Archaeo-Astronomy Steps Out From the Shadows of the Past

A new developing field of research is combining astronomical techniques with the study of ancient man-made features and the surrounding landscapes. From the ‘Crystal Pathway’ that connects stone circles on Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor to star-aligned megaliths in central Portugal, archaeo-astronomers are discovering new evidence that Neolithic and Bronze Age people were acute observers of the Sun, Moon and stars and that within their local landscape they managed to insert astronomical references.

There’s more to archaeo-astronomy than Stonehenge,  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.  However, this pure scientific approach has its own challenges that need to be overcome by embracing humanistic influences and putting the research into context with local cultures and landscape.

In response to this crossover of the two fields, some researchers are suggesting that the field should be renamed to ‘Skyscape Archaeology’.  Dr Fabio Silva, from UCL and co-editor of a recently established Journal for Skyscape Archaeology, says, “We have much to gain if the fields of astronomy and archaeology come together to a fuller and more balanced understanding of European megaliths and the societies that built them.  Archaeologists will need to learn some basic observational astronomy, but archaeo-astronomers will also have to engage more with the archaeological record and ask different research questions. 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.  In addition, archaeo-astronomers cannot base their assumptions on modern concepts of precision and symmetry of axis, unless this can be independently demonstrated.  To understand what alignments meant to prehistoric people and why they decided to incorporate them into their structures, we need to identify patterns and interactions between structures, landscape and skyscape.”

Silva’s investigations of European megaliths concentrate on 6000-year-old winter occupation sites and megalithic structures in the Mondego Valley in central Portugal. He has been able to discover that the entrance corridors of all passage graves in a given necropolisare aligned with seasonal rising over nearby mountains of the star of Aldebaran, the brightest star of Taurus. The connection between the appearance of the star in the springtime and the mountains where the dolmen builders spent their summers has echoes in local folklore about how the Serra de Estrela or ‘Mountain of the Range Star’ established its name from a Mondego Valley shepherd and his dog following a star.

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