Multicultural Cosmology Educational Resource Center


People from around the world study of the heavens to define themselves and to unify their cultures. The study of ancient astronomy allows us to glimpse into a time when the forces of the universe were mysterious and dangerous. Often cultures relied on shamans or priests to mediate between the people and the heavens, and so the relation between religion and astronomy in ancient times is very close. In this resource center we hope to present an overview of the world's ancient cultures, and their relationship with the skies.

This is one of three murals originally painted on Walker Wall at Pomona College (They have since been removed). It was prepared by students in the Pomona College Ancient Astronomical Cosmology seminar from Fall semester 1995, led by Sue Lin Hilbert. The mural depicts an Aboriginal Creation myth, in which the Ancestors are walking across the newly made earth, singing and leaving a trail across Australia linking the Dreamings together. Above is the blue river in the sky, which the Aborigines identified with the Milky Way, and fish in the river indicate bright stars important in the early Australian sky lore. (Myth from: Chatwin, B. 1987, "The Songlines", p. 58)

The other two murals were the Africa Mural and the Polynesia Mural.

The people of ancient times brought to their study of the heavens the entire range of human emotions -- fear, religious awe, humor, and artistry underlie the many sky tales and creation stories of the world. As such the study of ancient astronomy requires us to "check at the door" our modern skepticism and reliance on logic. To fully appreciate the skies as seen by the ancients we need to feel the emotional climate in which our ancestors operated. As many of us live in bright, light-polluted cities, and spend much of our time indoors at night, it is difficult for us to fully appreciate the majesty of the night sky, and the important role it played in ancient times. To begin our study, we need to try to remember the rush of emotions we felt the first time we looked at a dark night sky, and clearly saw the Milky Way crossing the sky amidst a sea of countless stars. In such times, logical and scientific explanations of the stars and the galaxy are lost in our overwhelming appreciation of our smallness in the vast darkness of space.

While ancient astronomy reflects much of the religion and emotions of our ancestors, we should also not lose sight of the scientific component which underlies all of ancient astronomy. While crude by modern standards, the measurements of ancient astronomers were often of impressive precision in their description of planetary motions, and in the measurement of risings and settings of constellations. The following pages provide many excellent examples of the wealth of observational skill possessed by ancient astronomers. Examples such as the Suchong planisphere of the Han Chinese and the Mayan Dresden Codex demonstrate a level of astronomical professionalism in many ancient cultures which approached or exceeded the comparable level of achievement within the contemporaneous European culture.

In addition to the many obvious technical successes of ancient astronomy evidenced by written records and huge monuments, there are countless mysteries about which sites and practices actually were connected with astronomy. Here the gaps in language and the lack of survivors makes our task difficult and fascinating. Initial speculations about the astronomical significance of Stonehenge, medicine wheels and alignments within ancient stone buildings seem to be borne out by careful calculation and reasonable assumptions about the ancient astronomers who have vanished forever. Perhaps the greatest challenge of modern archaeoastronomy is to maintain the proper balance of skepticism and cultural awareness in reconstructing the purposes of the many enigmatic ruins of ancient civilization.

Regardless of the exact details of an ancient site, the exploration into the lost world of our ancestors offers many fascinating rewards. In the process of discovering the past we can see within all the peoples of the world a common bond in the creative examination of the vastness of the night sky.

Structure of the Web Site

This resource center is created for the use of students and educators. It is not meant to be exhaustive or authoritative beyond the humble resources of its authors and student collaborators. The web page is a clearinghouse of information to help initiate an exploration into the darkness of the past, and is intended to offer an overview of the great ancient cultures of the world specifically addressing the astronomical sites and practices of these people. The resource center is an ongoing project, and is constantly being updated with new essays, images, and features. Your comments and suggestions are especially welcomed! Please complete our feedback form, and if you have any useful astronomical anecdotes or extra sources of information, we are happy to hear about it.

The current available resources can be divided into four main parts:

In addition to these resources, we also include an online tour of the Maya Dresden Codex and the Aztec Borgian Codex and sample essays and final projects from students in the Pomona College Ancient Cosmology course taught by Dr. Penprase.

Future Directions

We would like very much to expand this web site to be a more general clearinghouse of materials for teaching world astronomy. Any contributed URL's, images, laboratory or classroom activities, or essays would be greatly appreciated, and can be posted for other educators to use, with full attribution to the author(s). In this way it should be possible for teachers and professors of world astronomy to avoid duplicating efforts in creating a comprehensive resource enhance all of our courses. Using the web it should be possible to create a 'virtual department' of world astronomy. This is especially important for this field, since only by the combined efforts of individuals in a variety of disciplines and locations is it possible to present this fascinating subject to our students.

We are also interested in testing the material here with K-12 teachers who would like to add an ancient astronomy component to their science classes. A number of additional resources including software and videotapes are available for checkout to local educators interested in teaching ancient astronomy. For more information, please read the educators forum, or contact Dr. Bryan Penprase at Pomona College.

This work is sponsored by a NASA grant ED-90019.01-94A from the IDEA program administered at the Space Telescope Science Institute. Web page development by Bryan Penprase, David Jensen, and Leigh Ann Sabicer, along with many other students in Dr. Penprase's course "Astro 6: World Cosmology and Archeological Astronomy" and his Freshman seminar "Ancient Astronomical Cosmology." This Freshman seminar no longer exists.


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