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Ancient Astronomies
By: Debra L. Davis

This past April I attended a talk entitled "The Comet that killed Cleopatra," given by Jack Horkheimer of "Star Hustler" fame. Horkheimer was the featured speaker at the annual meeting of the Front Range Astronomical Super Cluster (FRASC), a loose-knit group of astronomy clubs and societies. His talk discussed the cultural and archeological history of comets and their impact on societies, particularly in politics. Horkheimer focused on Cleopatra, his great love after astronomy, and the effect comets had on her rise and fall. As physical evidence, he presented coins stamped with images of Cleopatra and comets. My curiosity was piqued.

Horkheimer's talk merged two interests of mine, astronomy and archaeology. He opened my eyes to a new way of seeing astronomy, through the eyes of our ancestors and from a cultural point of view. This new perspective gave deeper insight into objects of past civilizations long admired in museums across the United States and abroad.

The study of past civilizations is a new science, the study of past astronomies is newer still. Hence, resources and references specific to ancient astronomies are limited. It will take detective work, and time, to cull together research found in a wide variety of sources in a multitude of disciplines. Other areas where information may be found are in the myths and legends, in religions and rituals, in agricultural methods, and in social structures. Some of the previous data will need to be re-examined and quantified from this new perspective.

In researching this subject, it became apparent that not only were references obscure, there were also two ways to pursue the study of ancient astronomies. This is discussed in the first focus paper which attempts to define this new field of research. The second topic focuses on the myths and legends of the Sun. Finally, celestial objects are examined as seen through ancient eyes in pictographs and petroglyphs.

A wider variety of information was found on the Internet than in library databases. There were many interesting sites regarding various aspects of this field of study, by both professionals and amateurs.

Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy: What are They?
Anthropology is the study of the complex whole of a group of people. One aspect of that complex whole is the natural setting in which the people live. Half of that setting is the mysterious and expansive sky. It is no wonder that astronomy is considered the oldest science.

The study of ancient astronomies as a science is new, having been established within the past twenty-five years. It is possibly the result of interpretations regarding the purpose of Stonehenge and the controversy that surrounds it. It is also an interdisciplinary science which includes anthropologists, astronomers, historians, engineers, and many other scholars.

Investigating ancient astronomies may be approached from two different perspectives. One approach is archaeoastronomy, a sub-field of astronomy, which studies the science of the heavens in ancient cultures. Its objective, and challenge, is to view the Universe through ancient eyes without the bias of current knowledge.

The second approach is more anthropological in nature: studying the impact of the sky on the daily lives of ancient peoples. This perspective of study is ethnoastronomy and is also known as cultural astronomy. In searching ancient customs, ethnographers find clues to ancient astronomies that can then be substantiated or refuted by physical evidence.

The evidence examined in this field of study comes in many forms. It may be megalithic structures such as Stonehenge and the menhir near Carnac, France, which are thought to be astronomical calendars, or architecture such as the Great Pyramid of Giza, which is thought to have an alignment with the belt stars of Orion. Astronomical artifacts may also be found in the form of sand paintings, pictographs, and petroglyphs; ancient tablets and scrolls; reliefs and paintings on walls and ceilings; and many other types of artifacts.

When examining the physical evidence in this line of study, it is important to date the objects, especially those containing alignments with celestial objects. Accuracy is important because of the precessional paths, movement, of stars over time. The search for physical evidence will be difficult for some cultures as the knowledge of the heavens was considered secret or known only to the observer.

Why did ancient peoples study the heavens and why this modern interest in what they knew and believed? The answer for the ancients applies to modern man: to understand how we got here and why we exist. The continued study in these sub-fields of astronomy and anthropology will greatly increase our knowledge of our ancestors, as well as ourselves.

The Sun of Myth and Legend
Myths and legends from a wide variety of cultures are rich with the exploits of the Sun. The Sun played an important role in the stories and daily lives of ancient peoples, for some more than others.

Native American Indians, from many tribes, have a legacy deeply rooted in the Sun. There were the Anasazi Sun watchers, the Priest of the Sun in the Zuni , and in Hopi villages, solar observations were made by the head of the society responsible for upcoming ceremonies to determine the date for rituals.

The Blackfoot tribe of North America reveres Creator Sun. He made the Universe and his children of Mother Earth. Creator Sun sent a piece of himself in the form of a disciple, Napi, to teach his children and look over them after their parents, Mudman and Ribwoman, passed on to the Happy Hunting Grounds.

In China, worship of the Sun is part of the State religion and is symbolized by the raven in a circle. In Chinese mythology, the Sun is the palace of Shen I, the Divine Archer. On the fifteenth day after the new moon, Shen I visits his wife, Heng O, who resides on the Moon.

According to myth, this conjunction of the male and female principles, the yin and the yang, is said to cause the brilliant full moon.

In Hawaiian mythology, the Sun was created by one of the three gods, Kane, with the other celestial bodies and was not of major significance. It is represented in myth as habitations or divine bodies for gods who are worshiped by their descendents. A ritual form of worship of the Sun is the Ka la i ka lolo (Sun on the brain). Perhaps the suppression of the Sun in Hawaiian mythology is due to its ties to sorcery and secrecy or possibly because it is phallic in nature.

In African cultures, the Sun was depicted as fierce and harsh, the Moon was revered for its coolness and wisdom. Generally, the Sun did not have a prominent role in African mythology or worship. The Ashanti, however, knew the Sun as Nyankopan or Lisa, the king of the Universe.

The Sun was important to ancient peoples, not only for light and warmth, but the heritage it gave them. Stories of the Sun abound through the ages. They are, however, only one aspect of many tales about celestial objects in myth and legend.

Celestial Objects in Pictographs and Petroglyphs
Observations of ancient celestial events and objects are still used by astronomers today, particularly Chinese observations. Ancient peoples recorded the heavens in a variety of ways, based on their perceptions and beliefs of the Sun, Moon, stars, and constellations.

Pictographs and petroglyphs, also known as rock art, are found in many locations around the world. A large number are located in the American southwest. Images in pictographs are made by using paint, such as red ochre, while petroglyphs are made by scratching the design into the rock.

One event that has gained much attention is the supernova of July 5-6,1054 in the constellation Taurus. According to the records of the Sung Dynasty, and translated by J. J. Duyvendak, "...a guest star appeared...after more than a year it gradually became invisible...".

Other possible records of this event are found in the rock art of the Anasazi. Of particular interest are the painted pictographs in northern Arizona which show a circle near a crescent. It is believed that crescent shapes were not common in Southwest Indian rock art. In these images, it is thought that the circle represents the supernova and the moon is show in its crescent phase. Modern astronomers have confirmed the Moon's crescent phase for July 5-6, 1054.

Until these artifacts can be accurately dated and the data confirmed, doubt will remain. It is the challenge of anthropologists and astronomers alike to search for more evidence to confirm or refute these suppositions. It may well be, however, that we will never discover the secrets of these mysterious artifacts.

Editor's note:  This paper is for your enjoyment only and has not peer reviewed. When originally written, it included citations. These have been removed to discourage plagiarism.


Updated 17.10.2023
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