Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy by Giulio Magli
This review rounds off a trilogy to go with Skywatchers, Shamans and Kings and People and the Sky. Like the other two books this could be said to be part of a World Archaeoastronomy approach, but Giulio Magli adds a twist. Some of this is down to the approach he’s taken to archaeoastronomical sites, but he also adds a bit more.
Magli’s approach is similar to what I would have done if I was writing an introduction to archaeoastronomy book. He tackles the sites around the world. So take a deep breath because in his opening section of twelve chapters — slightly over half the book — he covers. Palaeolithic Europe, Prehistoric Britain, the temples of Malta, Egypt, Babylon, East North America with the Hopewell and Cahokia, West North America with Chaco and the Anasazi, Northern Mexico and Tenochtitlan, The rest of Mesoamerica and Palenque, The Incas, Nazca and Polynesia. That leaves massive holes where you would expect to find India, China, Korea and Japan and a lack of African material. That’s more due to the state of play in academic archaeoastronomy at the moment than a fault of Magli. In general Africa has been greatly overlooked and there’s not a lot of integration between Asian astronomy and the rest of the world. It’s getting better, but it’s still under-represented compared to the Mayans and Prehistoric Europe.
If this had been the sum total of the book I wouldn’t be that enthusiastic about it. It’s not bad. It’s written from an astronomical point of view with some amusing digs against archaeologists. If you were interested in archaeoastronomy and approaching it from astronomy and not anthropology I’d recommend this over Aveni or Krupp’s book as an introduction to the field. What really marks out the book as worth reading is section 2.
This is a brief section of just three chapters, but it’s the hinge for the whole book. Magli opens it by talking about cognition. An easy trap to fall into when looking at the various astronomical practices around the world is that you end up cataloguing them against how closely they correlate to modern astronomy. You can see this in some popular History of Astronomy books. Any time you read that Aristarchus improved Greek astronomy by proposing a heliocentric system you can now imagine the sound of my teeth grinding. Because, if he did improve Greek astronomy, why did Hipparchus and Ptolemy reject it for an earth-centred system? Whatever reason Aristarchus had for saying the Sun was the centre of the universe, you can bet it wasn’t to win plaudits from astronomers over 2000 years later. Magli emphasises that people in the past thought differently about the sky and that means that a bit of thought is required if you want to interpret the sky.
The next couple of chapters go into more detail about how you can try to do that. He talks about the etic approach, which is analysing the astronomy from outside the society to look for patterns. He calls an alternative approach humanistic. I found that helpful. Usually it’s described as emic, and I always worry I’m getting etic and emic mixed up like some people confuse stalactites with stalagmites. He then goes on to look at various anthropological models for interacting with the sky. It’s this middle section that makes it so useful. It’s not just relevant to astronomers. I know one or two historians who would have benefitted from reading this section. It makes the book a lot more than Archaeoastronomy’s Greatest Hits.
Section 3 is more difficult for me to talk about, because I lack the expertise to come to a definitive conclusion. I like the idea of section 3, which is to take all the ways of thinking about astronomy in Section 1 and apply critical reasoning drawn from Section 2 — but the place where he applies it is Egypt. I don’t tend to look at Egypt in great detail, so I have some difficulty with this section. I imagine a lot of Egyptologists will have difficulty with this section too, but for very different reasons. In the remaining chapters Magli proposes that the pyramids on the plateau were built as part of a unified plan. That sets of pseudoscientific alarm bells for me. The Orion Correlation Theory does get a namecheck, but what Magli argues is much more interesting than that,
In brief, he says that what we call the pyramids of Khafre and Khufu were in fact both laid out by Khufu to reproduce the hieroglyph akhet (left), which means horizon. The Great Pyramid was known as Akhet Khufu in ancient Egypt. Magli argues that in fact akhet Khufu actually referred to the two pyramids and the symbol made when the Sun set between them. I initially have the same objection to this that I have to the Orion Correlation Theory. If that is the case then how do you explain the pyramid of Djedefre?
Djedefre was the son of Khufu. After Khufu Djedefre had his pyramid built at Abu Rawash, about five miles north of Giza. If there was a unified plan at Giza it seems that no-one told him. The next pyramid at Giza was built by Khafre later. That doesn’t sound very unified to me. Magli proposes a new date for the pyramid of Khafre and also an new owner.
He argues that the ownership of the pyramid isn’t very firm. There are certainly later testimonials that Khafre was buried there, but he could have taken the pyramid for his own after it was built. There are no contemporary sources known, as there are with Khufu’s pyramid to be certain of the owner. Instead the pyramid is assigned to Khafre based on other buildings were built as a complex and connected to the second pyramid. Are these later embellishments? It depends on the date. Dating the pyramids is difficult. This far back in Egyptian chronology the dates of pharaoh’s rules can vary by a century, so dating a pyramid to a few decades seems unlikely.
Kate Spence has a method to date the pyramids based on astronomical observations. It shows an almost perfect correlation between the errors in aligning pyramids to true north due to precession of the equinoxes and the date. The only failure is the pyramid of Khafre, but this works if the pyramid of Khafre was planned in the opposite season to all the other pyramids. Her idea is elegant, but I’m not happy with the execution. It’s like saying that if we assume the dates are all correct them astronomy shows the dates are all correct. Magli shows that if you assume the pyramid was astronomically aligned using the same method as all the others, then it is slightly earlier in date than the pyramid of Khufu. The two dates are so close that, with residual errors, it’s reasonable to argue that they were laid out at the same time — if someone was mad enough lay out two supermassive pyramids of nearly equal size at the same time.
There’s more to the idea and he lays it out referring both to astronomy and to the historical and archaeological record. Magli doesn’t have much respect for consensus among historians when the evidence is weak. My own experience of archaeology elsewhere suggests there’s a tendency for ‘the most likely explanation’ to get cited and re-cited until it becomes an established factoid. However I don’t know enough about the historical details know if he is always justified when he takes on orthodox explanations.
The only place I have a serious disagreement is when Magli argues that an intentional correlation with Orion was may have been intended by Menkaure. He says that Menkaure changed the context of the Giza plateau by adding his pyramid to the site at Giza. His reason is that the pyramid’s southeastern corner aligns with the corners of the other two, but the distance from the two other pyramids could have been chosen to make the correlation. This doesn’t work for me, because elsewhere Magli’s arguments are about the visibility about some sites and not others on the horizon. The perceived observations are all terrestrially-based parallel to the ground. The only time this seems to change is a one-off for Menkaure. It is possible that the religious perception and significance of the pyramids changed for Menkaure but, if that is the case, then you can make the same argument when Magli rejects Spence’s date for the pyramid of Khafre. If Egyptian religion was rigid enough to make Magli’s re-dating of the pyramid plausible, then it would also seem to be strong evidence against a perceived correlation between the pyramids and Orion’s Belt. Everywhere else it would seem that the Egyptians were not using a symbolic landscape that would recognise patterns on visible from high above as meaningful. Personally I find Magli’s arguments more convincing than Bauval’s. Menkaure’s pyramid remains a puzzle.
That’s only a small section of the book and hardly a critical point for the argument, but I have to find something to disagree with.
On the whole it’s a good and readable book, with the author’s personal experiences of sites enmeshed with the discussion of the different cultures. Occasionally the translation slips, like introduction of the remains of Poverty Point Culture which is associated with ‘…various, often imported materials, such as copper, magnetite and galena, as well as “microlites,” which are small geometric objects of stone, of unknown use.’ I assume this was meant to be microliths. ((Being pedantic and spotting spelling mistakes to prove you have read the book is also a reviewing tradition.)) There’s some barbs aimed at Richard Atkinson and Otto Neugebauer that will alienate some academics, but Atkinson was certainly happy to dish out the same treatment to others so I don’t think it’s unfair.
It’s also changing my mind about how I want to write next. At the moment I’m concentrating on articles because I want to get stuff published, but sooner or later someone will pointedly ask me when the book is coming out. I don’t think the world needs another introduction-level book to archaeoastronomy as a whole. I have reservations about the World Archaeoastronomy approach. It has its limitations and it’s notable that even who does it really well, like Anthony Aveni, doesn’t use it for research publications. I think Magli has a prototype for writing accessible archaeoastronomy books with a research element. The accessibility is important, because if you’re writing an interdisciplinary work for an audience unfamilar with at least one of the disciplines then you have to be accessible to be understood. Even if his ideas on Giza prove to be flat-out wrong, I think Magli has written a useful book.
Google Books has a limited preview.