I briefly discussed a solsticial marker a few years ago. A new post about the same inscription has been posted at the Itanos blog today.
I don’t know.
I think the coverage at places like the BBC are good, David Gregory found it exciting and I thought his story was a good read. However there are too many details missing from the reports to come to any conclusions. That’s not a complaint about the coverage, the mass-media isn’t an archaeological journal. It’s not even a gripe about publication by press-release because Mike Parker Pearson showed last year that news leaks out, so why not give the brief details out properly?
On the other hand the Birmingham team are looking at the landscape and, from reading the reports, I’ve no idea where this new site is in relation to Stonehenge. It’s almost certainly in sight of Stonehenge, but then the landscape round there is littered with barrows, Bronze Age burial mounds. The location will affect how we see the landscape. This henge isn’t to be confused with Bluestonehenge, the site found by the river Avon near Stonehenge last year. It’s also not Woodhenge, despite being made of wood, because that’s a different site near Durrington Walls, which is another site that has been in the news in recent years.
There’s not a lot I can say about the astronomy of this henge either. It could be aligned to the summer sunrise, but I can’t tell because the diagram doesn’t say which way north is. Also looking at the diagrams, the stone circle seems to have entrances facing one axis and the timber circle an entirely different alignment. In fact, the entrance to the wooden circle seems to be facing stones. To me, that suggests at least two phases to the monument. I imagine that there’ll be some sort of test excavation along similar lines. If you want to take your time planning an excavation it’s a very sensible idea not to flag up the location in the news.
The confusion that this finding is going to cause will be huge fun for Stonehenge watchers. The equipment they’re using is Ground-penetrating RADAR. This used to be rubbish, something you’d only use in an urban location where you got a good signal, but as with everything involving a microprocessor it’s advanced massively. It means that there’s huge swathes of land where some completely unexpected things will be found. In somewhere as busy as the Stonehenge landscape there has to be much more than this waiting to be discovered. It’ll raise some awkward questions for archaeoastronomers, because despite there being alignments will these newly discovered structures have blocked the view?
The exciting thing about this work is that it shows not only to we not have all the answers, we don’t even have all the questions.
I’ve been busy, recently and I’m likely to stay that way for a while, hence the lack of posts. Still, I’m hoping to be able to take a trip to Stonehenge this year to see the solstice. That’s why my prediction is that it will be cold and wet and thick cloud will prevent anything interesting making an appearance. However, if there are clear skies, there could be plenty to see over Stonehenge this solstice.
There’ll be plenty to see in the evening sky after sunset at 9.26pm. To the west Venus will be extremely bright at magnitude –4.0 (the lower the number the brighter something is). When you see it you won’t be able to mistake it for anything else. That will be setting at a quarter to midnight, so there’ll be plenty of time to see it.
Moving to the left, are Mars, Saturn and the Moon. Mars will be magnitude 1.3 so it won’t be the brightest thing in the sky, Arcturus and Vega will be brighter but it’ll still be easy to find. If you’re struggling find the Plough. The two pointer stars that point up to the Pole Star will be more or less also pointing down to Mars this evening. Mars sets at a quarter to one, but if you want to see it realistically you’ll have to be looking before midnight. If you’re lucky it’ll have a slight ruddy glow. Saturn will be the only bright object between Mars and the Moon. In fact it’ll be slightly brighter than Mars in perfect atmospheric conditions, but I doubt my eyes will be good enough to measure that.
The Moon will be in Virgo, near the star Spica, which was thought to be a sheaf of corn in the hand of Ceres, if you’re Roman, or Demeter, if you’re Greek. Fans of mythology will be keenly aware that Demeter/Ceres had a daughter with Zeus which makes her not technically a virgin, but the Greeks called her Parthenos and that usually gets translated as virgin. To find Spica usually you’d follow the arc of the handle of the Plough to Arcturus, and then Spica is the next bright star down. This night it’ll be the closest bright star to the Moon. It could be hard to spot because the Moon will be bright. It’ll be 69% lit, nine days old and waxing gibbous. It’ll be more or less low in the sky to the south at sunset and set around 1am, which is astronomical midnight. It’s not the same as civil midnight because these days Stonehenge is on Daylight Saving Time, like the rest of the UK.
Around 1.20am Jupiter rises. It’s likely that you’ll need to wait till 2am to get a good view. It’ll be shining in silver at magnitude –2.4 and, because Venus will have set, it’ll be the brightest planet on the sky. Jupiter will have a partner, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll see it at Stonehenge. Uranus will be close to Jupiter. If you hold out your hand at arm’s length then Uranus will be five or six little fingernail widths to the right of Jupiter. Normally there’s no chance at all of seeing Uranus, but at the moment it’s at magnitude 5.8 which puts it right on the limit of human vision. If you have very good eyesight and the atmospheric conditions are perfect you’ll see what looks like a very faint star next to Jupiter, and that’s Uranus. But even if we have that, I still doubt you’ll see it.
The reason is that it takes time for your eyes to adapt to the dark. Ian Musgrave says it takes a few minutes to see down to magnitude 5 or 6. Your eyes need to build up chemicals to make them more sensitive. Every time you see a bright light, like car headlights from the nearby roads, torches from other visitors who — quite reasonably — don’t want to break their necks walking around and any lighting from English Heritage this adaptation will be lost. On top of this there’s light pollution. We don’t just use energy lighting streets. A lot of energy is used to light up the sky, for no obvious reason. This reflects from any water droplets in the atmosphere and gives a sodium glow to the sky. Even cities over the horizon will be visible by their light pollution and this will prevent you from seeing some of the stars. You’ll stand a better chance of seeing Uranus if you use binoculars.
There is another difficult-to-spot object in the sky. To the north near Capella is Comet McNaught. Searching on the web for this is no help. There’s a lot of Comet McNaughts because Robert McNaught has found over fifty of them. This one is Comet McNaught 2009 R1. The current figures I have are that it will be between magnitudes 5 and 6. If that’s the case then you might not see much without dark-adapted eyes and it’s a binocular object. This figure is uncertain though because the comet is getting closer to the Sun. Around June 30-ish it’s predicted to be as bright as magnitude 2. Capella is not too hard to find. It’s the only bright star above the northern horizon, and it will be due north around half-past midnight. The comet will be a couple of degrees above it. Look for a fuzzy star.
The Sun is due to return a few seconds before 4.52am. Again, daylight saving explains why the Sun sets less than three hours before midnight, but doesn’t rise till almost five hours after.
Or, if you don’t tell your friends what they are, UFOs.
The big events will be the passes of the International Space Station. There’ll be two and half over Stonehenge. The first will be at 1.08am till 1.10am. You’ll be able to see the ISS dropping from 38º up in the sky to the southeast down to the horizon. It’ll be bright (magnitude –2.7) but it will also be fast. This is the half appearance and you may not see it. You best chance is to be looking at Aquila, the brightest star in the southeast at this time, and it should appear near there.
The next appearance is the best. At 2.40am it will rise in the west and pass overhead before setting in the east at 2.46am. It will look like Venus did, but it will visibly be moving across the sky. It could look like an aeroplane and if anyone else says that you might want to agree before pointing out that there’s no visible flashing lights like there would be on an aeroplane. It will also be travelling too fast. Get your friends to rule out other obvious causes like Chinese lanterns, reflections of headlights, planets and so on so that you sound like you’ve been reluctantly convinced that whatever you saw was not of this world.
Then at 4.15am you can make everyone jump out of their skin by yelling “They’re BACK!” when the ISS makes another pass from the west again. This time it will set 4.23am in the eastsoutheast.
For extra UFO points you can also try pointing out an Iridium flare. This is a sudden bright reflection from one of the Iridium communications satellites. There are two during the course of the night. At 10.52:44pm on June 20 there’s a magnitude –1 flare westnorthwest above a handspan above the horizon. At 3.22:06am there’s a brighter magnitude –4 flare in the eastsoutheast. These will be fast; they’ll last for just a few seconds.
Heavens Above, where I got these details from for the ISS and Iridium also has some transit times for fainter satellites, but the night sky is littered with satellites. If you see anything that looks star-like moving across the sky over six-eight minutes then it’s quite possibly a satellite. Some of these could be mistaken for aeroplanes. Registering on the site will enable you to print off your own star charts for ISS and satellite passes. If you’re on twitter @twisst can tell you when the ISS is passing over your location and send you alerts.
If you’re interested in visiting Stonehenge for the solstice this year and want more practical advice, like remembering to pack toilet roll, you’ll find Heritage Key helpful. And if there are clouds, it might not all be bad news.
Mathematicians have a concept, Omega, that is defined as something so huge that any attempt to define it actually defines something smaller. In a similar vein I reckon that any attempt to describe the ingenuity of the Antikythera Mechanism actually ends up describing something less ingenious instead. More research on the device has been published recently in the Journal for the History of Astronomy. I realise that people might be dropping on to this entry from a search engine, without having read any of the earlier posts, here’s a quick recap of what the mechanism is.
If you ever want to embarrass me, try to get me to enthuse about a display of astrolabes. They’re the kind of thing I should love. They’re devices for showing what is visible in the sky at any given time. They’re very similar to the planispheres that people use today. The mathematics behind them is elegant. The best also tend to have extraordinarily ornate metalwork to complement the sophistication of the devices. Yet, when they’re hanging up like this, they leave me cold.
I think the reason is that an astrolabe on display is a dead astrolabe. There are better ways to show a static night sky. What you need is an astrolabe in motion to appreciate them. That’s what makes this talk by Tom Wujec so good. He demonstrates how you could use an astrolabe to tell the time. In his hands, an astrolabe becomes a lot more interesting.
It’s easy to underestimate how much you can do if you’re willing to observe intently. What I also like about this talk is that Tom Wujec emphasises the importance of connecting with the night sky. You could claim accurate clocks have broken this connection, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Where I live light pollution is often so bad that I could not use an astrolabe. He’s right to point out that you can lose things with progress. Ironically Global Astronomy Month with try to show how immense the universe is, while artefacts like this show that on a day-to-day basis for urban dwellers the visible world is much smaller than the cosmos of the past.
There’s a thought-provoking post on Space Archaeology about how you define the term Space Archaeology. I’ve generally just thought of it as the archaeology of remains associated with spaceflight, but I’ve never seen the need to give the definition any serious thought. It’s a small enough field as it is without drawing up boundaries. Steve Wilson (I assume, the blog is uncredited) has given it more thought, and he’s come up with a much more interesting way of looking at it. He sees Space Archaeology as being made up from Aerospace Archaeology (the bit I was thinking about), Xenoarchaeology (the material remains of alien civilisations) and Exoarchaeology (any material remains that are offworld).
My first reaction was does this add anything? Adding in Xenoarchaeology is awkward as there are no known alien artefacts. There’s crank material of ancient astronauts and various forms of SETI which are anthropological concerns and not specifically archaeological. Adding Exoarchaeology only adds fictional material. Things like the archaeology of terraforming would fit in this category. As it stands it only adds an archaeology of things that don’t exist. The diagram also excludes Space Heritage and Space Junk, which do exist. As a definition, I’m don’t think it helps. However as an analytical tool, I think it could be very clever.
I’ll start with Xenoarchaeology, because that’s the field that’s easiest to dismiss as barmy. What’s the evidence of palaeocontact? There isn’t any really. But thinking about how people do Xenoarchaeology, and what would be necessary to show the presence of alien material on earth could be useful. Tools developed in this area can then be applied to ‘crash sites’ like Roswell in the diagram where Xenoarchaeology and Aerospace Archaeology intersect. You won’t learn anything about alien civilisations by studying Roswell, but you could learn about how humans react to perceived alien visitation. Such research could have helped at Carancas. Likewise a serious study of how xenoarchaeology is practiced could give genuinely useful insights into the assumptions in SETI programmes.
Similarly Exoarchaeology poses its own problems when looking at inaccessibility. Thinking about these issues could highlight how the archaeology of spaceflight in orbital space makes demands and challenges that we simply don’t have on the ground. Thinking about it this way Space Heritage and Space Junk could straddle every zone between Exoarchaeology and Space Archaeology. It depends on whether you class the human waste matter on the Moon as part of Aerospace Archaeology or not. I’d include Space Junk / Exogarbology too, because a lot of terrestrial archaeology is the study of junk.
While Space Archaeologists might not need boundaries, drawing up definitions can highlight what makes a field interesting and also throw some basic assumptions that need questioning. The one that bothers me is the idea of Xenoarchaeology.
Oddly, it’s not the Xeno bit. I could be pedantic and say archaeology is the study of the human past through material remains. Still, the sticking with human is a throwback to the early nineteenth century when Man (preferably with a moustache and stovepipe hat) was a creation apart from the animals. Early palaeolithic archaeology, palaeontology and primatology are similar enough that it’s looking more and more like an arbitrary distinction about where human ends. It’s the archaeology bit that troubles me. The study through material remains when, so far as is known, there are no known material remains of extra-terrestrial activity near Earth. I think studying the human reaction to proposed alien interventions is an interesting research problem. We study ancient faiths, so why not study modern faiths too? It’s just that archaeology isn’t always the best way of doing it. Sometimes a better approach is anthropology.
Thinking about Space Anthropology could have two advantages. One is that it recognises the interesting work done by ethnographers. Alice Gorman has pointed out that indigenous peoples have a rough enough time as it is getting any recognition in their sacrifices for space exploration. Taking American-style four-field anthropology as a model also points to some other interesting research topics. For example is there anything bioanthropology could contribute, and how do bioanthropological concerns integrate with research that is already being done?
I realise that by now my response is a bit longer than the original post, which was flagging up an idea and not intended as a fully formed model of Space Archaeology. Even so I think it’s an interesting way of thinking about what archaeologists of space exploration do. I’d love to see it developed further.
I have some sympathy with alternative archaeologists when it comes to debunking. It’s common to see bloggers debunking their work, but not so much other academics. One reason for that could be that academics, doing their work as a professional job in specialist domains aren’t likely to make as many mistakes as an amateur with a theory that covers a couple of thousand years and the entire globe. But that can only be half the story. Some bloggers don’t criticise other academics at all. Wouldn’t it be a bit odd that academics never make any mistakes? What should you do when they do?
A couple of months ago, I read an odd paper, we’ll call it Paper A, for reasons that might become clear below. Author A made a very simple and basic mathematical error. Something a bit like mixing up a plus and a minus sign and concluding that the Great Pyramid was a hole around 150 metres deep. It wasn’t that bad, but the author thought the conclusions flew in the face of everything known about a site. Still, the mathematics were conclusive, so he had to go with it. There were more errors, but basically the paper was given one big shove in the wrong direction, and the very intelligent and creative author tried to interpret the evidence to fit the mathematical certainty. It was published in Journal A. How do you debunk that?
What I’ve done is submitted a paper of my own pointing out the error. Rather than shred the paper to bits, I’ve shown how anyone can make the mistake of assuming a mathematical certainty. The example I give is an idea I had that, after several months, I worked out was a Bad Idea — even if it looked convincing. I imagine I’ll annoy Author A, but I’ve tried to take the sting out of the rebuttal. It’ll get a brief mention here if it gets published, and I’ll be able to host it on an institutional repository, or possibly the unedited version on arXiv. I decided to submit the rebuttal as a paper and not a blog post here because the claim appeared in Journal A, so that’s the appropriate venue to dispute it in. Because the rebuttal is under peer-review I’m hiding the name and so on to keep it anonymous. Sadly it’s easy to keep anonymous because it’s not made any public splash. This is a shame. It was a clever piece of thinking and had a sexy conclusion. If it had been sound then it would have deserved a lot more public attention.
The reason I bring it up today is that I’ve read a much worse paper today. Paper A had one big mistake and the smaller ones tended to follow from that. Paper B has at least two and I suspect three or more BIG errors. One is that the author has renamed a site. It makes it difficult to track back the prior work on the site, and the bibliography doesn’t mention it. I wouldn’t blame the peer-reviewer if he thought no serious work had been done on the site before this paper. Another problem is the scientific method used in the investigation. Have you ever laid on your back and made animal shapes from the clouds? If have you have, does that make you a zoologist? If you think that’s a bit of a leap, you might have trouble with this paper.
Paper B gives me a problem. I wrote the rebuttal of Paper A, because it was close to the sort of thing I do. It is fairly well sugar-coated and hopefully anyone reading it won’t simply assume author A is an idiot. Paper B is further from what I do, but still around one of my fields. It’s a lot worse.
So now I’m wondering if I should be writing a rebuttal of Paper B, given that my rebuttal of author A’s work wasn’t personal and Paper A was not as bad. I think I can write something original rebutting Paper B, but I can also forsee dragging myself into a series of boilerplate negative papers. It’s not my idea of fun. I think I can pull a mitigating factor out of it, with some effort. An alternative is to stick it up as a research blogging post. It that won’t be read by many people who read the original paper and it’s giving away something that with a little more effort could be a paper on the CV.
Perhaps I think about it a different way. Author A was worth my talent, because Author A had something intelligent to say, even if it was fundamentally flawed. Author B in contrast could be a waste of time. You should insert a five-minute gap here, because while I’m writing this something else has occurred to me. Author B might be a waste of time, but Audience B isn’t. Audience B could have some interesting people in it. Perhaps a rebuttal, if I can get the tone right, could be a way of networking with audience B.
I haven’t decided where I’m going with Paper B yet. If I do write a paper, then I’ll still put up a summary of the problem if there’s no OA option.