East is East?


Astronomical Orientation of Ancient Greek Temples

ResearchBlogging.orgI’m not plan­ning to blog a lot on the Astronomical Orientation of Ancient Greek Temples as is openly access­ible. Your com­ments are going to carry a lot more weight there than here. But I’ll try and keep track of what other people are say­ing else­where. I’m expect­ing this to be the first paper of a devel­op­ing argu­ment, so I’ll need to see what people identify as prob­lems and address them. There’s two com­ments in the Times today which I think neatly high­light one of the issues. One is from Efrosyni Boutsikas and the other from Mary Beard.

Boutsikas’ objec­tion is inter­est­ing. I wanted a com­par­ison data set to exam­ine for Greece and the only one I know of that’s pub­lished is Retallack’s in Antiquity. To be hon­est it’s not entirely fair to use Retallack’s data as he wasn’t that con­cerned with astro­nomy. Instead he was look­ing at geo­mor­pho­logy, and I think he has some really inter­est­ing res­ults. Now Boutsikas has her own sur­vey, which she did spe­cific­ally with archae­oastro­nomy in mind. That’s why I’m inter­ested when she says of 107 temples in Greece only 58% faced east. That might cause me some prob­lems and here’s why.

First we need three vari­ables. n is the num­ber of temples. That’s 107. p is the prob­ab­il­ity and event will hap­pen, and q the prob­ab­il­ity it won’t. p+q = 1 because some­thing has to either hap­pen or not hap­pen. So what value is p? It depends on what Boutsikas means by east. If she means the east­ern half of the hori­zon, then p is 0.5 and so is q. By pure chance we’d expect np temples to face east. That’s 53.5. In her sur­vey 62 temples faced east. That’s more than chance, so I’m right yes? Not so fast.

There’s never going to be exactly 53.5 temples facing east. Around 19 times out of twenty 20 there’ll be 53.5 plus or minus two stand­ard devi­ations. If you want the chance of a false pos­it­ive to be lower than 1 in a 100, then you need 53.5 plus or minus three stand­ard devi­ations. The stand­ard devi­ation (σ) for this kind of dis­tri­bu­tion is cal­cu­lated by the formula:

σ = √npq

If we want the one in twenty con­fid­ence that means

σ = √(107 × 0.5 × 0.5) = 5.2

So 19 times out of 20 you might expect to find between 43.1 and 63.9 temples facing east. The res­ult of 62 is inside this range, so there’s noth­ing sig­ni­fic­ant. How do I explain that? I’m not sure I can. I can’t say what time period her temples come from. If she’s looked at Bronze Age sites and Roman sites in Greece then we’re not com­par­ing like with like and it’s pos­sible that when we com­pare temples built in the archaic and clas­sical peri­ods as they were in Sicily then we’ll have more of a match. Another pos­sib­il­ity is that I’m simply wrong.

But this depends on Boutsikas mean­ing east­ern half of the hori­zon when she says east. I use dif­fer­ent defin­i­tions of east for dif­fer­ent tests and make clear which are which in the paper because it makes a dif­fer­ence. If Boutsikas has put her temples into four cat­egor­ies, north, east, south and west, then east means east­ern quarter of the sky and the equa­tions turn out differently.

np = 107 × 0.25 = 26.75 temples
σ = √(107 × 0.25 × 0.75) = 4.48

If east is the east­ern quarter then 19 times out of twenty at most we would expect at most 35.71 temples. By chance there’s be over 40.19 temples in the sample less than 1 time out of 100. 62 temples would be over seven stand­ard devi­ations away from the expec­ted res­ult. If that’s by chance it’s an amaz­ing freak res­ult. It means I can’t respond to Boutsikas’s claims until I can see the data to ana­lyse, so I know what east means. She might have proven my paper wrong, or else proven it very right. How can that be when only just over half of the temples face east?

Imagine you’re at a casino. Someone is spin­ning the roul­ette wheel. Half the time it lands on the num­bers 0–9 and the other half it lands on another num­ber. It doesn’t mat­ter than you can’t pre­dict exactly where the next ball will land. In the long term that casino will lose money because some­thing is affect­ing the wheel. This isn’t about hav­ing a hard and fast law for astro­nom­ical align­ments. It’s about whether or not a sig­ni­fic­ant num­ber of temples are aligned to the sun. If you’re going say that there is or isn’t a sig­ni­fic­ant num­ber, first you have to know what a sig­ni­fic­ant num­ber would look like. Typically in the social sci­ences that would np +/- 2σ. I prefer np +/- 3σ because I’m mak­ing claims which people might not be com­fort­able with, so it’s reas­on­able I should provide stronger evidence.

If I am right that doesn’t mean Boutsikas’ and Retallack’s sur­veys can be junked. In fact it means the oppos­ite. In Retallack’s case he’s show­ing there’s a clear cor­rel­a­tion between the ded­ic­a­tion of a temple and the soil type it’s built in. Now if there’s a gen­eral rule that Greek temples face east, the temples which don’t become more inter­est­ing because then you can ask “What’s spe­cial about those temples? Why were they built that way?” It’s the same for Boutsikas’ data. If there’s noth­ing spe­cial about the align­ments then temples which don’t face east are noth­ing spe­cial. If, using this method, her data shows a tend­ency for east­ern align­ments then she has a data set with plenty of inter­est­ing temples that could tell us some­thing about Greek reli­gion. For instance it could high­light where a local cult was doing some­thing spe­cial that you wouldn’t find else­where in Greece.

Clearly Boutsikas’ objec­tion is ser­i­ous and I’ll need to con­sider it care­fully, but in this case it could be a case of cross-wired. I don’t think she’d seen my art­icle when she talked to the Times because I hadn’t emailed it to her till last night. We’ve both been work­ing on sim­ilar top­ics and so could have come to the same con­clu­sions. If we been talk­ing with each other then there could have been a bit of fric­tion if we saw our ideas in each other’s theses. She’s been put on the spot react­ing to a paper which she prob­ably hasn’t read, but she’s clearly an expert in the sub­ject because of her own research. She’ll go where her research takes her and I’ll go with mine. The reporter has picked up on that con­fu­sion. Does that leave him in the dog house? Definitely not.

I’m really pleased with the way Mark Henderson has writ­ten this up. It’s not his job to preach my won­der­ful­ness, it’s to report on how this research fits in with other research. Getting the quotes from Efrosyni Boutsikas was bril­liant because it shows there’s cur­rently two mod­els which come to oppos­ite con­clu­sions. As we both pub­lish more those mod­els will get fleshed out and adapt. Which one will be accep­ted? Hers? Mine? Some kind of hybrid, or even neither? It’s not just about get­ting the right answer. At the moment we might not even agree on what the right answer will look like. Which brings me to Mary Beard’s piece.

I think it’s great com­ment­ary. I think she’s spot on when she rejects the idea of a mod­ern astro­nomy in the ancient world. I would quibble with her reject­ing astro­nomy for the rhythms of day and night. That sounds astro­nom­ical to me and there’s also evid­ence the sea­sons were import­ant. I think she might be try­ing to emphas­ise the import­ance of cos­mo­lo­gical fea­tures, in the sense of nat­ural order, rather than strict obser­va­tion. The only real puzzle is that she’s say­ing that there’s it’s obvi­ous that Greek temples align east-west when in the column next to her Efrosyni Boutsikas is say­ing they obvi­ously don’t. This is a bit of an inter­dis­cip­lin­ary gap.

From the out­side you might expect archae­olo­gists and clas­si­cists to talk to each other. They’re deal­ing with the same people in the same time period. In real­ity this doesn’t always hap­pen. A few years back the Roman Archaeology Conference, the big con­fer­ence for Roman archae­olo­gists held once every couple of years was sched­uled oppos­ite the Classical Association con­fer­ence. The two sides don’t always talk to each other. In the past few years Boutsikas has been pub­lish­ing on her work. Ioannis Liritzis and Helena Vassiliou have been arguing that Greek temples were aligned towards or away from aurorae or stars. This is hav­ing no impact amongst clas­si­cists. Equally I can’t just turn around and say “Greek temples ten­ded to face east” because all the research­ers who dis­agree could ask “How do you know?” It’s obvi­ous doesn’t work as an aca­demic response, even though I agree with Mary Beard. I don’t ima­gine that would be her response in an aca­demic forum. But what she’s done is she’s very help­fully shown that if I want to talk to clas­si­cists then show why I think I have some­thing to talk about.

That’s why I’ve had to write this paper. I want to write more, but the first ques­tion any­one can ask is “How do you know that’s not just a chance res­ult?” That’s why I developed this method. I wanted some­thing simple and effect­ive. The reason I put it in PLoS One is that it also has to be access­ible. I’m plan­ning to write more art­icles for spe­cial­ist journ­als, but people read­ing those will need access to my data and my meth­od­o­logy. That needs to be avail­able to clas­si­cists, archae­olo­gists, astro­nomers and any­one else with an interest.

You can read the ori­ginal research for free and down­load it at PLoS One. If you leave com­ments there then they’ll be seen by every­one else who exam­ines the paper. If you’d like to blog about the paper there’s a col­lec­tion of pho­tos from Sicily at Flickr with a Creative Commons licence.

Salt, A. (2009). The Astronomical Orientation of Ancient Greek Temples PLoS ONE, 4 (11) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007903

Why PLoS?


I’ve pub­lished a paper with PLoS One which should be out today. The most com­mon ques­tion I’ve been asked so far is: Why there? I’m apply­ing for jobs in Archaeology and Ancient History, so why would I want to pub­lish in an online journal that hardly any­one in those fields has heard of? Surely pub­lish­ing in one of the big journ­als would be bet­ter? Here’s a few reasons.

  1. It’s fast.
    The paper was sub­mit­ted on the 8th of September and I got the accept­ance, sub­ject to revi­sions on the 30th of September. I wouldn’t be quite so happy if it had been rejec­ted, but you have to be pre­pared for that. The faster there’s a decision the quicker you can work on the revi­sions or else re-write for another journal. The rapid response means that I can cite the data in this paper in other papers imme­di­ately rather than delay­ing writ­ing about fur­ther work.
  2. It’s access­ible.
    Research might be inter­dis­cip­lin­ary, but not so many journ­als are. For this paper the altern­at­ives would be pub­lic­a­tion in spe­cial­ist archae­oastro­nomy, clas­sics, archae­ology or astro­nomy journ­als. I can do that and will do that in the future, but writ­ing for those journ­als means writ­ing for those spe­cific audi­ences. If they’re subscription-based they also lock out a large pro­por­tion of the poten­tial audi­ence. If an astro­nomer is in a uni­ver­sity without a clas­sics depart­ment then it’s going to be hard for him to get a copy of the paper. Likewise many uni­ver­sit­ies don’t carry archae­oastro­nomy journ­als. PLoS One gives me a plat­form to intro­duce the work and then I can pub­lish tailored art­icles devel­op­ing ideas in the spe­cial­ist journals.
  3. It opens con­ver­sa­tion.
    You can com­ment on the paper. So too can any­one else. This is par­tic­u­larly handy for inter­dis­cip­lin­ary work. I’m hop­ing the con­ver­sa­tion doesn’t end with this one paper. The article-based met­rics will included some of cita­tion search. Hopefully in a couple of years people read­ing this paper will be able to see where they can find cri­ti­cisms and devel­op­ments in other papers. That’s amaz­ingly use­ful for inter­dis­cip­lin­ary work where sub­sequent papers could be in journ­als in a vari­ety of disciplines.

I’ve decided some form of open-access is essen­tial for inter­dis­cip­lin­ary work. The paper stands or falls on whether or not the bino­mial dis­tri­bu­tion is the right tool for the task. That means for aca­demic hon­esty I have to sub­mit it to a journal where the I can be reas­on­ably sure it will be scru­tin­ised by people famil­iar with basic stat­ist­ics. Scientists might laugh at that as the math­em­at­ics in the paper is very simple. I think any clas­si­cist could fol­low it, but some could quite reas­on­ably be wary of it. Is it stat­ist­ical sleight-of-hand? They can read any com­ments left by stat­ist­i­cians or astro­nomers and judge how con­fid­ent they should be in the find­ings. Likewise people unfa­mil­iar with the Greek mater­ial can read the clas­si­cists’ and archae­olo­gists’ com­ments and see if the human aspect of the research is sound.

It’s also import­ant for me because I might learn some­thing, and indeed I did. This is a bet­ter paper post-review than it was when I sub­mit­ted it. I’ve re-thought how I pro­cess some of the data and that will have a pos­it­ive on the next pro­ject I do.

After going through the pro­cess I’m impressed with PLoS. I think I hit every bump in the sub­mis­sion pro­cess, most of it due to the order­ing of the paper being dif­fer­ent to how I would nor­mally write it. Still, the every­one was very help­ful along the way. If you’re a recent PhD or grad stu­dent with a need to put out some pub­lic­a­tions, I’d recom­mend pub­lish­ing with PLoS One. Of course I’m writ­ing this before I’ve seen how the paper has been received, so you can check on my art­icle met­rics your­self to see if it’s being read or else sunk into obscurity.

Alcman and the Cosmos of Sparta by Gloria Ferrari


AlcmanI wasn’t aware of this book till I saw a review appear on the BMCR feed. If you’re tack­ling any­thing to do with ancient Greece and Rome then it’s a good idea to keep an eye on BMCR as there’s a con­stant stream of reviews high­light­ing inter­est­ing books. I’m very glad I saw this as it’s spe­cific­ally use­ful to me because of a paper I’m pol­ish­ing for sub­mis­sion. However it’s gen­er­ic­ally use­ful too because it’s a good book on the inter­ac­tion of astro­nomy, cos­mo­logy and reli­gion in archaic Greece.

The sub­ject of the book is the Parthenia (Partheneion) by Alcman (Alkman) a poet writ­ing in the 7th cen­tury BC. It describes part of a cere­mony to devote some­thing to a god­dess, pos­sibly Artemis though Bowra (1934:35) dis­agrees. He argues that ὀρθρίαι means at day-break rather than being a ref­er­ence to Artemis Orthia. This is pretty much the prob­lem with the Parthenia. It’s frag­ment­ary and even the frag­ments we do have are ambiguous.

There’s some astro­nom­ical ele­ment to the poem, but exactly what in the poem is astro­nom­ical and what is being offered is also debated. Everyone’s argu­ments about what the poem means stands or breaks on a sec­tion which Ferrari calls ‘the most tor­men­ted pas­sage in this sec­tion of the song’. Thanks to Google Books, I can add the two rel­ev­ant pages below under Pleiades, Hyades and Sirius so you can see what the prob­lem is.

The key pas­sage in near English is some­thing like:

For as we carry ὀρθρίαι φαρος
The Πεληάδες rise and struggle against us
Like the star Sirius
through the ambro­sial night.

Depending on how you trans­late the Greek words you get a dif­fer­ent outcome.

If you think φαρος is a robe or veil then you’re in good com­pany. This is known from other rituals. Usually that means that people then trans­late ὀρθρίαι to describe Artemis Orthia, a vir­gin god­dess with an interest in chil­dren and child­birth. That makes Πεληάδες the Pleiades. Many people then make this a spring fest­ival — and that for me is where this trans­la­tion breaks down.

The Pleiades are not like Sirius. They’re stag­ger­ingly unlike Sirius. Sirius is the bright­est star in the sky and the Pleiades are an open cluster of faint stars that are like a smudge of light to the naked eye. If your eyesight’s good you can make out indi­vidual stars. That would sug­gest that’s it’s not the appear­ance that mat­ters but the tim­ing of their appear­ance. In that light, the spring fest­ival makes sense. In this period the Pleiades first appeared in the morn­ing sky in May. The prob­lem is the ref­er­ence to Sirius. Sirius was set­ting in the even­ing sky at this time. It didn’t rise till July. This is why I can­not see how the poem describes a spring fest­ival. The pres­ence of Sirius seems to rule that out.

The altern­at­ive taken by a smal­ler group of people is that a φαρος is a plough. This would be Ferrari’s inter­pret­a­tion and Martin West’s too who gen­er­ally has a big brain when it comes to lyric poetry. If a plough is being brought then this becomes an autumn fest­ival. There were many har­vests through­out the year, but the agri­cul­tural year restar­ted each autumn after the last har­vest with the plough­ing of the fields. This is astro­nom­ic­ally bet­ter because Sirius would have been vis­ible in the morn­ing sky which very neatly ties to ὀρθρίαι mean­ing day-break. That’s essen­tial because Greek reli­gious ritual often happened in the morn­ing or just before sun­rise. This doesn’t give me so much of a head­ache, as it’s phys­ic­ally pos­sible, but I still struggle with the Pleiades being like Sirius. That’s why I’ve ten­ded to like a third option that Ferrari mentions.

Πεληάδες doesn’t just mean faint open cluster of stars. It also means doves. If were ser­i­ous about want­ing to solve this puzzle then I’d be look­ing at dove migra­tion and his­tor­ical and archae­olo­gical evid­ence for hunt­ing. Birds tend to migrate in autumn, that works with φαρος as a plough. Songbirds also tend to fly at night. Travelling through the sky like Sirius through the night would be a bad simile, but less so than the Pleiades as stars option to my ears. This would tie in with the kind of astro­nomy Hesiod prac­ticed. He didn’t just look at stars, but also at eco­lo­gical signs, like the migra­tions of birds and the beha­viour of other animals.

Don’t go invest­ing too much in my belief though. This is an opin­ion formed from a fairly small amount of read­ing. One of the things that makes this book so use­ful is that it draws on an extens­ive amount of evid­ence. You don’t have to agree with Ferrari’s des­tin­a­tion to see that the trip is worth­while. She also pulls in evid­ence from archae­ology and art as well as drama, espe­cially Euripides. I think it’s spec­u­lat­ive work, but it’s cer­tainly not base­less speculation.

However, I’m not fully con­vinced by the explan­a­tion. Nearly all the sup­port­ing evid­ence post-dates Alcman’s work by a long way. Euripides was writ­ing in the fifth cen­tury BC. I think that’s import­ant because I think some­thing hap­pens to astro­nomy in this period. The fifth cen­tury is when Meton pins down his luni-solar cycle. It’s also a time when there’s a stronger sense of Hellenic iden­tity, partly as a reac­tion to the threat from Persia. I think the book is extremely help­ful for explor­ing what people in the fifth cen­tury thought about the con­nec­tion between the heav­ens and reli­gion. I want to believe that we can take this evid­ence and apply it back to sev­enth cen­tury Sparta. It would make my life so much easier, but I don’t think there’s the cer­tainty in the evid­ence to fix the Parthenia to the autumn. My opin­ion might change in the future. I found the text a bit, ha ha, lac­onic. It means I’ll have to read it a few times to get a bet­ter idea of some of the more subtle argu­ments. It’s not a badly writ­ten book and def­in­itely not delib­er­ately obtuse, but it is concise.

All in all though it’s very thought-provoking. It puts some flesh on to mod­els that try and con­nect reli­gion and astro­nomy. It means that ritual isn’t just about the mater­ial, but also about how it’s used. It would be inter­est­ing to see if any­one else had evid­ence approach­ing the same prob­lem from the oppos­ite dir­ec­tion. A sur­vey of temples to see if there’s some sort of archae­olo­gical cor­rel­ate with the astro­nom­ical beha­viour might be useful.

Bowra, C.M. 1934. ‘The Occasion of Alcman’s PartheneionThe Classical Quarterly 28(1): 35–44 []

Bookmarks for 16th of November through to 18th of November


These are my links for 16th of November through 18th of November:

  • The Academic Journal Racket « In the Dark
    Telescoper explains how aca­demic pub­lish­ing works. The only thing that would improbe the post would be the theme from ‘The Naked Gun’ in the background.
  • A Case in Antiquities for ‘Finders Keepers’ — NYTimes​.com
    You can make argu­ments in favour of repat­ri­ation of antiquit­ies. You can make argue­ments against. Being on either side doesn’t make you inher­ently fool­ish. But when you write that the British Army took the Rosetta Stone from the French and “returned it to the British Museum” then some­thing has gone wrong. It’s prob­ably a case of moment­ary brain­fade rather than idiocy, but it mat­ters because the whole ques­tion of own­er­ship of the Rosetta Stone is about where it right­fully belongs. Using the word ‘returned’ builds in the assump­tion that all antiquit­ies are inher­ently British.
  • Notes & Queries; Sledges — Theoretical Structural Archaeology
    Geoff Carter con­cluded he didn’t have evid­ence for a stag­ger­ingly early cart shed in Poland. Could it have been a used to house a sledge? I’ve just real­ised I know abso­lutely noth­ing at all about the his­tory of sleds and sledges. Not only that, but I can’t recall much atten­tion being called to them in early pre­his­toric archae­ology other than when people want to talk about mov­ing mega­liths to Stonehenge. Yet Martha Murphy (guest blog­ging) shows there’s plenty of ques­tions to ask about neo­lithic transport.
  • British bank turns to treas­ure hunt­ing via @johnabartram
    Avast me hearties! Robert Fraser & Partners be scourin’ the high seas in search of booty. They be fundin’ Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. ter search the Caribbean fer Spanish gold. Arrr!
  • CRM Problem in Cadboro Bay « Northwest Coast Archaeology
    More on the prob­lems of pre­serving her­it­age in BC. Ancient buri­als have been scooped out of the ground, <em>after</em> an archae­olo­gical assessment.

Bookmarks for 12th of November through to 14th of November


These are my links for 12th of November through 14th of November:

  • Is the new policy state­ment PPS 15 a threat to her­it­age? — Building Design
    I’d love to have a pithy and insight­ful opin­ion on this, but first I’ll have to look up what PPS 15 says. it’s import­ant as PPG 15 and 16 have been the basis of pro­tec­tion of her­it­age in the UK for many years.
  • Pagans for Archaeology: Why reburial won’t work
    It’s all very well me say­ing there are eth­ical reas­ons to be against reburial, but I still haven’t found the time to write them down yet. Now this post hits almost every point I was going to make, espe­cially the point about memory. This won’t stop me from writ­ing up my thoughts when I can find the time though.
  • Identity : Gambler’s House
    Teofilo talks about Chaco and Navajo iden­tity and dis­cov­ers neither is as simple as you might think.
  • 3rd-century build­ing fuels debate over lost coun­try … asahi​.com(朝日新聞社)
    “The cent­ral axis of each build­ing forms a straight line. Each build­ing is believed to have faced the same dir­ec­tion. Such care­ful plan­ning for build­ings was com­mon for palaces and temples dur­ing the Asuka Period from the late sixth cen­tury to the early eighth cen­tury. But it had not been found at sites from the early third century. “

    This is why I need to find an intro­duct­ory book to early Japanese his­tory. There’s a huge amount of fas­cin­at­ing stuff there.

  • Shameful hypo­crisy threatens our ancient shared her­it­age
    “One of the most egre­gious hypo­cris­ies we enter­tain in British Columbia is our cava­lier atti­tude toward the destruc­tion and dis­posal of indi­gen­ous cul­tural land­scapes, arti­facts and her­it­age sites. In any enlightened nation such import­ant his­tory would com­mand pro­tec­tion — here it earns indif­fer­ence and even contempt.”
  • Moai in Captivity — a gal­lery on Flickr
    A great idea for a gal­lery. There’s some­thing about the facial expres­sion that makes even fake Moai appealing.

Bookmarks for 31st of August through to 11th of November


These are my links for 31st of August through 11th of November: