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 5 September Equinox 1992

I wasn't going to say anything, but since you asked:
Archaeoastronomy and Archaeology

by Keith W. Kintigh
Department of Anthropology
Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 8S287-2402

Let me first propose two hypotheses: (1) archaeoastronomy has had little impact on mainstream archaeology; and (2) archaeoastronomers feel that their work is under-appreciated by archaeologists. For purposes of this essay, I assume that there is an empirical warrant for these hypotheses: that archaeoastronomers do, in fact, feel injured because there has, in fact, been little impact on the larger discipline. My purpose is to provide the perspective of a practicing Southwestern archaeologist on why this situation obtains and the degree to which archaeoastronomy's station within archaeology is commensurate with its contributions.

In this brief essay, I am "shooting from the hip," based on my knowledge and impressions; it is not an argument based on a thorough review of the archaeoastronomical literature. However, it is based on perceptions that are not entirely uninformed and that are shared by other archaeologists. While readers will doubtless wish to return fire (perhaps taking careful aim), I hope to provide some constructive insights into what I take to be a chasm (or should I say "void") between the disciplines.

The issue is not so much that archaeologists actively object to archaeoastronomical research as that they ignore it. When there is a response, it seems to be in approximate proportion to the broader scientific visibility of the claims. Presumably, archaeoastronomers would prefer to be accepted, acknowIedged, or even argued with, than ignored. In light of the fact that archaeoastronomers bring considerable energy and expertise to their efforts, what accounts for archaeologists' indifference?

I think the principal reason is that archaeologists see archaeoastronomers as answering questions that, from a social scientific standpoint, no one is asking. To put it bluntly, in many cases it doesn't matter much to the progress of anthropology whether a particular archaeoastronornical claim is right or wrong because the information doesn't inform the current interpretive questions. It may be true that a building is lined up within half a degree of true north, but what do I do with that singular fact?

Why is there a divergence between archaeological and archaeoastronomical questions? It is because questions asked by archacoastronomers generally do not derive from current archaeological debates about theory or regional prehistory. Instead, much archaeoastronomy seems to be a professionalized response to a widespread, seemi n-gly innate, curiosity about the topic. I, too, read Stonehenge Decoded when I was in high school and found it fascinating.

The problem is that there are lots of facts that are neat but that do not contribute to our body of systematic knowledge. It is neat that a particular architectural configuration would cast a distinctive shadow at the summer solstice in A.D. 1270, but it is not scientifically interesting unless it informs some research question. That the Anasazi probably made this observation is curious, but probably less useful than the determination of the composition of their purple glaze, or the discovery that they managed to find the optimum depth to plant their seed corn. Glaze composition is interesting if, for example, it shows use of a non-local mineral, which bears on the issue of exchange, which is central to our theoretical understandings of the scale and complexity of prehistoric Southwestern social organization.

Like other scientific disciplines, archaeology has a paradigm that, among other things, loosely determines the relevance of research questions. Thus, like astronomers, we spend most of our time pursuing questions that our theoretical ideas suggest are important, not just arbitrarily collecting facts (or for that matter, artifacts) wherever we might find them.

It may be useful to note several parallels between rock art research and archaeoastronomy. There is a widespread non-specialist interest in both; serious and talented people engage in both with the intention of contributing more broadly to archaeology. However, both research domains seem largely self-contained. The practitioners propose and answer their own questions and communicate Iargely with one another. Finally, for better or worse, both fields are pretty marginal to mainstream archaeology, and neither is entirely happy about it.

Lest anyone suggest we arrogant archaeologists are just desperate to maintain our turf, I note that archaeologists have longstanding and productive relationships with specialists in other fields: geology, chemistry, botany, zoology, and statistics, to name a few. The difference is that, by and large, these specialists aren't out there defining a new field with new questions and demanding that we pay attention; rather, there is joint work with archaeologists toward shared goals.

Another reason for the lack of interest shown by archaeologists for archaeoastronomy is some justifiable skepticism concerning research in archaeoastronomy. I am amazed at the way in which otherwise sane and apparently sober physical scientists with respectable academic positions appear to lose all critical ability when utilizing archaeological data, and exhibit stunning naivet~ when proposing what are essentially anthropological arguments. Certainly this is not true of all archaeoastronomers; but there are guilty parties who are unfortunately oblivious to their offenses. Believe me, the lack of anthropological sophistication (e.g., conspicuous ethnocentrism) is often excruciatingly obvious in archaeoastronomical arguments.

Many physical scientists are only too happy to sneer about the superiority of their fields over the social sciences. Perhaps some feel that so fuzzy an enterprise as archaeology can't be terribly difficult for a real scientist. There are reasons why social science (and anthropology, in particular) is inherently difficult, but that is another story.

In any event, you are all aware that some archaeoastronomy isn't really all that good, and some is spectacularly awful. Prudent archaeologists may keep their distance from archaeoastronomy, not wishing to invite more problems than they already have. (Of course, much archaeological research is poorly conceived and executed, but that is beside the point.)

It is not my desire to indict all archaeoastronomy. There has been some fine work that has contributed significantly to archaeology because it has been connected to broader intellectual efforts. To the extent that archaeoastronomy remains high-tech, celestial butterfly collecting, then methodological rigor is the principal quality to be desired. To the extent that the goal is contribution to social science, then the research must also bear on research issues. In archaeoastronomy, the needed scientific relevance can be approached from a couple of directions.

First, one may study seriously, or work with someone studying, for example, ancient cosmology. Such a study of cosmology may generate anthropological questions that are amenable to investigation by archaeoastronomical methods and whose resolution has real cultural significance. (As an aside, the first thing to recognize in studying cosmology is that anthropologists use the

from p. 1. - term differently than astronomers. In both fields, cosmology has to do with a philosophical understanding of the origin and structure of the universe. However, the universe of anthropologicat interest is the universe defined by a native group, in its own language. This will often have precious little to do with the Sun and stars and lots to do with things like causality and gender differences.)

Second, if you must start with the demonstration of architectural alignments with celestial events, you need to be able to say what that means about the prehistoric people, and how that relates to current research. Architectural alignments are, after all, artifacts. As with other artifacts, the anthropological interest is not in the object itself, it is in what it tells us about culture. The observation of an alignment, however ingenious, is in and of itself not interesting. However, an argument relating control over privileged knowledge of celestial events to the development of hierarchical power relations at some crucial juncture might have substantial theoretical interest (call this the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court Hypothesis).

In social science, the generation of facts-astro no mica I observation and identification of alignments-is easy (analogous to excavation, classification and dating). However, it is my suspicion that it will be difficult to make rigorous and testable arguments linking archaeoastronomical observations with serious anthropological questions. To continue with the example, this will involve not just proposing the relationship, but demonstrating that the knowledge was esoteric and not public, specifying the societal conditions under which the development of hierarchical power relations would and would not occur, showing that the group in question was in that state, and so on. Note that we are not saddling you with any difficulties that we don't already have; most interesting anthropological arguments are faced with the same problems. I invite or perhaps challenge archaeoastronomers to use their expertise to attack the very much more difficult but infinitely more interesting theoretical and substantive questions.

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