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Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 34 December Solstice 1999


Earthbound Astronomy in the Eastern US Woodlands
by Alane Alchorn, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, L-561, PO Box 808, Livermore California, 90254.

One of the earliest and most enduring questions in North American archaeology inquires about the mounds and earthworks that are found throughout the Eastern Woodlands. From Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico, and the Appalachian Mountains to the eastern Mississippi River basin, pre-contact cultures built geometric earthworks, earthen enclosures, and mounds in many shapes. Current estimates place the time-depth of these scattered sites at 2,500 to 3,000 years BCE.

When Albert Gallatin, who later would found the American Ethnological Society in 1842, first entered the Ohio Valley in the late 1780s, few indigenous peoples remained. The pressures of westward colonization and the effects of European diseases (known as the Great Dying) had combined to shift native peoples to the west and the south. Evidence of their civilizations, however, arises in the foothills of the western Appalachians. This inspired in Gallatin great intellectual curiosity about the nature of, and reasons for, the earthen constructions he observed. (Kennedy: 1994)

At a time when intellectual opinion attributed such earthen architecture to transplanted Egyptians, the Lost Tribes of Israel, or Welsh settlers-any group other than Native Americans-Gallatin firmly asserted that these monumental building projects represented the final product of a complex and widespread network of native civilizations. Thomas Jefferson encouraged Gallatin's research in "the West." Jefferson too, believed that the time-depth and history of native cultures could be ascertained through careful and non-prejudicial research. He sponsored small expeditions to gather information, and even excavated a burial mound on his Virginia estate.

When inland explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark organized their explorations in 1804, Gallatin and Jefferson contributed political and economic support. Early in the Lewis and Clark expedition, the group encountered circle-and-square monuments, and at Cahokia noted extensive earthworks that appeared to combine ceremonial and defensive structures. (Ambrose: 1996) When Henry Brackenridge walked the earthworks of Cahokia, opposite the young town of St. Louis in 1811, he suggested that the complex must have been constructed for long-term use and a range of purposes. (Kennedy: 1994) Writing in 1813, he observed that the Cahokia culture, before its destruction in the Great Dying, had assembled more than 100 mounds among miles of river bluff earthen monuments.

Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis relied on the work of Gallatin, Jefferson, and Brackenridge when they undertook to survey the "ancient monuments" of the Mississippi River and its drainages, beginning in the summer of 1845. During the following winter, they devised a comprehensive plan for surveying earthworks and evaluating the earlier surveys conducted by others. In 1848, their work was published as Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, Volume I, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, the first book to be published by the Smithsonian Institution. Squier and Davis pondered the scope and design of the constructions they sketched, recognizing that different geometry's likely encoded specific site uses.

Modern researchers have taken the most perceptive field notes of their earlier colleagues and expanded those inquiries into specific archaeoastronomical projects. In particular, Bradley Lepper believes that indigenous North Americans incorporated astronomical markers into their earliest mounds and earthworks. (Lepper: 1998) Looking specifically at the monuments of the Hopewell culture, which flourished in Central Ohio from about 100 BC through approximately 400 AD, Lepper concentrates on "pivotal horizon points" and lunar alignments.

He believes that astronomy was an integral part of the Hopewellian lifeway. He further suggests that a "Great Hopewell Road" once joined an astronomical center in Newark, Ohio, with similar structures some 60 miles distant in Chillicothe. Common units of measurement appear to have been used in building the circle-and-octagon earthworks found in both locations. The circles precisely match in size, however the two sites are rotated 90 degrees with respect to one another.

The Archaeological Conservancy, a site preservation and research organization, holds title to the octagon portion of High Bank Works, the Chillicothe construction. Little evidence can be seen in a visual inspection of the Conservancy's site or the conjoined circle on private land, as plowing has nearly flattened the structures. Lepper and the Conservancy, however, intend to pursue further investigations of these possible astronomical markers.

Editors Robert Mainfort, Jr. and Lynn Sullivan collected 11 essays covering current research on the time-depth and cultural context of earthen construction in the Eastern Woodlands. Among the topics discussed are "architectural grammar rules" postulated by Robert Connolly. Connolly's investigations concern the Fort Ancient enclosure topping a bluff above the Little Miami River in Warren County, Ohio. The Fort Ancient culture flourished during and following the Hopewell Period, and persisted to the era of colonial contact. Some investigators believe that the gateways, mounds, and stone circles found at the Fort Ancient complex exhibit evidence of astronomical context. Connolly's careful analysis of the positions, massing, and relationships among these substructures will prove very useful for future archaeoastronomical researchers. The following list of selected references includes work cited in this brief discussion and additional background sources for further reading on the astronomy of the ancient Eastern Woodlands.

Selected References

    Ambrose, S.E. 1996 Undaunted Courage, Touchstone, New York, NY

    Hively, R. and R. Horn 1982 "Geometry and Astronomy in Prehistoric Ohio," Archaeoastronomy 4, pp. S1-S20

    Kennedy, R. G. 1994 Hidden Cities, Penguin Books, New York, NY

    Lepper, B.T. 1998 "Ancient Astronomers of the Ohio Valley," Timeline 15 (1), pp. 2-11

    Mainfort, R.C. Jr. and L.P. Sullivan 1998 Ancient Earthen Enclosures of the Eastern Woodlands, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL

    Marshall, J.A. 1987 "An Atlas of American Indian Geometry," Ohio Archaeologist 37 (2)

    Pringle, H. 1998 "Hopewell, the Enduring Mystery," American Archaeology 2 (1), cover and pp. 9-13

    Randall, E.O. (1908 edition reproduced by A.W. McGraw). 1997 The Masterpieces of the Ohio Mound Builders: Hilltop Fortifications, Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, Columbus, OH

    Squier, E.G. and E.H. Davis (150th anniversary edition, D.J. Meltzer, Ed.) 1998 Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC

Christmas Star?

On 1 December a new star appeared in the constellation of Aquilae. A naked eye nova, it peaked near 4th magnitude and will slowly fade through the month. If this Christmas star had been bright enough to be visible through the light flooded skies over Los Angeles, one can only speculate how it would have impacted attendance at the traditional "Star of Bethlehem" shows that many planetariums dust-off at each winter solstice. Instead, we can put away our binoculars and appreciate the scholarship in a new and very significant book by Michael Molnar, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi ($25, Rutgers University Press).

Following many theologians, I have accepted the Magi story as a convenient metaphor. Decades after an event, an author can easily (and honestly) associate portents to an event he believes to have been miraculous. In a world accustomed to astrology, and celestial signs, a story of stars and wise men emphasizes the special nature of an event.

In his book, Molnar examines what was of interest to court astrologers of a couple millennia past and how phenomena were interpreted within 1st century Hellenistic astrology. He argues that unpredictable events like novae or comets, had no regular place in the astrology of that epoch, and looks instead at planetary phenomena. Inspired by an ancient coin on which the Romans put an image of Aries facing a star he presents a case for an occultation of Jupiter by the moon that took place in Aries on April 17, 6 BC while the constellation was rising in the east.

Returning to the textual evidence of the time, and correcting some of the thinking that has become accepted wisdom, he argues that Jupiter was the star of kings, and Aries the constellation representing Judea. While the date of this event is 2 years before the death of Herod, the coin was not minted until 10 years later marking the start of direct Roman control over Judea. The Romans then placed the region under the administration of Quirinius, the governor mentioned in Luke's Gospel. Molnar presents the case that such a special celestial event in Aries would lead astrologers of the period to look for a king born in Judea.

Owen Gingerich found Molnar's carefully situated analysis significant, thoughtful and welcome, and we pass it along as suggested reading to those interested in the astronomy of the ancient near east.

Turning now to archaeoastronomy in the classroom, Craig Wheeler alerted us to a class that he taught on the Ancient Astronomy in Africa. It was a Freshman Seminar course developed with the goal of unveiling information pertaining to monoliths in Africa, primarily those that were astronomically oriented. Throughout the semester, the class researched the subject through online sources as well as library searches. Craig wrote that the course was over far too soon to be able to fully research everything on the subject, so we hope he will continue the classroom effort.

Wishing you a felicitous last year of the millenium!


Election Results:
In the last issue we announced the results of the elections to the ISAAC Council. In accordance with ISAAC's Statutes, one of the first actions for the incoming ISAAC Council is to elect a Secretary-Treasurer from among the Members of the Society for a term lasting until the next General Meeting. This Secretary-Treasurer then becomes a member of Council. This process was completed in September and Stephen McCluskey was duly elected. Congratulations Steve, and work hard for us.

The URLs they are a'changing:
Our last editorial included a web address for Clive Ruggle's archaeoastronomy lecture notes. The address that we gave there was old (defunct), and the new address is We are sorry for any inconvenience.

Kitora Kofun, a tomb in Asuka Japan, was probed with a subminiature camera.
Three of the four celestial gods of cardinal directions were found as well as a circular star chart on the ceiling. Professor Kazuhiko Miyajima presented his research on this site at a conference of the Astronomical Society of Japan. Saori Ihara and Steve Renshaw have added a new web-article to their Astronomy in Japan site that includes these new materials as well as findings from the recently published in Japanese by the Asuka Village Research Group, Scientific Research on Kitora Tumulus (published)

Babylon's astronomy is re-examined
in a new book edited by Noel Swerdlow, a University of Chicago professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, as well as the Department of History. Ancient Astronomy and Celestial Divination (ISBN 0-262-19422-8 $50.00) will become available from MIT Press in January of 2000. This volume presents the recent work of many renowned contributors on Babylonian celestial divination and on the Greek inheritors of that tradition. Both philological and mathematical work are included. The essays shed new light on all of the known textual sources, including the omen series Enuma Anu Enlil, which contains omens from as far back as the early second or even third millennium, and the earliest personal horoscopes, from about 400 B.C., as well as the Astronomical Diaries, ephemerides, and other observational and mathematical texts. One essay concerns astronomical papyri that confirm the extensive transmission of Babylonian methods into Greek; a study of Ptolemy's lunar theory suggests that Ptolemy relied more on his own observations than previously thought; and an analysis of Theon's commentary on Ptolemy's Handy Tables shows that Theon explicated their meaning both conscientiously and competently. For additional information visit the MIT press web site.

Astronomical Applications in Islam
was the title of a meeting held by the Jordanian Astronomical Society, 2-3 Dec 1999. This was the Sixth Astro-Islamic Seminar, and the focus was on astronomical traditions and customs in the world. Among the papers were: Praying times, a solution for higher latitude by Dr. Mohammed Al-Malki, Ramadan crescent between visibility and calculations by Dr. Mahmoud A'kkam, Comparison of the crescent visibility conditions in the Islamic countries by Dr. Wahib An-Naser, and many others. More information on this meeting, and on the Jordanian Astronomical Society

The University of Princeton Press
has developed a selection of books of interest for those interested in Archaeoastronomy, and history of astronomy. Among those publications are: Astronomy through the Ages: The Story of the Human Attempt to Understand the Universe by Sir Robert Wilson, (1998, ISBN: 0-691-05836-9), The Babylonian Theory of the Planets by N. M. Swerdlow, (1998 ISBN: 0-691-01196-6), Ptolemy's Almagest Translated and annotated by G. J. Toomer With a foreword by Owen Gingerich (1998 ISBN: 0-691-00260-6), The Star of Bethlehem by Mark Kidger (1999 ISBN: 0-691-05823-7), Painting the Heavens: Art and Science in the Age of Galileo by Eileen Reeves (999 in paper, ISBN: 0-691-00976-7), Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology by Sara Schechner (1999 in paper, ISBN: 0-691-00925-2), Cosmology and Controversy: The Historical Development of Two Theories of the Universe by Helge Kragh (1999 in paper ISBN: 0-691-00546-X). Information on all of these publications and more can be found at the Princeton University Press web site.


(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.

    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.

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