Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy by Giulio Magli

Note: Giulio Magli was one of the exam­iners of my thesis, so his book is hardly likely to get a bad review.

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.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

1 Response

  1. GaryCorby says:

    Sounds like a great book! And this is some­thing I don’t know nearly enough about.

    I con­fess, though, the greatest mys­tery to me is how on earth did he get “Archaeoastronomy” past the editor and onto the cover? Mr Magli must have incred­ible powers of persuasion.