Texas State University researchers following the soggy footsteps of Caesar.
Tony Keen has been casting a critical eye over the recent ancient astronomy stories which have been making the headlines recently. I half disagree with him, but I think he asks serious questions and his conclusions certainly aren’t unfair.
First off he raises questions about the recent ‘dating the Odyssey by an eclipse’ story. I think he’s right about this, it’s really not a viable piece of work. The thing that bothers me is that while the authors say there are some major assumptions, the one they seem to have ignored is the existence of a singular Homer. If the Odyssey is a patchwork of tales then dating is futile anyway. The return of the Odysseus could be from an earlier tale. For instance it’s been noticed that the Iliad borrows some metaphors from Gilgamesh. We only know that because we have both texts, which means even if something only appears in “Homer’s” work, we can’t be sure the original author was Homer.
The other thing is that it loses some of the meaning of an eclipse. The Sun and Moon are not isolated astronomical bodies in this period. They’re divine but also entwined with activity on Earth. An eclipse of the Sun is a a sign that something is anomalous with the cosmos. This could explain how Odysseus gets to slaughter a lot of people and remain a hero. The normal rules of the universe were suspended.
It’s points to a wider problem, in that PNAS is not a minor publication, but I’d be surprised if it had passed peer-review from a classicist. If it has that’s, marvellous news for me. I’ve got plenty of ideas which really wouldn’t stand rigorous scrutiny which I’d like to shift into publication. If it hasn’t then in what sense is the journal meaningfully peer-reviewed? This is not just a problem specific to PNAS. You can flip this back to Classics/Archaeology journals too.
Now if I write this up as an article should I give a couple of examples? I have one from archaeology which says individuals are fractals without explaining how you’d calculate the Minkowski-Bouligand dimension of an individual. I’ve another classics article which says that Chaos Theory says nothing about the existence or non-existence of God. This is 100% true. Neither does Delia Smith’s “How to Cook” for exactly the same reason. Neither are theological works.*
So what how do you evaluate interdisciplinary work? I think interdisciplinary peer-review is a start. I also think you have to seriously get to grips with David Whitley’s arguments for post-positivism. This is why I have a lot more time for Donald Olson’s work on re-dating Caesar’s landing in Britain.
First off it would help to have a bit of context. This work fits in with the kind of thing thing Donald Olson’s been doing for Sky and Telescope for a few years. He looks at the veracity of astronomical records of historical events and how well they fit with modern calculations. Now, I’d agree with Tony that the calendar is a mess in this period. I think there’s reason to give it some consideration though because of how Olson is connecting the loose dating with the astronomy and the tides.
In the case of the tides, the equinocital tides are unusually high, which is his starting point. It has to be before the equinox because it’s in the last days of summer, and the phases of the moon allow you to point more at some dates than others. If that was it I wouldn’t be impressed, but Olson always goes that extra step. For many people doing ‘interdisciplinary’ work it’s enough if they haven’t found something in the field outside their expertise that contradicts them. Olson in contrast actively reads round the work of historians to see if there’s independent corroboration for his work, rather than just pulling facts from the stars. That’s a big step up from “I haven’t found anything which contradicts my claims”.
I can also sympathise with Tony’s lack of astonishment at the minor shift in date. Ancient Historians are so used to not even knowing what month events occurred in that a shift of a few days is not going to uproot many long-held beliefs. In Olson’s defence I’d say that context is important here. The work is appearing in Sky and Telescope. It’s a good magazine, but it’s a hobbyist’s magazine, and that hobby is astronomy. That’s who Olson is pitching his work at. However there could be a use. Olson’s work would suggest that Collingwood’s reading of the Gallic Wars is better in this case than the reading of others. That means we have some more reason to favour Collingwood over other interpreters when looking at other Latin texts.
In the longer term I think Olson’s work can show how dicey some accepted ancient dates are. That is a problem for me, because life would be so much easier if I could pin down dates for the battles at Thermopylae and Salamis. More usefully it shows that multiple routes of interrogation are necessary if you’re serious about interdisciplinary work, rather than a simple hypothesis-test postivist approach.
*If we’re moving to citation indices in the Humanities then I can cite any non-theological piece of work. Should I cite the highest bidder? Do I hear a packet of chocolate buttons?