The ancients and meteors

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There are all sorts of cyc­lical events that ancient peoples are thought to be inter­ested in, sol­stices, lunar cycles and eclipses. What rarely seems to get atten­tion are met­eor showers. It might seem odd, they’re annual, hap­pen­ing at the same point in the Earth’s orbit. They can also be spec­tac­u­lar. So why don’t they get much atten­tion from archae­oastro­nomers? There are prob­ably a couple of reasons.

Meteor and Pleiades

Meteor and Pleiades. Photo: Luis Argerich / Flickr.

One is that there’s not a lot of clear his­tor­ical evid­ence that met­eor showers were pre­dict­able in the ancient world. The ancient cer­tainly saw met­eor showers, one of my favour­ites is Plutarch writ­ing on pleasure:

…[P]leasures, like gales of soft wind, move sim­per­ing, one towards one extreme of the body and another towards another, and then go off in a vapor. Nor are they of any long dur­ance, but, as so many glan­cing met­eors, they are no sooner kindled in the body than they are quenched by it.

It’s clear that who­ever wrote that must have been famil­iar with fleet­ing met­eors showers. There’s also evid­ence of peri­odic obser­va­tions for met­eors, again from Plutarch, but these weren’t annual events. From his bio­graphy of Agis, a king of Sparta:

Every ninth year the eph­ors select a clear and moon­less night, and in silent ses­sion watch the face of the heav­ens. If, then, a star shoots across the sky, they decide that their kings have trans­gressed in their deal­ings with the gods, and sus­pend them from their office, until an oracle from Delphi or Olympia comes to the suc­cour of the kings thus found guilty.

Plutarch — Agis 11.3

Every ninth year in this case means every eighth, because of inclus­ive count­ing. It seems that while met­eors were well-known in the ancient world they were unex­pec­ted. If you count your cal­en­dar against the moon, as most ancient cul­tures did, then events like sol­stices hap­pen on dif­fer­ent days of the year. So too would met­eor showers. Along with the vagar­ies of weather and they tend to be vari­able in strength any­way, it might be less of a sur­prise that they weren’t pre­dicted and planned around.

It’s not just his­tor­ical evid­ence we could look for though. Continue read­ing

The uncommonly decent politics of reburial

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To add a little con­text to the pre­vi­ous post: I’ve taken a course in short story writ­ing, and Silencing the Echo might have been an entry for a short story com­pet­i­tion in Wales — but I decided against enter­ing it.

The inspir­a­tion comes from a druid who cam­paigned for reburial of pre­his­toric remains in the UK. Avebury, I think. Reburial was, he said, a mat­ter of “com­mon decency”. As phrases go, it’s a good one. It taps into the British sense of decency and reas­on­able­ness. Or at least it does at first.

When it keeps com­ing up again and again it loses the feel­ing of a sin­cere spon­tan­eous state­ment and starts look­ing like a sound­bite. Looked at closely, it gives away the intol­er­ant nature of some of the campaigners.

Imagine we’re on oppos­ite sides, and I’m cam­paign­ing for com­mon decency. What does this make you? I sup­pose it could make you uncom­monly decent, but the insinu­ation is a moral fail­ing rather than simply a mat­ter of dis­agree­ment, and when the same tag is used over and over then it looks less like an accident.

An unques­tioned assump­tion is that reburial is what the per­son bur­ied would wish for. This is not cer­tain.
Continue read­ing

Silencing the Echo

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The black clouds unleashed their rain, pelt­ing Adlais’s face. The drops melted into her tears. Now, in the centre of the circle, the priests grip­ping her, she under­stood what happened to her friend Branwen.

Once again the crops had failed. The gods were angry. Someone in the tribe must be anger­ing them and the tribe would have to be cleansed. Adlais had been called to the priests, who had asked if she would sing at the cleans­ing. She had never liked cleans­ings, but it was import­ant it was done right, so she had will­ingly agreed and drank from the horn to sig­nify her sub­mis­sion to the gods. Now, barely an hour later, her head felt like it was split­ting, her ears rang with sound of her own heart­beat and her limbs jerked of their own voli­tion as the priest lis­ted her crimes.

Witnesses came into the circle to testify to see­ing events that had never happened, to spy­ing acts that had never been com­mit­ted. They briefly recited their words, as they had for Branwen last year. Then they scur­ried back bey­ond the safety of the ditch that sep­ar­ated the world from this cursed space. As always, the accused was chal­lenged to deny her crimes, but Adlais’s blood felt thick and pois­on­ous. The words would not come to her tongue. She had been on the other side too many times to hope that people would see her dis­tress. Her silence would con­demn her. Her spasms would be vis­ible evid­ence of the guilt tor­tur­ing her.

The judge­ment came. Adlais filled with fear. Not for her­self, her future was as obvi­ous as the grave in front of her, but for her fam­ily and her friends watch­ing from bey­ond the ditch. They were des­per­ate, hop­ing this cleans­ing would finally rid the land of the blight. But what gods would be appeased by falsehoods?

It was almost a relief when the last act came. The blow to the back of her skull sur­prised her, as she dis­covered the pain in her head could indeed get worse. She stumbled, then fell into the pit dug for her, to the cheers and relief of the watch­ers. Still awake, she lay in her final bed as the priests began to cover her. Adlais cried. Not for her­self but for the friend she had aban­doned a year ago.
Continue read­ing

How did being buried for 36 hours become three days?

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Something that puzzled me about the resur­rec­tion was how a period of thirty-six hours or so became three days. There are other things too, but the period from death to Easter morn­ing isn’t even forty-eight hours. Where does three days come from? Couldn’t ancient people count?

It turns out they could, but they coun­ted differently.

Possibly praying that he doesn't have to sort out the numerical problems.

Possibly pray­ing that he doesn’t have to sort out the numer­ical problems.

In ancient Greece and Rome they used inclus­ive count­ing. This is where you count the first and last things in a series. For example, how often are the Olympics held? We would say every four years. The Greeks would have said every five years, and they called it a pen­teric fest­ival. Here’s how you get five years for the Olympics.

Year one: Hold the Olympics.
Year two: The Isthmian and Nemean Games.
Year three: The Delphic Games.
Year four: The Isthmian and Nemean Games (again).
Year five: The Olympic Games.

The Romans also used this sys­tem of inclus­ive num­ber­ing for their cal­en­dar. Jerusalem at the time was in the Roman Empire.

Counting of the days where you start and fin­ish is what gives three days. Jesus has to die before sun­set on the Friday. The reason for this is at sun­set a new day starts in the Jewish cal­en­dar. This second day car­ries on to sun­set on what we could call Saturday. At sun­set the third day starts. Now Jesus can rise any time he likes and he’ll have risen on the third day.

With care­ful tim­ing he could have kept it down to just over twenty-four hours.

Whether or not it happened is another dis­cus­sion, but inclus­ive count­ing shows why the ancients were happy to say ‘on the third day’, even though they knew it was well under two full days.

Edit: Bill Thayer has more fest­ivals with inclus­ive count­ing.

Mick Aston

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Mick Aston was prob­ably the best-known archae­olo­gist in the UK. I’d also go so far as to say that he was the most influ­en­tial archae­olo­gist of the last 25 years.

Mick Aston

Mick Aston (centre). Photo by Wessex Archaeology.

The reason is Time Team, an archae­olo­gical series on Channel 4. If Sky at Night is Astronomy then Time Team when Mick Aston was in it was archae­ology. Its suc­cess massively expan­ded the uptake of archae­ology by stu­dents. Mick Aston’s idea was respons­ible sup­port­ing an incal­cul­able num­ber of jobs in uni­ver­sity depart­ments. It’s easy to over­look was an aston­ish­ing idea Time Team was.

The tra­di­tional doc­u­ment­ary places the aca­demic speaker at the author­ity speak­ing Truth. A recent example is Rise of the Continents, where Mantle Plumes are presen­ted as unques­tioned fact as noted in the post at The Theatre of Reason. A com­mon grumble is that sci­ence is a pro­cess not a body of fact, so how do you show pro­cess? Mick Aston reckoned you could pro­duce a usable brief eval­u­ation of an archae­olo­gical site in three days and this became Time Team. A cam­era crew fol­lowed an archae­olo­gical team as they dug for three days.

Below I’ve embed­ded the epis­ode from Blaenavon, which I hope 4oDDocumentaries have made widely access­ible.* You could make a drink­ing game from the num­ber of times someone says they don’t know some­thing. To steal a line from Paul Bahn: it’s not about find­ing things, it’s about find­ing things out.

As a meas­ure of impact, I offer another series, Bonekickers. Bonekickers was an attempt by the Life on Mars team to pro­duce a drama around an archae­ology unit. It was laughed out of the sched­ules because Time Team had demon­strated to a large chunk of the UK pop­u­la­tion how archae­ology worked. To be fair Bonekickers was pretty awful in its own right, but it’s thanks to the impact of Time Team that it became truly ris­ible. Can you ima­gine that hap­pen­ing with any other aca­demic discipline?

Mick Aston’s influ­ence meant that he became a ste­reo­type of an archae­olo­gist in his own time. That could sound snide, but rather it’s a meas­ure of how loved by the pub­lic he was.

He also had the poten­tial to keep innov­at­ing. After leav­ing Time Team, he’d been work­ing with Timothy Taylor on Dig Village. In some ways he was in the twi­light of his career, but he still could have shone for many years like the even­ing star.

Photo Time Team in Salisbury by Wessex Archaeology. This image licensed under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa licence.

*I’m not optim­istic that it’s vis­ible bey­ond the UK. You can search for Time Team on YouTube, but embed­ding those videos isn’t sens­ible. Uploading a pro­gramme whole­sale, breach­ing the copy­right isn’t neg­ated by say­ing “No infringe­ment of copy­right is inten­ded”. These videos will be com­ing down sooner or later. My per­sonal favour­ite epis­ode is prob­ably Llygadwy / Celtic Spring, but that’s not so typ­ical of the series.

Where can you find out more about the UNESCO Astronomy World Heritage Inititative?

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For any­one search­ing for my name today, here’s the inform­a­tion you’re after.

The bit I’m work­ing with is the Portal to the Heritage of Astronomy. This is the part where all the pub­lic inform­a­tion is.

There are pages about the ini­ti­at­ive at UNESCO and the IAU.

It’s excel­lent report­ing by Andy Carling, so if I’ve said any­thing incor­rect or muddled then it’s def­in­itely me who got it wrong, not some com­mu­nic­a­tion mix-up.

Tentative Astronomical World Heritage Sites

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I’m mak­ing a note for myself here, but other might be inter­ested. It’s occurred to me there’s a very easy way to list sites on the tent­at­ive world her­it­age lists with an expli­cit astro­nom­ical con­nec­tion. Just search for the word astro­nomy on the list. It’s not rocket science.

It’s not per­fect either. The list­ing for Herat is tan­gen­tial to astro­nom­ical her­it­age, but other entries are obvi­ously rel­ev­ant, like Astronomical Observatories of Ukraine and The Cape Arc of Meridian, South Africa.

One or two are new to me, so I have some read­ing to do.

#blog   #AstronomicalHeritage  

Embedded Link

UNESCO World Heritage Centre — Tentative Lists
UNESCO World Heritage Centre

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