|30 June 2014
Archaeo-astronomy steps out from shadows of the past
A developing field of research that merges astronomical techniques with the study of ancient man-made features and the surrounding landscapes was highlighted at the recent National Astronomy Meeting in Portsmouth UK, with archaeo-astronomers revealing evidence that Neolithic and Bronze Age people were acute observers of the Sun, Moon, and stars, and embedded astronomical references within their landscapes.
"There's more to archaeo-astronomy than Stonehenge," says Dr Daniel Brown of Nottingham Trent University. "Modern archaeo-astronomy encompasses many other research areas such as anthropology, ethno-astronomy, and even educational research. It has stepped away from its speculative beginnings and placed itself solidly onto the foundation of statistical methods."
In response to this, some researchers are proposing to rename the field 'Skyscape Archaeology'. Dr Fabio Silva, of University College London and co-editor of the recently established Journal for Skyscape Archaeology, says, "It is no longer enough to simply collect orientation data for a large number of monuments spread over vast regions and look for broad patterns. Dr Silva's studies of European megaliths focus on 6000-year-old winter occupation sites and megalithic structures in the Mondego valley in central Portugal. He has found that the entrance corridors of all passage graves in a given necropolis are aligned with the seasonal rising over nearby mountains of the star Aldebaran, the brightest star of the constellation Taurus. This link between the appearance of the star in springtime and the mountains where the dolmen builders spent their summers echoes in local folklore about how the Serra da Estrela or 'Mountain Range of the Star' received its name from a shepherd and his dog following a star.
Pamela Armstrong, of the University of Wales Trinity St David, integrates the idea of skyscape in her work on the finest stone chambered tombs in Britain, on the northern Cotswolds. Her work sheds light upon whether these Neolithic settlers practiced a different astronomy to that of the Mesolithic hunter gatherers who preceded them in this landscape.
Brian Sheen and Gary Cutts of the Roseland Observatory have worked together with Jacky Nowakowski, of Cornwall Council's Historic Environment Service, to explore an important Bronze Age astro-landscape extending over about a thousand hectares on Bodmin Moor. At its heart lie Britain's only triple stone circles, The Hurlers, two of which are linked by a 4000-year-old granite pavement. The team has confirmed that Bronze Age inhabitants used a calendar controlled by the movements of the Sun. Sheen says, "We also think the three circles that comprise The Hurlers monument may be laid out on the ground to resemble Orion's Belt. Far from being three isolated circles on the moor they are linked into one landscape."
Edited from Science Daily (23 June 2014), PhysOrg (24 June 2014)
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