Astronomy 6                                                                        Introductory Notes

Fall Semester 2000                                               



Astronomy 6: Archeoastronomy and World Cosmology


Professor Bryan Penprase, Pomona College


Office: Millikan Physics 126                                 email:

phone: 621-8727


I. Introduction


            In this course we will explore the many ways in which humans throughout time have responded to the sky. Sometimes they responded with fear, sometimes with great artistry and other times with great rationality. The subject of archeoastronomy is one in which all of the great cultures of antiquity have left a mark -- from the pyramids of Giza, to Stonehenge, to the large ceremonial Kivas of the Anasazi. Each speaks to us across the years with

 a mysterious voice which resonates within us, and somehow moves us as we recognize many familiar (and many unfamiliar) emotions from ancestors long past. The voices are stilled, and in many cases the lands have been enveloped by canopies of jungle or vast deserts. Yet the monuments speak of our common humanity, and our common longing for unity, for knowledge of what it all means. 


            One of the most powerful elements of archeoastronomy is the contrast between the still and vacant monuments, where once thronged a thriving empire, and the relentless rhythms of the cosmos, eternally completing cycles of planetary and stellar motions, which often are measured in centuries, millennia, and even longer time scales. We may use this contrast to see in sharp focus our small place in the universe, and share in the mysteries of how this universe works along with those who have tried to answer these questions centuries before.


            The story of archeoastronomy is also an unveiling of the mind of the ancient astronomer through often subtle and ambiguous clues left in rock, bone, and in rare cases, writing.  To understand these clues it is necessary to know the society, the land, the history, and the skies above the ancient land in question. We must seek to view what is there with humility, with compassion, and leave our Western viewpoints behind. We are about to explore a world in which Shaman priests regularly summon gods to and from the underworld, in which cycles of the universe threaten the entire society with destruction without the appeasement of human sacrifice, and in which forces, gods, superstitions rule the world by their will. We can hope to only have at best an incomplete vision from this process, but as we discover more about these long-lost ancestors we also learn much about ourselves.


            What can we learn from the study of ancient astronomy and cosmology? We may dismiss (as do many scientists) these early cosmologies as "primitive" or "wrong".  Clearly if we assume our own science of astronomy and cosmology to be "modern" and "correct" we immediately share the common belief among nearly all cultures ancient and modern -- that they are the best, most modern and most sophisticated of all cultures before or since. In fact, we benefit from the perspective gained from centuries of the efforts of the great scientists who have assembled our "modern" picture. Just as we easily see where the ancient cultures got it "wrong",  we can imagine some future society studying our quaint notions of the expansion of the universe in four dimensions, and the formation of the universe in a mythic "big bang" where all the present day particles are created.  Clearly creation myths, cosmologies, and astronomies are something every culture creates, and each is true to the time, the land, and the society that creates it. As we explore the images, myths, astronomies, and cosmologies of the ancient world, it is important to realize that we "moderns" will someday too be ancients.


II. Course Grading and Activities


            This course was developed from the experience of a Freshman seminar entitled "Multicultural Cosmology", taught for three years at Pomona College, and offered for two previous years as Astronomy 6 - Archeoastronomy and World Cosmology.  We will concentrate mostly on the ancient cultures of the Greeks, Mayans, Chinese and Native Americans. The course will introduce each culture and explore each of the basic parameters that shape the society, and then examine the role astronomy and cosmology played in each society.  With a combination of in-class lecture and discussion, and fieldwork using primary materials such as codex images, primitive astronomical instruments, and basic observations of the night sky, we will try to bring ourselves in contact with the process by which the ancients experienced the heavens. While there is no formal laboratory component to the course, several field trips and class activities will bring variety and first-hand experiences to the material.


            Participation in class and field activities is essential for understanding the material. Class time will be devoted to a mixture of new material and discussion of the readings and concepts of the course. Approximately each week a short assignment will require one or two pages of writing related to the readings and answering a question or two about the subject matter. There will also be midterm, which be cumulative and will review the entire material discussed in the course.


Each student will also present as part of a team of two students a short independent investigation on the subject matter, in the form of a 20 minute talk. These presentations will be developed with the assistance of the instructor, and will make use of our own Ancient Astronomy Resource Center in Millikan Physics building.  Finally at the end of the semester, an independent research project will allow for in-depth research of an ancient culture, or a creative work which expresses the vision of the ancient culture's astronomy and cosmology.  A summary of the course grading is as follows:


  Class Participation                                                   (15%)

  Short writing assignments and Quizzes  (25%)

  Midterm                                                                    (25%)

  Class Presentation                                                   (10%)

  Final Project                                                  (25%)


III. Required Texts


Stairways to the Stars -- Skywatching in Three Great Ancient Cultures, by Anthony Aveni.

Living the Sky -- The Cosmos of the American Indian, by Ray A. Williamson.


In addition, a reading packet has been prepared (available this week at Huntley) with selections from:


The Shorter Science and Civilization in China: 2 An Abridgement by Colin A. Ronan of Joseph Needham's Original Text, by Colin Ronan, and Joseph Needham.

At the Crossroads of Earth and Sky, by Gary Urton.

Cosmology - Historical, Literary, Philosophical, Religious and Scientific Perspectives, by Norris Hetherington.

The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy, by James Evans.


A few other additional reading selections will be distributed during the semester as needed. These will include readings (mentioned in the syllabus) from the following:


Echoes of the Ancient Skies, by Edward Krupp (Pomona ‘72).

Crystals in the Sky - An Intellectual Odyssey Involving Chumash Astronomy, Cosmology and Rock Art, by Travis Hudson and Ernest Underhay.


IV. Field Trips


            To help in gaining first-hand understanding of the subject, we will have several out of class activities, which are patterned after the Outward Bound organization’s  “learning expeditions” (don’t worry, there are no high-altitude rope tricks!).  Many of these trips will require students to help with the logistics, which may include helping to get food from the dining halls, camping gear from On the Loose (the Pomona College Outing Group), and in assisting with carpools. Attendance at these events is very strongly encouraged. The field trips help to provide new perspectives on the subject which are valuable for full understanding, and offer rare first-hand experiences in archeoastronomy.



  The fields trips will probably include the following (in order and with approximate dates):


·        Joshua Tree New Moon Camping.....................          (weekend of 9/30)

·        Visit to a Petroglyph Site in Mojave Desert......        (weekend of 10/21)

·        Griffith Planetarium trip ....................................          (early November)

·        Special Collections Tour ………………………………..  (late November)

·        Visit to UCLA Rock Art Resource Center …….       (mid to late November)

·        Table Mountain Observatory Trip.....................         (mid to late November)



V. Preliminary Course Schedule


            Attached is an outline of the class topics, and associated readings. The authors indicated are the first authors from the Required Readings section above. Please complete the readings before the indicated class!


The course is organized into units -- each unit will have a set of classes, a possible case study, and student presentations. The units included in the course are summarized below:


Unit I). Naked Eye Astronomy and the Development of Astronomy in Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Europe.


Unit II). The Development of American Astronomies -- Native American Civilizations, their Astronomies and Cosmologies.


Unit III). The Ancient Chinese Astronomy and Cosmology.


Unit IV). The Southern and Meso-American Civilizations -- Maya, Aztec, and Inca.


Unit V).  The Development of Modern Western Cosmology from Aristotle to Einstein and the Big Bang.