The Mursi. Photo by CharlesFred.
I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while. I need it online as a reference note because it tackles a common problem I have when talking to some people about ancient astronomy. Sometimes the reason I disagree with an astronomical interpretation of a site, like Fiskerton, is that there’s an unchallenged assumption that ancient people were on a quest for accuracy and prediction like modern scientists. It seems a reasonable assumption for some societies. Mayan calendars were more accurate than those of Europe in the same period. Sometimes though you find something which blows all your preconceptions out of the water. Astronomy, as practiced by the Mursi, is one example.
The Mursi live in southwestern Ethiopia by the banks of the River Omo. They live on sorghum, which is planted to coincide with either the flooding of the Omo or the rains, and from their livestock. Agriculture in Ethiopia can precarious at the best of times, so these people really need to know what they’re doing. Miss the rains or the floods and your sorghum crop is lost. Similarly you want to make sure you’re up in the mountains when the pasture is there for the cows. This would suggest they have a useful calendar and they do. But it’s very odd.
Aliens! Photo by Inkynobaka.
Now the race for the X-Prize is over the race to built the first passenger spaceport is one. One company has analysed where it expects most of its customers to come from and is planning to build their first spaceport in the Emirates. As far as I know that’s the first example of the USA supporting the capacity for long-range rocketry by a Middle Eastern state.
More interesting are two other proposed locations. Richard Branson has searched for a site which he thinks will project the image of pioneering space travel. He’s chosen Roswell. I’m not sure that this is a good idea. If you board a Virgin Galactic flight in Roswell how do you know you’re flying to space? Might it not all be a simulator created with alien technology to ensure humanity remains rooted to Earth? Richard Branson also has a headache with his vehicles. The spacecraft of other companies are resuable, but obviously you can only board a Virgin Galactic spacecraft once.
The most interesting spaceport might be Woomera. Astronaut Dr Andy Thomas has suggested that a redevelopment of Woomera could make it a prime site for a spaceport. As Alice Gorman points out for a while Woomera was the second busiest spaceport in the world, after Cape Canaveral. Since then it has fallen into disuse. It’s therefore probably the only historic spaceport which flight operators can use, unless NASA is serious about installing a taxi rank at Cape Canaveral. Woomera therefore could be somewhere unique which connects the past and the future.
If the people paying a hundred thousand dollars to fly are UFOlogists, Branson looks to have cornered the market. If the passengers are millionaires looking to capture a spirit of adventure then the Australian option looks competitive.
You can read the press release Spaceport good for Woomera’s heritage on Space Age Archaeology.
Mount Fuji, a holy mountain and thus moral high ground. Photo by Starfire7.
One of the big stories this week has been the publication of the Gnostic gospel of Judas and its implications or lack of them for Christianity. You can read more about what’s been found at National Geographic’s website on the text, but I’m not linking to it because I’m not at ease with how National Geographic got their hands on it. If you read Carnivalesque XIII then you may be aware of the problems. If not then you may want to take a trip to Steve Muhlberger’s Early History which covers the story around the gospel in depth.
Toasters Cylon Centurions?
Other papers I attended included Tony Keen’s T Stands for Tiberius models and methodologies of classical reception in science fiction. I struggle to get excited by classical reception. I know intellectually that classics has traditionally been an upper class pursuit and that the experience of the Grand Tour laid the foundations for many of the fundamental assumptions of the discipline. Yet it’s hard to feel any passion for the jaunts of toffs when my own ancestors were running from the bailiffs, scrabbling to find a potato or doing something stereotypically Welsh. At school classics was definitely the preserve of the posh schools. Since taking ancient history at university I’ve found that it is an accessible subject and that a polo pony really isn’t necessary to study the Iliad.
Nevertheless it troubles me when people say that posh people really are terribly important after all and they’re far more interesting than the unwashed masses. I think that’s a justifiable accusation to make. Tony Keen started his talk with:
I am aware that in looking at science fiction, I am in danger of being perceived to be engaged in the study of the ‘banal and quotidian’ that Charles Martindale condemned in the Reception debate at the 2005 Classical Association Conference in Reading. …Martindale’s objection, in my view, confuses aesthetic value with cultural significance. I have no objection to people making aesthetic judgements, and make plenty of my own. But any such judgement I or others might make is unrelated to whether the piece of work judged is worthy of study in terms of its reception of Classical ideas. Put simply, one can say that Gladiator is a poor film, but it doesn’t follow from such an opinion that Gladiator is not important. If most people are getting their experience of the ancient world through the banal and quotidian, then it is the banal and quotidian that must be studied.
Alas there is a small but surprisingly resilient minority of people who cannot grasp that not everyone has lived in London. I hadn’t visited the British Museum until after my completing my BA. I haven’t visited the Tate Museums nor am I likely to for the foreseeable future. This is probably true for most people north of Watford Gap. So SF is a perfectly reasonable subject to study in classical reception. Of course with it sounding slightly wacky it has to be done well. Thanks to Tony you can judge for yourself as his talk’s up on his website. Which is how I remembered the quotation above so well. I thought both he and Amanda Potter were tackling a subject that would be easy to knock and difficult to do well. The intelligent and thoughtful discussion at the end was an indication of how well they did.
I’m not saying that the Grand Tour shouldn’t be studied. However, rejecting the study of classical reception in popular culture because it’s banal suggests you’re adopting 19th century attitudes as well as studying them.
The other talks at NAM, aside from the Michelangelo Code were the Lunar Month and Node Cycles in Stonehenge by Nicholas Kollerstrom and the Mediterranean Adventures of Francois Arago.
I thought the talk on Stonehenge was interesting. The idea here was that Stonehenge represented the earliest arithmetic in the British Isles. This was driven by a desire to understand lunar cycles and so you end up with twenty-nine and a half uprights in the sarsen circle. I’m really not convinced. It’s not that the Neolithic Britons couldn’t do arithmetic. On the contrary I think they had an interest in numbers, but I can’t see that Mesolithic Britons would have been any more primitive. Their use of numbers may have been different as their society would have had different needs, but I’m not convinced that their mathematics or astronomy would have been any less sophisticated than those of settled peoples, though that’s not certain. My own ideas on mathematics are highly speculative so I could well be wrong.
I have mixed opinions on Kollerstrom’s ideas. I think some may be accurate and some aren’t but I can’t see a way of being able to test between the two. Some of his ideas rely on elements of the circle which are built centuries after each other being part of a unified plan which also troubles me. On the other hand the later additions could be augmentations and reinterpretations of previous building. Personally I can’t also help but wonder if constellations played an important part in the use of Stonehenge. Their arrival and departure from the night sky would have created powerful symbols, but how would you even start working out which constellations Stone Age people saw. I think he’s right in pointing out that a purely solar interpretation of Stonehenge misses much of the monument, but if you can’t be sure of what to say is it better to say nothing? There isn’t an obvious answer.
Francois Arago. It’s hard to know what to say about Francois Arago. He was an astronomer employed by the French government to measure the earth. He was working in the Balearic Islands just as Napoleon and all his spies were becoming really unpopular in France. He left, was captured by pirates, escaped to Algiers, was captured by pirates while trying to return to France, held hostage by a new ruler of Algiers, left for France again and was captured by the British who were blockading Marseilles. In between he accidentally killed jealous fiances.
It makes you wonder what how the biographies of current eminent scientists will read in a couple of hundred years.
The Tellus Relief, Ara Pacis. Photo by kind permission of Dr. Janice Siegel.
I hadn’t realised that Prof. Shawn O’Bryhim would be giving his talk at the CA, The Astronomical Significance of the Tellus Relief, until the morning of the event. Naturally it clashed with the other talk I wanted to hear about — on the Greek Pantheon and Battlestar Galactica* — but I thought I ought to go to this as I was in Newcastle for business rather than pleasure. Fortunately Prof. O’Bryhim’s talk was both.
It’s going to tax my memory to accurately recall exactly what was said because the talk was a good example of the problems of working across disciplines. There were a lot of different issues to grasp at once. Thankfully the talk orbited the most important question “So what?” so it didn’t get lost down paths of irrelevant detail. Briefly the Tellus Relief, above, found on the Ara Pacis is a bit of a puzzle and there have been many attempts to interpret it. This is made no easier by that probability that there is no one meaning and the relief can have multiple significances. Prof. O’Bryhim contends that this was a relief of the wife of Augustus, Livia’s, horoscope.
One obvious step would be to show that this was a depiction of her horoscope. O’Bryhim argued that the symbols at the base of the relief show various symbols important to the horoscope. For instance there are the Solar, Lunar and Ascendant signs. Other symbols are planets placed in their locations. This part of the talk was very thorough. Indeed possibly from my view it was over-thorough. He showed how a device like the Antikythera Mechanism could be used to calculate the positions of celestial bodies. This is accurate, but perhaps not essential. Many of the planets on the calculated date would have been visible in the evening sky if I recall the date correctly. From talking to him before the paper it seems there is scepticism that the ancient Romans could have plotted the daytime sky, which seems odd because the Greeks were familiar with stars being the daytime sky in the earliest texts like Hesiod.
I’m wary of astronomically led arguments because they can give the illusion of accuracy. The horoscope might be accurate compared to the night sky, but when you consider the size of the Imperial family and the presumably polysemic nature of the relief it becomes a lot easier to find a match, particularly if you ignore all the reliefs that don’t match horoscopes. If you only count hits and ignore misses your theory will always be 100% accurate. The reason the talk was more than an astronomical oddity is that it was also firmly grounded in the history of the time.
Augustus was known to have a keen interest in astrology and was a master of propaganda. He was also keen to promote his household as leading Rome and presenting Livia as the mother of Rome would in turn cement the impression of him as its father. The dedication of the Ara Pacis was part of this propaganda campaign and this very altar was dedicated on Livia’s birthday at the start of her fiftieth year. It’s this political connection which makes the use of astrological symbolism interesting because it gives a clear reason for connecting Livia’s horoscope with the altar. I’m looking forward to reading the final paper. It promises to shed light on the sophistication of Augustan imagery.
* Amanda Potter (Open University) Pandora and the Pythia: Classics meets 9/11 in the Current TV Series ‘Battlestar Galactica’. By all accounts a very good talk.