This is a topic that’s been bothering me since I started watching America Unearthed. Though to be fair, it’s not the first time I’ve seen the term misused, it’s just the point that drove the issue home for me. What I want to do here is give people a working idea of what the concept of Archaeoastronomy is. Probably this post is going to be updated occasionally as new and creative fringe uses of the term pop up.
Archaeoastronomy is a word that gets abused by everyone in the pseudoarchaeology fringe. I’m not really sure if it’s that the word just sounds cool, or if those in the fringe get a basic definition of a word and then run with it. The reality of the word is that it describes a collection of techniques used by most ancient peoples and it describes a field of study in the archaeology community.
How is archaeoastronomy describe by archaeologists vs. what is commonly touted as archaeoastronomy in the fringe community?
Scott Wolter likes to describe archaeoastronomy in incredibly simplistic and misleading ways in his show America Unearthed. He also likes to change his definition from show to show using things like “The ancient practice of aligning buildings with celestial bodies.” or “Archaeoastronomy: ancient use of the sun, moon, stars, and planets in architecture and design.” This is simplistic to the point of being incorrect.
A correct explanation of archaeoastronomy is as described by the Center for Archaeoastronomy (CfA N.d);
The study of the astronomical practices, celestial lore, mythologies, religions, and the world-views of ancient cultures.
It is the anthropology of astronomy. It is observing how ancient peoples interacted with astronomy and not just how they aligned buildings to the “celestial bodies”.
I hope the difference in these two definitions can be easily seen. America Unearthed and similar fringe groups are only concerned with a single trait of the overall practice of archaeoastronomy. They only see one type of the many different expressions of archaeoastronomy in the world and from this they draw some pretty narrow, and very misleading, conclusions.
As can be seen in the archaeologist’s definition, we can see that this field is firstly concerned with the culture of the people practicing archaeoastronomy. What are their beliefs, how did they express them, how did they relate to the world, how did they translate that into their experience of space, and so on. We try to answer these questions through the clues left behind by ancient peoples in their surviving mythology, the ceremonial artifacts and religious spaces left behind, and yes, through the megaliths and structures that still stand today.
Archaeoastronomy is observable in most ancient cultures around the world, most notably in the cardinal orientation of the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt, the alignments of some of the Ohio Mounds, the Venus alignment of the Maya Palace of the Governor at Uxmal in Yucatan, as well as the most famous Stonehenge. The effort put forth in the planning, building and use of these buildings and structures is of great importance not only to the people who built them, but to modern archaeologists who study them. We can learn a great deal from these structures, about the cultures of their peoples, and most interestingly about the development of science and cosmological thought from the ancient astronomies and surviving indigenous traditions around the world (CfA N.d).
Obviously, archaeology plays a huge role in this study, but it’s not the only part. Living peoples, descendants of the cultures being studied, are hugely important to this field. These same living peoples are often, if not always, discounted by fringe groups when the concept of archaeoastronomy is brought up. This is a major flaw. Aside from completely ignoring indigenous peoples and native cultures still alive today, it also disregards actual ancient cultures and their life-ways and accomplishments.
Also importantly, and aside from ancient cultures, the way Wolter and the fringe use their idea of archaeoastronomy elevates it to some kind of mystical mumbojumbo. It strips it of any actual meaning and allows the fringe to apply it to whatever they want, whenever they want. Doing this allows them to make far-out claims that have no evidence or support, but now they simply apply a scientific sounding word and give a half-assed definition and voila! Instant cult science!
Wolter and the fringe try to muddle the idea of archaeoastronomy so as to make it appear that the use of it among ancient people is rare and mystical. That the mere presence of something that might align with the sun or moon is truly unusual and sticks out. The reality of ancient peoples use of archaeoastronomy is actually quite mundane. This is not to say the set-up for this is easy or simplistic. It merely means that it was a lot more commonplace than the fringe wants to believe.
Archaeoastronomy was a necessity for survival for many people. Especially, people who were dependent on seasonal changes for their prosperity. At its most basic core, archaeoastronomy created calendars and seasonal planners for the peoples that used them. Certain alignments and astrological occurrences were essential to knowing when to harvest, winnow, and gather in order to have successful food supplies and social interactions. It is completely understandable that nearly every culture shares markers for major seasonal events like the equinoxes and solstices as well as regular monthly occurrences like full and new moons. These are easily observable and simply common sense to keep track of. To find buildings and megaliths that aligning or track these events is not surprising, though still important.
Again, this is not dismissing the use of archaeoastronomy among ancient peoples. It was and is an important part of their cultures. It is no coincidence that buildings and structures dedicated to tracking important astronomical events are almost always sacred or important municipal places in ancient societies. It should not be a surprise that cultures that were so closely tied to nature and the elements would likewise make such places important to them. We as archaeologists recognize this and take this into account when such places are uncovered or shared with us. This is not the case with the fringe.
Not only do pseudo-researches like Wolter assign meaning where there is none, due to their misunderstanding or misuse of the idea of archaeoastronomy, they create connections that make no sense within archaeology. They use the idea of archaeoastronomy as evidence for their conclusions, and often times as the only form of evidence. Calling things like early American cider presses, “sacrificial tables,” and then linking them to Stonehenge via arbitrary lines on a map is not archaeoastronomy. It’s fanciful thinking, especially in the absence of any other form of evidence.
Using the concept of archaeoastronomy as the fringe often does, one could go out into any field and find any large stone and then claim that said stone is linked to some type of astronomical alignment. This is all that is required in the cult science of the fringe to prove authenticity. Fortunately in actual archaeology, much stronger requirements for evidence exist. There must be other things associated with said stone, evidence of human use, artifacts, evidence of habitation or long periods of camping, evidence of other structural alignments, ethnographic evidence among the surviving peoples associated with said rock, ethnoastronomy (the study of contemporary native astronomies), surviving myths or oral histories of said rock. In archaeology one can’t simply say a rock is a marker without proving it.
Though archaeoastronomy is one of the most misused and misunderstood concepts in archaeology, it need not be. It is not evidence of supper advanced uber-races or aliens, it not evidence of diffusionism, it’s not a rare occurrence among the ancients. It’s also not evidence of a conspiracy of roving Europeans in the New World or of Atlantans disseminating knowledge. It is not the random connection of lines on maps stretching continents and oceans. It is not the abused am misused idea that the fringe wish it to be.
It is a concept encompassing not only cultural practices of ancient peoples but also the study of said peoples. It includes the study of ancient mythologies, oral histories of surviving peoples, cultural traditions, artifacts, structures, and megaliths. It recognizes the work of ancient peoples and understands their connection to their land and nature.
Let us understand archaeoastronomy for what it is, and not be fooled when used otherwise.
2012 Archaeology And The Study Of Archaeoastronomy. http://www.archaeologyexpert.co.uk/archaeastronomy.html. 12 Dec 2012. Accessed 2/8/2016
2007 Course AR3015: An Introduction to Archaeoastronomy. http://www.le.ac.uk/has/cr/oldrug/aa/a3015/lec1.html . Accessed 2/8/2016
Center for Archaeoastronomy. (CfA).