People and the Sky by Anthony Aveni


It’s a com­mon gripe that archae­olo­gists don’t have much interest in pub­lic archae­ology. I’m not con­vinced it’s true and it’s cer­tainly not true of archae­oastro­nomy. People and the Sky is Anthony Aveni’s latest (ori­ginal) book. He’s the most pro­lific of the pop­u­lar archae­oastro­nomy authors, so it’s no sur­prise his prose is pretty well pol­ished. I like this book, and if you don’t have any by him it’s well worth buy­ing. If you’ve Stairways to the Stars, his earlier archae­oastro­nomy over­view then I’m not so sure.

I’ve been think­ing about whether the World Archaeoastronomy approach works. Anthony Aveni’s work would be an argu­ment in its favour. While he’s best known for his work in Mesoamerica, he’s also done ori­ginal research in the Mediterranean and the south­west­ern USA. One of the reas­ons he can do this without being trivial is that he’s inter­est­ing in how to relate astro­nomy to archae­ology and vice versa. Wherever it is you’re study­ing in the world, there’s the prob­lem of tying the global per­spect­ive of astro­nomy to archae­ology, which is always local. People and the Sky could be said to be a col­lec­tion of a dozen ways of try­ing to solve that problem.

The intro­duc­tion starts by say­ing why the sky was import­ant in the ancient world. It’s brief and rap­idly turns into a para­graph on each chapter. Anyone who’s bought the book is pre­sum­ably already sold on the idea that the sky was import­ant, so brev­ity is not an issue. The open­ing chapter The Storyteller’s Sky intro­duces the role of the sky in ancient cos­mo­lo­gies. This sec­tion is heav­ily biased to the New World, with Mayans, Aztecs and the Navajo and the Babylonians from the Old World. The selec­tion reflects Aveni’s expert­ise. The next chapter, Patterns in the Sky, opens with a per­sonal anec­dote, but the range of sources is much greater. Here Aveni’s world archae­oastro­nomy approach works to show the diversity of pat­terns seen in the night sky. As well as the Babylonians and Mayans, he also throws in many more cul­tures includ­ing the Egyptians, Barasana of the Amazon and the Incas. This last group is inter­est­ing because for them the pat­terns in the sky include spaces where the stars aren’t vis­ible. In the Milky Way dark neb­u­lae blot out stars, mak­ing dis­tinct­ive sil­hou­ettes which the Inca recognised.

The Sailor’s Sky des­cibes one of my favour­ite arte­facts, Polynesian stone canoes. They sound like some­thing out of the Flintstones, but they’re bet­ter described as sim­u­lat­ors. A novice naviagator would sit by the stones look­ing out at the hori­zon learn­ing which stars rise over it. With this know­ledge he’d be able to nav­ig­ate across the vast dis­tances of the Pacific ocean. There’s some dis­cus­sion of Inuit nav­ig­a­tion, but this is mainly a Polynesian chapter.

The Hunter’s Sky includes and handy guide on how to tell the time using the Plough, assum­ing there’s no clouds over it and you’ve for­got­ten your watch. This draws on Plains Indians, the G/wi of Botswana, the Mursi and Stonehenge. The inclu­sion of Stonehenge here is inter­est­ing. It’s a Neolithic monu­ment, and that’s usu­ally asso­ci­ated with farm­ing. Aveni argues that Britons were semi-nomadic in this period. It’s plaus­ible, archae­olo­gical evid­ence is sug­gest­ing there was plenty of move­ment in the land­scape through to the Early Bronze Age, so sea­sonal use of mega­lithic sites would make sense.

It’s the next chapter that tackles the Farmer’s Sky. He opens by dis­cuss­ing Works and Days by Hesiod, which he dates to the ninth-century BC. That seems a bit early to me, I would have said it was writ­ten at a hun­dred years later. However, I would agree that the integ­ra­tion of astro­nom­ical and eco­lo­gical imagery in the poem is import­ant and points to an extens­ive know­ledge of the sky. He uses the word ‘sys­tem­atic’ to describe the astro­nomy, but I’d be wary of say­ing there was a sys­tem as such. He moves on to Rujm el-Hiri, a site which I haven’t read much about after hear­ing it called “the Stonehenge of the Levant”. If I hear any­thing is called “the Stonehenge of any­where that isn’t Stonehenge” then I become wary. Thankfully Aveni’s explan­a­tion isn’t an attempt to shoe­horn a Stonehenge model onto a site, but I’ll have to read the rel­ev­ant art­icles before I’m con­vinced of some of the claims. He also describes Indonesian rice farm­ing using bam­boo as a sight­ing tool, which was entirely new to me.

The later chapters move more towards ideo­logy. The House, the Family and the Sky is about the organ­isa­tion of domestic space, based on cos­mo­lo­gical prin­ciples. The Navajo, Pawnee and the vari­ous tribes of the Orinoco make up much of this chapter but he also men­tions the Batammaliba of Benin and Togo and Gilbert Islanders, before mov­ing back the the Americas with the Inca. This may be one of the big­ger growth areas in archae­oastro­nomy in the com­ing dec­ades as it deals with the kind of things people do without think­ing. This con­nects the sky with ter­restrial order.

This is expan­ded on in The City and the Sky. The Mayan city of Teotihuacan makes an appear­ance, not sur­pris­ingly as Aveni has done a lot of work on pecked cross circles there. He’s also looked at the Etruscan basis for town plan­ning, and this can be found here too. He also talks about another obvi­ous example of celes­tial plan­ning, Beijing, and the astro­nom­ical records of the Chin Shu dyn­asty (3rd cen­tury AD). This use of power leads neatly onto The Ruler’s Sky. The Powhatan attacks on Virginia led by Opechancanough add an inter­est­ing altern­at­ive view­point to the Mayan and Babylonian uses of astro­nomy and astro­logy else­where in the chapter. China and Babylon form the basis of the fol­low­ing chapter The Astrologer’s Sky, though there is also a dis­cus­sion of Cheyenne sham­an­ism and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it men­tion of India.

The Timekeeper’s Sky con­cen­trates on just two cul­tures, the Romans and the Mayans. I don’t know whether to be pleased or dis­ap­poin­ted about that. I find the Greek cal­en­dar cheer­fully chaotic and worth look­ing at in its own right. On the other hand I’m will­ing to bet that if Aveni had done that, he would have come across some of the same curi­os­it­ies I have. So while I’d say there’s a gap here, it’s not one I’m actu­ally com­plain­ing about. To some extent this chapter cov­ers sim­ilar mater­ial to the earlier hunt­ing and farm­ing chapters.

The final chapter of the book is The Western Sky. It’s a slightly dif­fer­ent chapter to the oth­ers. It asks an obvi­ous ques­tion. Given the exist­ence of so many astro­nom­ies, why has one come to dom­in­ate sci­ence? This why ques­tion is re-visited in the Epilogue which Aveni uses to reit­er­ate that for many people Astronomy had been some­thing very dif­fer­ent both in meth­ods and aims to the mod­ern sci­ence it is day.

As a whole, the book shows some of the lim­it­a­tions of a world archae­oastro­nomy approach. I didn’t see any­thing sub­stan­s­tial about India in the book. References to China were lim­ited and there was noth­ing of Korea or Japan that I saw. To a large extent this reflects fault-lines in aca­demia. A lot of far east­ern mater­ial isn’t pub­lished in west­ern lan­guages. That’s not really true for India though. There’s some extremely good archae­ology hap­pen­ing there and a large amount of his­tor­ical mater­ial, includ­ing astro­lo­gical texts. It works for text­books intro­du­cing the sub­ject, but I am won­der­ing to what extent a World Archaeoastronomy approach can be used in research publications.

Compared with his other works, this is def­in­itely at the shal­low end but it’s not fair to dis­miss it as shal­low. Like the best intro­duct­ory texts it leads on to other mater­ial. For instance I’ll be look­ing up more about Rujm el-Hiri now. If you’re look­ing to buy a book and you have Stairways to the Stars, then this is one to get out of the lib­rary. If you don’t have Stairways to the Stars, then this would be the bet­ter book to buy.