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Open letter to science editors

 

KRONOS Vol VI, No. 2

"IN SEARCH OF ANCIENT ASTRONOMIES": A REVIEW

THOMAS MCCREERY

Thomas McCreery lectures in physics at Cardonald College Glasgow.

The past two decades have witnessed an ever increasing interest in archaeoastronomy, resulting in the inevitable boom in subject literature. As a rule, these publications are distinguished more for their excessive partiality and cavalier approach to data appraisal in favour of the ideas being advanced than for their critical evaluation of these hypotheses. What promised to be an exception to this trend, In Search of Ancient Astronomies, was warmly recommended by the Bulletin of the Center for Archaeoastronomy [henceforth Archaeoastronomy (BCA)](1) as being an ideal textbook on the subject. Judging by what was asserted in that journal one would have assumed the book in question to be a definitive analysis of the science. As it turned out, the book edited by Edwin Krupp and containing contributions by Krupp himself, John Eddy, Anthony Aveni, and Alexander and A. S. Thom is so seriously flawed that it belongs with that category of literature enumerated above. Ironically, the only chapter that can be excluded from such criticism, that by Eddy, concerns itself with the relatively modern sites of post-Columbia North America and is thus irrelevant to the subject at large.

The chapter by the two Thoms, "Rings and Menhirs: Geometry and Astronomy in the Neolithic Age," can be dismissed for an entirely different reason. The most recent archaeological and scientific research has demonstrated that the Thomist hypotheses comprising the megalithic yard, the convoluted geometries of the stone rings, and the various astronomical alignments, are nothing more than the products of a massive misinterpretation by the Thoms of their own survey work.(2)

Aveni's chapter on Mesoamerican astronomy, based mainly on his own Archaeoastronomy in Pre-Columbian America and Native American Astronomy, is a futile exercise as these volumes did little to further archaeoastronomy's cause. Vincent Malmstrom considered Aveni's Native American Astronomy as the "proverbial exercise of the blind leading the blind" for

"The volume serves more to commemorate our ignorance of 'Native American Astronomy' than it does to provide any substantive additions to our knowledge of it. Each time the reader comes to the end of one of the fifteen essays contained within, he is struck by how little we actually know of the Pre-Columbian past and how vast is the realm of conjecture."(3)

This review, incredible as it may seem, appears positively sympathetic to Aveni, when compared to John Rowe's review of Aveni's above mentioned volumes.(4)

Aveni himself, perhaps inadvertently, offers some insight into the inchoate process that constitutes archaeoastronomy's fatal flaw the arbitrary, non-rigorous treatment of evidence that is itself equivocal. For instance, he states:

"Though our investigations throughout Mesoamerica reveal a number of significant astronomical events occurring along the directions of many of the measured alignments, it is clear that not every alignment appears to have an astronomical match which we can recognise. It may be that only some of the sighting possibilities we have discussed were functional. Moreover, our search for significant astronomical events to match the alignments has included only those which seem of obvious importance to us: solar, lunar and planetary extremes and the setting positions of the brightest stars which announce, through their heliacal rising and setting, important dates in the civil, religious or agricultural calendar.''(5)

Perhaps Aveni should have pondered the implications of his own statement. Does he not find it surprising that, given this plethora of azimuthal directions, he was unable to correlate all of his alignments? Proponents of archaeoastronomy have offered such a vast number of astronomical events purportedly utilised by the ancients that it is usually virtually impossible not to fit some event to any postulated alignment and then regard this coincidence as significant. One example suffices. At Building J, Monte Alban, Aveni detected an alignment of which he has the following to say:

"Our computer told us that the only significant astronomical event occurring within degree of that direction in 275 BC, the time of construction of the building according to radiocarbon dating, was the rising of Capella, sixth brightest star in the sky. We were especially surprised when the computer told us that Capella was unique among the bright stars at that time, since it underwent heliacal rising precisely on the same day as the first annual passage of the sun across the zenith of Monte Alban, which was May 9 at the time."(6)

Surely Aveni must realise that radiocarbon dates are approximate and, due to the random nature of radioactive decay, are only valid in terms of statistical significance. Or is Aveni in unique possession of some radical radiocarbon method having an accuracy to within one year?

Meanwhile, the heliacal rising of Capella is not exactly on the same day of the solar zenith passage and Aveni even casts doubt on his own hypothesis when he states:

"While our computer tells us that these stars [Sirius and Capella] could have served to mark special dates in the calendar, the ethnohistoric sources do not support their importance."(7)

Neither dates, astronomical events, nor history support Aveni's contention? yet he still persists (for this is his fourth published attempt)(8) in claiming that Building J had astronomical significance.

Aveni also continues to pursue the erroneous conception that the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan was oriented towards the Pleiades. He tells us that:

". . . this star group must remain the prime candidate for an astronomical motivation in the orientation of Teotihuacan [ for] not only did this conspicuous star group set within I degree of the east-west axis of Teotihuacan, but also the group functioned in a most unusual way at that place and time. The Pleiades underwent heliacal rising on the same day as the first of the two annual passages of the sun across the zenith, a day of great importance demarcating the seasons. The appearance of the Pleiades may have served to announce the beginning of this important day, when the sun at high noon cast no shadows. "(9)

Aveni has obviously forgotten, perhaps purposely, that he had previously undermined this argument:

"At the time the Street of the Dead was constructed, the Pleiades would have touched the horizon point above the Cerro Colorado marker at azimuth 284 40', or 14 40' N of W, but the situation is not so simple. It is difficult to determine precisely where the Pleiades would have 'set' since they may have vanished from view before touching the western horizon; though they appear as a prominent compact group of stars even to the untrained eye, their brightest member is a third magnitude star. Modern observations (Thom 1967) reveal that, under the best observing conditions for viewing objects along the horizon, the extinction angle (the altitude above the western horizon at which an object would vanish from view) in degrees is approximately equivalent to the magnitude of the stellar object. Thus, the Pleiades should be invisible well before they reach the horizon of Teotihuacan, e.g., if the group could no longer be discerned at a 2 elevation, then the 'setting point' is shifted westward by 20 minutes of arc. On the other hand the precessional motion of the Pleiades is so rapid that a mistake of 100 years in the dating of the baseline is equivalent to a shift of in the azimuth of the setting point."(10)

Continuing in this madcap manner, Aveni persists in arguing that all later structures on the Mexican plateau, having a similar orientation to the Pyramid of the Sun, were simply "non-functional imitations". This, despite consistent refutals by archaeologists that such sites are diverse in both location and time, and cannot be grouped together in order to accommodate the deluded fantasies of such as Aveni. No wonder archaeologists treat archaeoastronomy with such contempt.

The editor of In Search of Ancient Astronomies, Krupp, contributes four chapters. One is a useful section on basic practical astronomy, two are on Stonehenge and Egyptian astronomy, respectively, and the last on so-called astronomical fantasies. Krupp's introduction to Stonehenge bears an unacknowledged debt to more erudite sources, notably Atkinson. Hoyle, Hawkins, Newham, and Thom are then presented as the monument's astronomical heroes. Hawkins' work, however, has been dismissed on both astronomical and archaeological grounds while Newham's ideas are vitiated by the use of incorrect data. Krupp faithfully reproduces Newham's plan of the causeway postholes, obviously ignorant of the fact that this bears little relationship to the official plan. The article concludes with a piecemeal evaluation of other hypotheses. Much relevant literature is excluded, principally critical studies and articles by Saddler and Newton, while important details are omitted. Surely, Krupp should have known that Peter's Mound, an important foresight for Thom's solar interpretation, is of modern construction.

In general, Krupp on Stonehenge is unimpressive and leaves one with acute mental indigestion. All that Krupp accomplishes is to present a set of casually evaluated hypotheses which he fails to integrate into a coherent astronomical overview of the monument, something that is urgently required. At present, Stonehenge sustains such a weight of astronomical thought, and so many disparate hypotheses have evolved to explain the supposed astronomical significance of each structural component of the monument, that their very number mitigates severely against any particular one being correct, and much doubt remains as to the exact astronomical significance of the site.

Krupp's discussion of Egyptian astronomy forsakes all pretense to scholarly propriety for here he attempts the resuscitation of Lockyer's The Dawn of Astronomy and Hawkins' Beyond Stonehenge. Let us be mischievous and quote Eddy's opinion on both these works. Concerning Hawkins, Eddy was quite blunt:

"In his latest popular account, Beyond Stonehenge, Hawkins takes to the air again, this time on a largely undocumented, take my word for it, aerial tour of known or suspected prehistoric alignments, beginning and ending with nostalgic stops on the plains of Stonehenge . . . It is a book written for Chariots of the Gods and Secrets of the Great Pyramid aficionados (though not so well) in a style that will make astronomers wince and archaeologists groan."(11)

As for Lockyer, Eddy had this to say:

"[He] stretched a limited data sample into a grand balloon, puffed it full of speculation, and took off on the lift of his own flamboyancy to dizzying heights of archaeological speculations."(12)

It is these two writers that Krupp takes seriously! Worse than that, he finds himself unable to resist the temptation to join the ranks of those, from Piazzi Smyth onwards, who have entertained with their elaborate misconceptions concerning the function of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Krupp then turns his attention to what he describes as astronomical fantasies. He lumps together the works of Velikovsky with those of Von Daniken, Watkins, and Bellamy a gratuitous insult to the distinguished line of scholars who have called for the proper evaluation of Velikovsky's theses. Here Krupp has the arrogance to claim that "data must be handled in accordance with the rules of scientific evidence," a strange statement indeed from the editor of, and prime contributor to, In Search of Ancient Astronomies.

Krupp's time would have been much better spent in analysing the book he edited with that rule in mind, for easily eighty percent of its contents would have been excluded had this rule been honestly applied.

Despite the imprimatur of Archaeoastronomy (BCA), In Search of Ancient Astronomies is nothing but an intellectual confidence trick, for how many readers will take it at face value and, given the professional standing of its authors, accept archaeoastronomy as a scientific discipline rather than the ill-conceived collection of personal idiosyncrasies that it is.

Why Eddy involved himself in a book of this sort is beyond credence; and again the editorial integrity of Archaeoastronomy (BCA) must be questioned for its advocacy of the book, though the cynic may observe that several of the book's contributors also function as editors of that journal.

Krupp asks that archaeoastronomy be taken seriously and claims that this book offers a systematic and balanced perspective over the whole field. But instead of being the testimonial for archaeoastronomy's supposed virtues that Krupp intended, In Search of Ancient Astronomies turns out to be an obituary of its manifold faults.

* * *

Postscript : Two other reviews of In Search of Ancient Astronomies have appeared, one by an archaeologist, Sara Champion, whose conclusion not unsurprisingly parallels mine

"With the exception of Eddy's chapter, the book fails on its own terms, for it presents to the reader a picture based in many cases, on misunderstood archaeological evidence and selective or imprecise numerical and astronomical data. The non-expert may unfortunately he persuaded . . . into believing it all."(13)

The other, by an anthropologist, Dean R. Snow, somehow manages to give a favourable review one wonders if Snow read the book or, if he did, was he competent to review it. Snow concludes:

"Clearly, this book is not designed for a professional audience, and for that reason I hope to see it emerge in paperback as soon as possible. It belongs on every drugstore hook rack in the English-speaking world."(14)

And that, precisely, is where it should stay.

REFERENCES

1. There are presently two journals called Archaeoastronomy. One is the Bulletin of the Center for Archaeoastronomy, and thus my designation of it as Archaeoastronomy (BCA), the other is a Supplement to the Journal for the History of Astronomy, and thus Archaeoastronomy (JHA).
2. See my "Krupp and Velikovsky" for the latest developments in the field of Megalithic Science forthcoming in KRONOS.
3. V. H. Malmstrom, Archaeoastronomy (JHA), (1979), S1024.
4. J. H. Rowe, Latin American Review XIV, 2, pp. 227ff.
5. A. F. Aven;,In Search of Ancient Astronomies (N.Y.,1978 & London, 1980), pp. 198-199. Quotations are from the American edition as well as the first set Of page numbers. Parenthetical numbers refer to the British edition.
6. Ibid., p. 187 (172).
7. Ibid., p. 202 (185).
8. Besides the book being reviewed and the other two mentioned in the text, Aveni's other publication appeared in American Antiquity, vol. 37 (1972), pp. 510-517.
9. A. F. Aveni, op. cit., pp. 182,179 (166-167).
10. Idem, Archaeoastronomy in Pre-Columbian America (Austin,1975).
11. J. A. Eddy, Journal for the History of Astronomy GV (1974), p. 66.
12. Ibid.
13. S. Champion, "FIawed Search", 284 (24 April 1980), pp. 674-675.
14. Dean R. Snow, American Anthropology, Vol. 81, 3 (1979), pp. 656-657.

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