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KRONOS Vol VI, No. 2

Flawed Search


Sara Champion is Hartley Fellow of the University of Southampton, UK, in the Department of Archaeology. Reprinted from Nature 284 (24 April 1980) with the permission of both the publisher and author.

In Search of Ancient Astronomies arose from a series of lectures given by the contributors in California in 1975, and is, according to its editor, "the first attempt to present systematically to the general reader the main results of archaeo-astronomy to date". It consists of seven chapters, four by the editor and one each by Professor Thom and his son, Dr. John Eddy and Dr. Anthony Aveni. It is clearly stated in Krupp's introduction that the "pseudoscientific misconceptions" of Erich von Daniken, Velikovsky and the like are to be "dispelled by the reliable, scientific findings of archaeo-astronomy"; it is unfortunate, therefore, that the majority of the chapters show some misuse or misunderstanding of archaeological data and imprecision in the demonstration of astronomical alignments. The first chapter by Krupp himself is presented as a non-mathematical introduction to practical astronomy. This is necessary for the understanding of subsequent chapters, and is in general comprehensible, though some of the information could have been transmitted with fewer words and greater clarity.

For many readers the work of the Thoms will be the most familiar, and their chapter on stone circles and menhirs follows. Thom's eminence in the field is largely based on the accuracy of his measurements and the precision of his analysis. Recent papers and reviews have, however, cast doubt on some of his figures, with serious results for his megalithic yard and megalithic calendar (Moir et al. Antiquity LIV, 3743, 1980). Misidentification of archaeological monuments has resulted in Thom's describing hut circles and enclosures as stone circles of megalithic type, and some of the lines of foresight suggested for certain sites are shown in the field to be below horizon level, difficult to see without binoculars or blocked by natural features not obvious from maps. Some controversial sites appear in this chapter: the Crucuno Rectangle, for example, described by Thom as "lunar standstill alignments", is claimed by Daniel in Antiquity XLIX, 81, 1975, to be an AD eighteenth century folly. For the archaeologist prepared to be convinced, some of Thom's claims appear thin and several statements contentious. To be told that, at Rough Tor in Cornwall, many of the upright stones have fallen and the remaining ones do not adhere closely to the flattened circle design, perhaps because of solifluxion, begs the question what flattened circle design is there left to be measured. Rules about the use of megalithic yards are stated, only for exceptions to be made immediately: "the sides of these triangles all had to be integers in megalithic yards", followed by "the builders discarded the rule that all radii must be integers".

The third chapter, by Krupp, deals with the work by archaeo-astronomers and others on the site of Stonehenge, several of whose papers have appeared in Nature. In general the treatment is descriptive rather than critical, which may be misleading for the general reader. Analysis of Hoyle's claim that Stonehenge was an eclipse predictor has been published by Moir (Antiquity LIII, 124-128, 1979); he points out the problems of refraction, visibility, and variability in moonrise and moonset positions due to declination and perturbation which would affect the use of the site in this way. The same criticisms can be applied to Thom's work where it involves lunar observations. Again, the misuse of archaeology undermines attempts to prove alignments: Krupp's use of Figsbury Ring, at least 1,000 years later in date than Stonehenge, as a foresight for the southern major standstill moonrise, is inexcusable.

Eddy's chapter on North America is the only one in the book where a sensible caution appears. His balanced view of other's work is exemplified by his regard for the archaeology as equally important as the astronomy in the analysis of the Chaco Canyon structures. His own work on the Indian medicine wheels is a model of careful and logical procedure. The same cannot be said of Aveni's chapter on Mesoamerica, where sites a millennium and several hundred miles apart are grouped on the basis of their similar orientation. The use in this chapter of words like "nearly", "close to" and "approximate" when describing alignments destroys their credibility. The claimed alignment of Teotihuacan on the setting of the Pleiades turns out to be "within I degree" of this event, a difference representing a sizeable slice of the horizon. Misunderstanding of archaeological data in this chapter results in Aveni using Flannery and Marcus' application of central place theory to Mayan settlements as evidence of geometrical and possibly astronomical location of these sites.

Krupp's chapter on Egyptian astronomy, mainly descriptive of previous work, is followed by his attempt to debunk von Daniken and the rest. His handling of the leyline controversy and the Glastonbury Zodiac lacks conviction, since he frequently ignores the most obvious line of attack; for example, he reproduces without comment the notorious leyline that runs from Stonehenge (third millennium BC) through Old Sarum (sixth century BC) to Salisbury Cathedral (AD twelfth century).

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 be persuaded by the jaunty air and punning subheadings (e.g. "A Serious Mystery" for a section on Sirius) into believing it all.

[*!* Image] Trilithon. Stonehenge. Photo by Ken D. Moss.

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