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Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 6 December Solstice 1992

Nobody Asked, but I Couldn't Resist:
A Response to Keith Kintigh on
Archaeoastronomy and Archaeology

by Anthony F. Aveni

Professor Kintigh's constructive if, to some degree, slightly misinformed essay in the last issue of A&E News ought to be read and discussed by all students and practitioners of archaeoastronomy. It raises many important issues on method and practice in our field and it points out some of the difficulties in carrying out serious and meaningful research programs in an interdisciplinary manner. Indeed, Jon Reyman had already made many of these still justifiable complaints two decades ago.

The validity of Kintigh's two hypotheses depends upon which archaeology and what sort of archaeoastronomy we happen to be dealing with. Had he reviewed the literature beyond the Southwest before loading up and firing, Kintigh might have discovered that in Mexico, for example, archaeoastronomers, who used to be tossed out of the ruins like boisterous fans at a football game, are now routinely invited- even cajoled- into participating in joint investigations. Research questions based in the study of culture are jointly formulated, and testable hypotheses are communally thought out. (I always said archaeoastronomy belongs in cultural anthropology.)

Today, archaeoastronomy isn't all alignment hunting, as Kintigh seems to characterize it. Zeilik in the Southwest, Dearborn et al. in Peru and Carlson at Cacaxtla, Mexico, are among more than a handful of contributors to research agendas in archaeology, anthropology, art history, ethnohistory, etc., originally approached via archaeoastronomical inroads. (Archaeoastronomy does impact disciplines other than archaeology.) In the Old World, Burl and Ruggles have carried the worn-out debate about whether Stonehenge was a computer into the realm of the study of prehistory. So archaeoastronomy does affect archeology, even over there.

Like Kintigh, I once was amazed by the phenomenon of the physical scientists who abandon their rigorous, disciplined professional lives when they set off akimbo to practice archaeoastronomy on the weekend. I even remarked about it (in print) at the Maxwell Museum conference several years ago. But now I think I understand why this happens. How can an engineer who has never taken an anthropology course be expected to address questions about whether astronomical knowledge was public or private, much less a part of hierarchical power relations? A better question might be: how can an engineer who has never read a book about the culture, whose alignments he/she measures to the nearest arc minute, even make a meaningful statement about indigenous astronomy? Kintigh is right. The research agendas of physical and social scientists are not the same, and their perspectives are as different as the Sun and Moon.

Archaeologist Jim Judge once remarked that a lot of archaeoastronomy is concerned with the Anglo population's rediscovery of how the sky works. Likewise, many amateur Mayanists are enthralled by their revelations about planetary conjunctions acquired with their PCs. That conjunctions and alignments exist in and of themselves may matter an awful lot to many computer buffs and hard scientists, but it carries little force with archaeologists and anthropologists, until one develops some ideas about the impact and uses of such knowledge in the context of culture.

While we and the archaeologists (some of whom are us!) do operate under different paradigms, I have seen not a divergence but rather a slow convergence of research agendas over the years. Today's "product" really is a better one, much more sophisticated and substantial, far more interdisciplinary in scope. A survey I conducted at the September 1990 "Oxford 3" meeting revealed that in recent times there have been more coauthored works, more papers appearing in the disciplinary journals, more and better sessions at the Society for American Archaeology, American Anthropological Association, etc., and the incorporation of more astronomical presentations in sessions that do not bear the title "astronomy." Brighter and better students educated in the ways of archaeoastronomy now receive PhDs and write books in Comparative Religion, Art History, Ethnology, Ethnohistory and the History of Science. We are making progress.

We are long past the age of simply measuring and reporting the facts of building alignments or calendrical correlation numbers, handing them over to the culture historians and saying (often with a superior air), "See what you can do with these." I read Kintigh's essay as constructive because he invites those of us interested in the history of astronornies to work further toward shared goals, to think less about natural phenomena for themselves and more about the impact of nature upon people.

But I fear few of our "celestial butterfly collectors" will pay the price exacted by Kintigh. To become true celestial lepidopterists, they will need to escalate their work to address culturally substantive questions. This is hard work and, moreover, it requires a change of intellectual life style many professionals may not be willing to make. Kintigh and his colleagues in all the disciplines that border on archaeoastronomy must, therefore, allow the validity of contributions to archaeoastronomy to be decided by the quality of work that appears in refereed publications, especially those in the standard disciplines. The reputation of our interdiscipline cannot be judged by the all too proliferous reportage of what lines up with what or whether this or that standstill was being observed.

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