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Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 7 March Equinox 1993

by Claire (Ginger) Farrer, Department of Anthropology, California State University-Chico.

Kintigh's recent article generated much passion, and an opportunity to demonstrate that archaeoastronomy proper, and ethnoastronomy in particular, are not impoverished theoretically (for an example of ethnoastronomical theoretical constructs, see my Living Life's Circle: Mescalero Apache Cosmovision,1991). Furthermore, archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy are still in their infancy, and any discipline must gather observation and experience before there can be elegance in theory/-ies.

Ethnoastronomy generally involves learning about the astronomical syste of non-Western people. Questioning follows standard ethnographic techniques, often beginning with the very general and radiating both outward and inward. I work with the Mescalero Apaches, and originally went to the Mescalero Apache Reservation to study children's free play. I hoped to learn how it could be used to restructure classroom experiences (Farrer 1990). I was soon told I could not understand play without understanding dance. This depended upon understanding the girls' puberty ceremony, and that is based on their religion and philosophy, which they say is 'written' in the sky. Had I begun by claiming that I wanted study their astronomy, my work would have been rejected.

Astronomy is an esoteric subject at Mescalero, and is known fully only select men. While anyone may be familiar with a few constellations and knows that it is possible to tell time from the sky, only specialists know the appearance of the sky throughout a year, or a lifetime. Only they know precisely how the timing is done and how it can be structured. They teach only through observation - not through narrative, nor didactically, nor metaphorically, nor abstractly. Also, they don't teach women; a complication for me. One must become an observer.

After having learned enough to pose questions in a non- questioning man I found that I needed the assistance of someone more knowledgeable about Western astronomy, and brought Gene Ammarell to the field with me (Farrer and Ammarell, Archaeoastronomy Vol 11, in press). Gene was, at that time, the education officer of the Fiske Planetarium on the University of Colorado, Boulder campus, and we set up our "field questions" in the planetarium. We then went to Mescalero and met with the late Bernard Second, my primary consultant and one of the sky specialists. Timing was important. At Mescalero, one is not given information out of context. In order for sky questions to be posed, there must be on-going sky activity in which the people are involved. We arrived at the ceremonial time, shortly after the summer solstice. This meant that Bernard was using the sky on a daily and nightly basis.

Gene and Bernard spoke as "men of science," (Bernard's phrasing). The compared their knowledge systems and asked each other questions. Also, to his relief, Bernard finally had a way to teach me. As he said one night to Gene, RWhat does she want to know?S

Among other things, Gene and I were interested in whether or not differences in synodic and sidereal months are noted. Precisely when does a month begin? Are eclipses important and how are they marked and termed? Which specific constellations or individual stars are used in particular ceremonies? For his part, Bernard wished to know what Rhiding its faceS is called in Western science (occultation). Why did we insist on a 365 day year when it doesn't work out? Why do we draw funny lines on the sky and "mess it up" so badly that a star chart showing constellations was meaningless to him? Did we ever use special prayers (as he did) at eclipse times? Why we refered to stars by names instead of describing their characteristic shapes, colors, intensities, or seasonal positions.

The sky is the same. The constructions placed upon it vary by culture. Ethnoastronomy seeks to explore and understand these constructions and their places within the larger cultural milieu. It is basic research of the most important kind for it lays a foundation for theory construction. Perhaps it is research that archaeologists cannot understand, since they are limited to the detritus of the long-gone rather than being privy to the arcane of the still- here.

Before there can be theory, there must be observation and testing. We engaged in that process of observing, hypothesis building, testing, and theory construction, with or without the acknowledgement of archaeologists. It is their loss if they are so bound to their own cultural models that they do not understand what they have before their eyes as they unearth a building oriented to light and shadow patterns, or as they contemplate a pot or textile encoded with important cultural knowledge. That some of this knowledge is astronomical cannot be doubted. Archaeologists may, if they wish, reinvent the wheel, or they can open their eyes and join hands with those of us who are archaeo- and ethnoastronomers.

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