What is archaeo astronomy?

Practitioners, academics, three professional bodies, conferences, researchers and popular authors, use different data, methods and definitions in archaeo astronomy. All agree that cosmology and calendars are part of culture, and culture is the larger part of this inter-disciplinary science. Here is an introduction to some people and approaches, to answer: What is archaeo astronomy?

Some archaeo astronomers

John Aubrey, 1663; Monumenta Brittanica. He studied the Stonehenge site plan. In 1678 he studied astronomical orientations in the orientation of churches. Henry Chauncy in 1700 followed the same approach. Modern researchers revealed that Greek temples were oriented east-west, to the equinoxes, but by their diagonals (corner to opposite corner), not by their sides. Byzantine and Roman churches were oriented with their altar windows to sunrise on the feast day of the saints they celebrate.

Richard Proctor and Charles Piazzi Smyth investigated astronomical orientations of some Egyptian pyramids.

William Stukeley studied the Stonehenge site plan: “Monuments were built with astronomy in mind.”

Heinrich Nissen, 1800s, was perhaps the first archaeo astronomer.

Richard Hinckley Allen, 1899; Star names and their meanings. This book is still the standard source on star lore. He revealed that all cultures had 18, 24, 28 or 32 decanal asterisms, or hour stars, related to myths, read east to west, against the monthly or zodiac direction.

Norman Lockyer, father of archaeo astronomy.

Norman Lockyer, 1906, surveyed and studied the Stonehenge site plan. “Pyramids and stone circles are astronomically oriented.” He is considered the father of archaeo astronomy.

Engineer Alexander Thom identified many solar, lunar and stellar alignments in several British stone circles, which later researchers could not confirm. At Rennes le Chateau in the south of France, he found “patterns in the landscape”.

Engineer Prof Alexander Thom. 1950s; Megalithic sites in Britain. Megalithic lunar observatories. He published these books before his first visit to Stonehenge in 1973. “Megalithic man had highly developed knowledge of geometry… intellectually in line with the greatest civilisations of antiquity.” However these megaliths may post-date Roman occupation in the British Isles (Ferguson 1872). Thom had used the Newcombe assumed curve of relatively stable obliquity variance (still used in astronomy automation today),  to compute ancient sunrise and sunset angles at stone circles, incidentally feeding the UK need for local cultural pedigree, other than European, Viking, and Roman. Druids and ‘Merlins’, based on Pictish, Irish, Norse and French resistance against Rome and Catholicism, became popular and attracted many authors.  Thom also surveyed at Rennes le Chateau in southern France; “There is a pattern in the landscape.” Ruggles later found that Thom’s claims of accurate astronomy were not fully supported by stone monument site plans.

Gerald Hawkins, 1965; Stonehenge decoded. He demonstrated that the interaction of sun and moon cycles were readable and calculable among complex concentric circles of markers.

Neugebauer and Parker, 1969; Egyptian astronomical texts. Still the standard source on calendric lore. The book, in two volumes, splitting text and illustrations, reveals that Egyptian priests had three somewhat different sets of decanal asterisms, or hour stars, related to myths, and read east to west, against the monthly or zodiac direction. Each of the three sets had different variants in each era, revealing that sets larger than 16, are unstable and prone to mutation. They did not find any reason for the instability of astronomical labels. Variant sets of decans arise “by some method hitherto unrecognised”, or are “arbitrary”. Most Popular authors avoid the subject of decans, although they appear in all cultures, and correspond to many gods. Furter (2014, 2016) demonstrates our compulsion to scramble attributes, especially in sets larger than 16, which all cultures elaborate into artificial group identity. We use styling in a similar way, to appropriate social behaviour as if it were unique. For an image and list of Assyrian decans, see the article on the Gobekli ‘zodiac’ on http://www.stoneprint.wordpress.com.

The term archaeo astronomy was first used in 1972 by Elizabeth Chesley Baity, at the suggestion of Euan MacKie. The compulsion to study ancient cosmology is older.

Euan MacKie tested Smyth’s idea of a Stone Age ‘computer’. He excavated at Kintraw stones in Argyllshire, and found a winter solstice alignment. Most monuments have only very basic astronomical local alignments to sun, moon, or Venus, despite their reputation for being complex proto-science. Modern archaeo astronomers have found a few artefacts capable of calculating the saros cycle of eclipses, but they are very few, and surprisingly small and simple.

Ancient ‘aliens’ became big business

Erich von Daniken in typical rhetorical posture.

Aliens, a persistent feature of B-rated Hollywood movies and serials, overwhelmed popular science in the 1970s with the provocative fundamentalist ‘archaeology’ of Erich von Daniken and a long list of imitators. They presented enigmatic artefacts, buildings and texts as coded science and lost technology.

Zecharia Sitchen with a copy of an artefact, as tilted and enlarged as his re-interpretation of cuneiform texts.

Zecharia Sitchen presented Babylonian mythic text translations as history. Hollywood moved the science fiction genre to big budget special effects blockbusters. Chris de Burgh’s hit song, A spaceman cane travelling, was one of the symptoms that the lines between myth, legend, religion, popular science and fiction were blurred. A theme park at Interlaken in Switzerland build a circle of structures to symbolise the main civilisations that supposedly somehow sprang from alien sources. By 2010, Sitchen’s books were officially re-classified as novels. By 2016 there were signs that the ancient alien craze was subsiding (see Graham Hancock’s declaration of his position against Zecharia Sitchen’s pseudo-scientific ‘facade’ on his website, or in Furter 2016; Stoneprint p50 -51). The ‘aliens’ brigade typically concentrate on general correspondences, tutelary characters (a constant feature in all mythology), and diffusion; not on astronomy or culture. The readership that Von Daniken had created, is still served by fundamentalist media articles and websites, typically lacking astronomy.

The rift between science and popular science had become wider during the ‘ancient aliens’ phase, but the rift between archaeology and astronomy showed no signs of narrowing.

European stone monuments apparently lack myth (also named ethnography), in the context of its ‘dark age’ monuments, thus antiquarians (now named archaeologists) study astronomical alignments.

American ruins have abundant texts, including gods, legendary rulers, history, and calendars.

Anthony Aveni, ethno astronomer studying cosmology.

Anthony Aveni found European and American archaeo astronomical methods, research questions, and results so different, that the Oxford conference proceedings were published as two separate volumes. He refers to himself as an ethno astronomer, and his subject as innate cosmology in cultural identity.

Clive Ruggles noted that scientists from different disciplines do not tend to get along.

Clive Ruggles is one of the leaders in the genre. He noted: ‘Archaeo astronomy is not the study of ancient astronomy. It considers symbolical cultural interpretations of phenomena in the sky… It is a field with academic work of high quality at one end, but uncontrolled speculation bordering on lunacy at the other… it tends to set academics in different disciplines at loggerheads.”

John Michell wrote Short history of astro archaeology:  “The status of research into ancient astronomy had improved over the past two centuries, from lunacy, to heresy, to interesting notion, to the gates of orthodoxy. “ But his view is probably too optimistic.

Archaeo astronomy has many approaches

The three professional bodies maintain some of the divisions in the trans-disciplinary field. Iopscience.iop.org offers this explanation: “Sophia Centre, the only UK institution offering a broader MA including this field, labels it ‘the study of the incorporation of celestial orientation, alignments or symbolism in human monuments and architecture”.

“It merges aspects of anthropology, ethno-astronomy, or cultural astronomy.

“In the past decades it has been rejected by archaeology.

“It embraced solid scientific and statistical methodology to raise its credibility.

“Post-modern archaeo astronomy embraces the pluralism of academic approaches to landscape and ancient people.”

Terpconnect.umd.edu has a different definition; “The study of astronomical practices, celestial lore, mythologies, religions, and world-views of ancient cultures… about interaction with the cosmos.

“There is active cooperation between professionals and amateurs from many backgrounds and cultures.” This is true in astronomy, but not in academic archaeology or anthropology.

“The study of concepts of time and space, geometry, geomancy, and the origins of urban planning.” The inclusion of building sites in this view, is developed in Furter, 2016; Stoneprint. Urban planning is revealed as not only resulting from physical and social compromises, nor from a coding conspiracy, but from the collective subconscious expression of archetypal structure, similar to artworks, where individual artists express a cultural version of the universal structure.

Most archaeologists are academics involved in limited research determined by a ‘school’, aimed at finding facts, and incidentally artefacts.

Vendel Jones, adventure archaeologist and model for the movie character Indiana Jones.

Indiana Jones is a fictional ‘archaeologist’ cracking fictional ‘codes’, loosely based on Vendel Jones, an explorer using historical clues to find artefacts, and incidentally facts.

Archaeo astronomy uses the tools and theories of archaeology, anthropology, ecology, astronomy, statistics, history, cognition, and psychology, to find and explain aspects of ancient scientific, technological, and cultural behaviour, and of the visible cultural record, including artefacts, landscape, and building sites. Some researchers found “cognition and landscape considered together,” to reveal “cosmic order in the roads of settlements.”

Robert Temple pursues many interests, with qualifications and research results to match. His exploration of divination and the structure of perception and nature, is among the high points of modern inter-disciplinary research.

Robert Temple wrote Sirius Mystery, on Dogon ethno astronomy, when he was in his twenties. He then became a historian, orientalist and cultural scientist. In Netherworld, he explored the implications of divination systems. Elsewhere he explored the function of the Sphinx pond at Giza, and the role of Anubis in mythology.

Some archaeo astronomy keywords and terms

“Alignments of ancient architecture and landscapes.”

“The field now includes the relation of astronomy to art, literature, and religion.” See Furter 2014, 2016, including art analysis, a Mishnah verse, and a Babylonian temple building ritual poem.

“Even cosmology is not primarily astronomical; cosmology is equally philosophical, psychological and physical.” See Furter 2016; “Cosmology is not only in the sky”.

George Gummerman and Miranda Warburton: “AA is the study of a group’s conception of themselves in relation to the heavens, or social cosmology.” This statement clearly indicates cultural identity.

Todd Bostwick: “Archaeo astronomy is anthropology, the study of human behaviour.” See Furter 2014, 2016, on subconscious behaviour.

Paul Bahn; “AA is an area of cognitive archaeology.”

Art historian Richard Poss; ‘Astronomical’ rock art of the North American Southwest should be read by employing “the hermeneutic traditions of western art history and art criticism.” Since all cultures had and have art, he may as well call for the study of Australian rock art by using any or all the cultural crafts of the world.

Correspondence theory looks for similarities

Graham Hancock revealed a living Ark of the Covenant tradition in Ethiopia in his first popular book, moved on to pyramids, and became the most popular archaeo astronomy. His current research is into ancient meteor impacts.

Graham Hancock is the leading correspondence theorist, reading some sacred site layouts as star maps. He currently writes on ancient meteorite impacts, reading some ancient sites as observatories.

Engineer and author Robert Bauval made a detailed study of Egyptian artefacts relating to precession, and the former position of the north celestial pole near Ursa Major.

Engineer Robert Bauval studied some Egyptian star lore in the context of site plans.

Andrew Collins discovered a cavern under the former dock at Giza. He has made a detailed study of the constellation Cygnus and its potential place in ancient lore.

Andrew Collins emphasises the role that the constellation Cygnus may have played in ancient site orientations.

Andis Kaulins is a lawyer, archaeo astronomer, and hyper diffusionist. He finds constellation maps in artefacts, cup marks, rock profiles and site layouts, theorising an ancient international survey mission.

Wayne Herschel reads many ancient and modern sites as cryptic maps of the Pleiades open cluster, to ‘commemorate that we are ancient aliens, from a planet near the Pleiades.’ He started seeing visions of corresponding shapes after an off-road motorcycle sports accident.

Archaeo astronomical common ground?

Archaeo astronomers disagree widely on the characterisation of the discipline. All three scientific bodies note “the study of culture and cosmology”. Ruggles and Saunders proposed the label Cultural Astronomy.

Most European archaeo astronomers who rely on geometrical data (horizon angles), have been accused of missing the cultural context of social practice.

American archaeo astronomers who rely on their abundant ethnographic and historical evidence, may neglect some practical geometrical data.

Stanislaw Iwaniszewski wrote in frustration: “Such diversity requires the invention of some all-embracing theory. I was naïve in thinking that such a thing was ever possible.”

Divisions between archaeo astronomers follow the kind of data used.

The forgotten archaeo astronomer

Astronomy automation uses modern values for the rate or precession, which is known from Nasa data to be slightly speeding up, and may have been much slower in the distant past. Astronomy automation programmes assume a narrow oscillation of obliquity after Stockwell, as adopted by Newcombe. But Egyptian, Chinese, Hindu, Greek, Arabic, Medieval, historic and Mayan data contradict the ‘Newcombe’ curve. Obliquity had reduced at a slowing rate, indicating a larger bump, and initially fast righting; and a semi-oscillation of 599 years (Dodwell 2010, in Setterfield). In the Dodwell graph, the curve should be wavy due to the semi-oscillation. In addition to these astronomical uncertainties, in an era 5000 years before the earliest and rarest Babylonian and Egyptian astronomical data, earth’s orbital diameter may have been larger, and the moon’s orbit larger, and time slower. There was a different equation of time, or Delta-T in geological time (Williams et al 1998), which may have extended into prehistoric time. Thus automation errors grow exponentially larger further back. Dodwell was an Australian archaeo astronomer who could not find a publisher. His work was posted on a website posthumously by Setterfield, assisted by his family. If his obliquity curve eventually finds acceptance, some data would be overturned, and a whole new set of data that was unexpected and invisible in ancient buildings before, may become available.

Dodwell’s curve of the possible change in obliquity of the celestial (daily rotation) axis and equator, against the ecliptic (yearly orbit) axis and equator.

GRAPH: Earth obliquity on a horizontal scale of 200 years per column, and a vertical scale of degrees and 5 minutes of arc per row; from ancient, medieval and historic monumental orientations and observation records (Dodwell 2010). The earliest, isolated value (lower left notation) of a Karnak midsummer sunset of BC 2045, may have been dated too early (Rohl 2007), and its value of 25 degrees 10’ may be an error of interpretation, such as a lunar or stellar, instead of a solar orientation. The seven earliest orientations average at 24 degrees 2’, thus the curve may be shallower, implying a ‘bump’ at about BC 10 000, not BC 3000. The shallow curve on top is Stockwell’s and Newcombe’s assumption, apparently supported by recent European data.

Structural anthropology revives Plato, Jung and Levi-Strauss

Mindprint (2014), demonstrated that myth, astronomical names, constellation shapes, calendar lore, ritual and art, were equally compulsive and archetypal expressions, causing media to borrow or illustrate some aspects of one another, and causing correspondences. Most sciences read these correspondences as conscious intent, while they are subconscious expressions.

A new kind of data entered archaeo astronomy with Edmond Furter’s structural art analysis (2014, Mindprint) and building site analysis (2016, Stoneprint), demonstrating that many supposed ‘astronomical’ features in culture are actually archetypal, and expressed by subconscious behaviour. Constellations and calendars do not inform myth and art, but all media have a repertoire of variant expressions of archetype.

Archetypal or structural approaches to culture, particularly universal recurrent features, have always been suppressed by conscious paradigms, particularly evolution, diffusion and their implied support of cultural and racial superiority in the colonial era. Some sciences had shaken off that subjective baggage, but it lingered in popular science and in research programmes.

Plato and other philosophers had identified archetype as a set of pre-existing potentials within which matter, energy, nature and culture manifest. Thus the sky is not a random canvas, and myths are not random stories.

Plato’s allegory of the ‘cave wall’ of indirect perception, and the philosophical concept of archetype was partially revived about 1900 when James George Frazer demonstrated that many details in myths of peoples thousands of miles and millennia apart, corroborated and explained one another.

Carl Jung rejected the idea of physical influence of planets on behaviour and events, and developed the concept of archetype to include synchronicity. He described several archetypal traits, but did not propose a complete list.

Carl Jung in the 1940s revealed that all people dream essentially the same characters and episodes. Claude Levi-Strauss in the 1970s theorised that we have an innate tendency to categorise things and behaviours by a set of universal natural templates, without consciously intending or learning to do so.

Jung noted the main difference between the two approaches in Memories, Dreams, Reflections: “Archetype is an ir-representable, unconscious, pre-existent form, part of the inherited structure of the psyche, and can manifest itself spontaneously anywhere, at any time. Again and again I encounter the mistaken notion that an archetype is determined [by cultural influences or experience]. This does not influence their content, but only their form, and only to a limited degree.” If subconscious impulses play a role in art, myth, ritual and building sites, then even written records, stated aims, and interviews with artists do not explain the ancient or modern cultural record. Also, treasured cultural ‘differences’ and ‘development’ become meaningless, since archetype is universal, and changes only in style, and in the position of the seasons precessing through the cosmos. Many archaeo astronomers have written about precession, usually as a conscious, scientific element in iconography, but having to explain the lack of scientific or mythical records of precession as due to encoding, and thus a conspiracy.

Gobekli Tepe and the ‘first zodiac’ race

Since about 2010, the excavation of Gobekli Tepe (BC 9000 -8000) offered Younger Dryas civilisation data to bridge the previous vacuum between sparse Ice Age cultures (BC 20 000) and Sumerian civilisation (BC 4000). The few rare archaeo astronomical interpretations and dating applications of kiva type buildings in villages such as Catal Huyyuk (including an Age Cancer-Gemini dating), were soon joined by a variety of widely divergent interpretations of Gobekli art and houses. Archaeology could not exclude potential astronomical elements in this apparently enigmatic site, giving inter-disciplinary and popular science approaches a new lease on life. By 2017, Gobekli had become a test bench, and battleground, of archaeo astronomy, replacing the Giza pyramids as focal point.

Timothy Stephany started the Gobekli zodiac interpretation saga by proposing two potential star maps on pillar D43, both focussed on sections of the galaxy.


Engineer PD Burley identified a different star map and dating on pillar D43. Hancock repeated Burley’s interpretation in a recent book, emphsising supposed ‘post-dating’ of the BC 8000 work to our own time.


Dr Eng Martin Sweatman retired from Edinburgh University and took up archaeo astronomy. With co-author Tsikritsis, he identified his own star map in the art on pillar D43, arrived at a fantastically early date, and conjured some ‘statistics’ as evidence for his results. Archaeologists at Gobekli Tepe protested in a short letter to MAA, the archaeo astronomy journal that published the Sweatman and Tsikritsis paper. Sweatman replied by repeating his thesis.

Gobekli Tepe ‘zodiac’ interpreters include Timothy Stephany; Engineer Paul D Burley, supported and expanded by Graham Hancock; Andrew Collins; Andis Kaulins; Wayne Herschel; Dr Eng Martin Sweatman and co-author D Tsikritsis.

See a review of the Gobekli ‘scorpion and vulture zodiac’ saga, with widely different ‘conclusions’, and wild dating conclusions, and incredible ‘statistical’ claims, on http://www.stoneprint.wordpress.com. See also the storm of protest against the Sweatman and Tsikritisis MAA Journal paper, on Tepetelegrams (where Stephaney had started the series of contradictory astronomical interpretations of Gobekli artworks a few years ago).

Sciences remain in boxes

A round table discussion at a recent conference, was titled: “Archaeologists versus archaeo astronomers, or new best buddies?” The moderator was Fabio Silva (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David). The practitioners agreed that:

[] Few archaeologists engage with the skyscape;

[] Many people misunderstand how simple astronomy is to track in a society;

[] Emphasis on mathematics and statistics has given a misleading impression of some cultures [as if they were mathematicians];

[] There is a lack of corroborating archaeological detail in many archaeo astronomy papers;

[] Archaeo astronomy has a mistaken association with popular fringe pseudo-archaeology.

  • This article is an extract from a presentation by Edmond Furter at the 2017 July Archaeo Astronomy talks in Johannesburg.

Some references

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