Assumption #1: You’ve got to have astronomy because you’ve got to have an accurate calendar (Mursi Astronomy)


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.
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Space Tourism: Reality versus Imagination


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.

Would you pay 30 pieces of silver for an illegally exported gospel?


Mount Fuji
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.
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Classical Association II


Cylon Centurions
Legions of 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.



Foamhenge, from the south

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 Astronomical Significance of the Tellus Relief


The Tellus Relief
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.