It’s a common gripe that archaeologists don’t have much interest in public archaeology. I’m not convinced it’s true and it’s certainly not true of archaeoastronomy. People and the Sky is Anthony Aveni’s latest (original) book. He’s the most prolific of the popular archaeoastronomy authors, so it’s no surprise his prose is pretty well polished. I like this book, and if you don’t have any by him it’s well worth buying. If you’ve Stairways to the Stars, his earlier archaeoastronomy overview then I’m not so sure.
I’ve been thinking about whether the World Archaeoastronomy approach works. Anthony Aveni’s work would be an argument in its favour. While he’s best known for his work in Mesoamerica, he’s also done original research in the Mediterranean and the southwestern USA. One of the reasons he can do this without being trivial is that he’s interesting in how to relate astronomy to archaeology and vice versa. Wherever it is you’re studying in the world, there’s the problem of tying the global perspective of astronomy to archaeology, which is always local. People and the Sky could be said to be a collection of a dozen ways of trying to solve that problem.
The introduction starts by saying why the sky was important in the ancient world. It’s brief and rapidly turns into a paragraph on each chapter. Anyone who’s bought the book is presumably already sold on the idea that the sky was important, so brevity is not an issue. The opening chapter The Storyteller’s Sky introduces the role of the sky in ancient cosmologies. This section is heavily biased to the New World, with Mayans, Aztecs and the Navajo and the Babylonians from the Old World. The selection reflects Aveni’s expertise. The next chapter, Patterns in the Sky, opens with a personal anecdote, but the range of sources is much greater. Here Aveni’s world archaeoastronomy approach works to show the diversity of patterns seen in the night sky. As well as the Babylonians and Mayans, he also throws in many more cultures including the Egyptians, Barasana of the Amazon and the Incas. This last group is interesting because for them the patterns in the sky include spaces where the stars aren’t visible. In the Milky Way dark nebulae blot out stars, making distinctive silhouettes which the Inca recognised.
The Sailor’s Sky descibes one of my favourite artefacts, Polynesian stone canoes. They sound like something out of the Flintstones, but they’re better described as simulators. A novice naviagator would sit by the stones looking out at the horizon learning which stars rise over it. With this knowledge he’d be able to navigate across the vast distances of the Pacific ocean. There’s some discussion of Inuit navigation, but this is mainly a Polynesian chapter.
The Hunter’s Sky includes and handy guide on how to tell the time using the Plough, assuming there’s no clouds over it and you’ve forgotten your watch. This draws on Plains Indians, the G/wi of Botswana, the Mursi and Stonehenge. The inclusion of Stonehenge here is interesting. It’s a Neolithic monument, and that’s usually associated with farming. Aveni argues that Britons were semi-nomadic in this period. It’s plausible, archaeological evidence is suggesting there was plenty of movement in the landscape through to the Early Bronze Age, so seasonal use of megalithic sites would make sense.
It’s the next chapter that tackles the Farmer’s Sky. He opens by discussing Works and Days by Hesiod, which he dates to the ninth-century BC. That seems a bit early to me, I would have said it was written at a hundred years later. However, I would agree that the integration of astronomical and ecological imagery in the poem is important and points to an extensive knowledge of the sky. He uses the word ‘systematic’ to describe the astronomy, but I’d be wary of saying there was a system as such. He moves on to Rujm el-Hiri, a site which I haven’t read much about after hearing it called “the Stonehenge of the Levant”. If I hear anything is called “the Stonehenge of anywhere that isn’t Stonehenge” then I become wary. Thankfully Aveni’s explanation isn’t an attempt to shoehorn a Stonehenge model onto a site, but I’ll have to read the relevant articles before I’m convinced of some of the claims. He also describes Indonesian rice farming using bamboo as a sighting tool, which was entirely new to me.
The later chapters move more towards ideology. The House, the Family and the Sky is about the organisation of domestic space, based on cosmological principles. The Navajo, Pawnee and the various tribes of the Orinoco make up much of this chapter but he also mentions the Batammaliba of Benin and Togo and Gilbert Islanders, before moving back the the Americas with the Inca. This may be one of the bigger growth areas in archaeoastronomy in the coming decades as it deals with the kind of things people do without thinking. This connects the sky with terrestrial order.
This is expanded on in The City and the Sky. The Mayan city of Teotihuacan makes an appearance, not surprisingly as Aveni has done a lot of work on pecked cross circles there. He’s also looked at the Etruscan basis for town planning, and this can be found here too. He also talks about another obvious example of celestial planning, Beijing, and the astronomical records of the Chin Shu dynasty (3rd century AD). This use of power leads neatly onto The Ruler’s Sky. The Powhatan attacks on Virginia led by Opechancanough add an interesting alternative viewpoint to the Mayan and Babylonian uses of astronomy and astrology elsewhere in the chapter. China and Babylon form the basis of the following chapter The Astrologer’s Sky, though there is also a discussion of Cheyenne shamanism and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mention of India.
The Timekeeper’s Sky concentrates on just two cultures, the Romans and the Mayans. I don’t know whether to be pleased or disappointed about that. I find the Greek calendar cheerfully chaotic and worth looking at in its own right. On the other hand I’m willing to bet that if Aveni had done that, he would have come across some of the same curiosities I have. So while I’d say there’s a gap here, it’s not one I’m actually complaining about. To some extent this chapter covers similar material to the earlier hunting and farming chapters.
The final chapter of the book is The Western Sky. It’s a slightly different chapter to the others. It asks an obvious question. Given the existence of so many astronomies, why has one come to dominate science? This why question is re-visited in the Epilogue which Aveni uses to reiterate that for many people Astronomy had been something very different both in methods and aims to the modern science it is day.
As a whole, the book shows some of the limitations of a world archaeoastronomy approach. I didn’t see anything substanstial about India in the book. References to China were limited and there was nothing of Korea or Japan that I saw. To a large extent this reflects fault-lines in academia. A lot of far eastern material isn’t published in western languages. That’s not really true for India though. There’s some extremely good archaeology happening there and a large amount of historical material, including astrological texts. It works for textbooks introducing the subject, but I am wondering to what extent a World Archaeoastronomy approach can be used in research publications.
Compared with his other works, this is definitely at the shallow end but it’s not fair to dismiss it as shallow. Like the best introductory texts it leads on to other material. For instance I’ll be looking up more about Rujm el-Hiri now. If you’re looking to buy a book and you have Stairways to the Stars, then this is one to get out of the library. If you don’t have Stairways to the Stars, then this would be the better book to buy.