historical episode, scientific innovation, or scientific controversy.

The prize will be awarded for the first time in 1999, and submissions are now invited. There is no age limit, and entry is not limited to members of BSHS or UK citizens. Entries should be in English, and should have been published or written in the two years prior to the closing date. They should not exceed 10,000 words in length and should be accompanied by an abstract of 500 words. Three copies of the essay and abstract should be sent to the BSHS Secretary, Dr. Jeff Hughes, CHSTM, Maths Tower, University of Manchester, Manchester. M13 9PL, to arrive by 31 October 1999.

Stonehenge au natura: Plow up the roads and move the fences, Stonehenge will receive a $200 million makeover, sponsored by the National Trust and English Heritage. With the aim of returning the 5000 year-old tourist attraction to a more original state, nearby roads (A344 and A303) will be closed in the next decade. The modifications also includes a new visitor's center. While the fences that have been used to control large groups from staging festivals are also being removed, public access will still be restricted. During the solstice ceremony, access to the stone circle will allow up to 100 onlookers with prearranged authorization.

Legends lost? At the very least local lights are getting in the way of passing them down in the Canadian town of Igloolik, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle with population 1,200. In interviews with Inuit elders, John MacDonald says they don't see the sky anymore because of the obscuring glare of the streetlights. For more information see John's new book The Arctic sky : Inuit astronomy, star lore, and legend, Toronto : Royal Ontario Museum, Nunavut Research Institute, 1998.


(If you know of a recent publication of interest that we have missed, please send all of the information necessary for our readers to find the article or book.)

    Cullen, Christopher 1996 Astronomy and mathematics in ancient China : the Zhou bi suan jing , Cambridge: New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Evans, James 1998 The history and practice of ancient astronomy , New York: Oxford University Press.

    Hall, Robert L 1998 "The Open Door Recognizes a Window of Oppertunity and Other Tales of Suns Turned Black", The Wisconson Archaeologist, 79 (1) 232-235.

    Kak, SC. 1997 "Archaeoastronomy and literature" Current Science, Oct 10, 73 (7) 624-627.

    Ruggles, C.L.N. 1996 "Summary of the RAS Specialist Discussion Meeting on Current Issues in Archaeoastronomy," The Observatory, 116, 278-285.

    1996 "Stone Rows of Three or More Stones in South-West Ireland," Archaeoastronomy, 21 (supplement to the Journal for the History of Astronomy, 27), S55-71.

    1997 "Astronomy and Stonehenge," in Barry Cunliffe and Colin Renfrew (eds.), Science and Stonehenge, (Proceedings of the British Academy, 92), OUP; Oxford, 203-29.

    1997 "Whose Equinox?" Archaeoastronomy, 22 (supplement to the Journal for the History of Astronomy, 28), S45-50.

    1998 "Ritual Astronomy in the Neolithic and Bronze Age British Isles: Patterns of Continuity and Change," in Alex Gibson and Derek Simpson (eds.), Prehistoric Ritual and Religion: Essays in Honour of Aubrey Burl, Sutton Publishing; Stroud, 203-8.

    Ruggles, C.L.N. and D. J. Medyckyj-Scott 1996 "Site Location, Landscape Visibility and Symbolic Astronomy: A Scottish Case Study," in Herbert D.G. Maschner (ed.), New Methods, Old Problems: Geographical Information Systems in Modern Archaeological Research, Carbondale, Illinois: Center for Archaeological Investigations Occasional Paper no. 23, 127-46.

    Ruggles, C.L.N. and Hoskin, M.A. 1997 "Astronomy Before History," in M.A. Hoskin (ed.), The Cambridge Illustrated History of Astronomy, Cambridge University Press, 2-21.

    Schorn, Ronald A. 1998 Planetary Astronomy : From ancient times to the third millennium , 1st ed. College Station : Texas A&M University Press.

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