Predicting the Past

The Mithraic iconography and the central scene of the Gundestrup Cauldron are two glaring examples of how difficult it is to understand astronomical ideas without adopting a global approach that takes account of all sources of information and knowledge available (Iwaniszewski 2003, 2005). For this reason, archaeoastronomy needs to develop its own research method, and since it is something of a borderline science lying halfway between exact sciences and human sciences, this method has to be borderline as well (Magli 2005a). But since a real science is able both to develop models based on data and to make predictions regarding expected experimental results through the elaboration of theoretical models, if archaeoastronomy is to be a science, it must be able to "predict the past.'' Actually, some examples already exist. As we saw in Chapter 6, the function of the Medicine Wheels had been a complete enigma until physicist John Eddy discovered its astronomical alignment with Big Horn. When Eddy applied his astronomical interpretation to the wheel of Moose Mountain, he was able to predict approximately the age of the artifact. In Chapter 9, we saw that a Mayan site and its close relationship with Uxmal were recovered by studying the alignment of the Governor's Palace of Uxmal with what looked like a natural hill, but which turned out to be a pyramid almost forgotten in the jungle. A third example comes from Michael Hoskin's studies on the Mediterranean islands, which we encountered in Chapter 3. As we saw, both Minorca and Majorca contain megalithic sanctuaries (though the characteristic structures known as Taulas are found only in Minorca). In one of the oldest megalithic sanctuaries, Son Mas, archaeological digs have come up with evidence of human presence since the Copper Age (around 2000 BC). This seems to have been suddenly interrupted, however, around 1700 BC, in such an inexplicable fashion that archaeologists continued to think that, by some trick of fate, those centuries were "missing" from the radiocarbon dates. As we saw in Chapter 3, Hoskin's studies in Minorca revealed an interest in the Cross-Centaurus group. When Hoskin investigated Son Mas, he realized that a long alignment made with a large rock pointed to the end of a valley, southward, in such a way that it framed the arc of sky crossed by this very group of stars. However, due to the relative height of the horizon, he also realized that precession caused the disappearance of the lower star of the Cross around 1700 BC. As a result, if the site was connected with such astronomical observations, it must have been abandoned about that time. When Hoskin obtained this result, he was unaware of the radiocarbon dates. However, he later met Mark Van Strydonck of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage at Brussels, who had himself been responsible for processing the radiocarbon samples from the site, and confided in him his "pressing need for a crisis around 1700 BC.'' Then, in Hoskin's words: "Astonished, Van Strydonck pulled from his pocket the draft of the latest paper on the radiocarbon dating, which again proposed an (hitherto inexplicable) site abandonment around 1700 BC.''

Of course, if a scientific model works, it should also be able to draw

Figure 14.6: A sight view of Antequera (Malaga, Spain)

conclusions in the negative. This is indeed what happened in certain cases, as I shall explain with another example, again from Hoskin's work.

Spain is rich in megalithic monuments. The largest are to be found in the region of Antequera, 35 kilometers north of Malaga, and the most impressive of all is the Dolmen de Menga. Despite its name, it is not a simple Dolmen but a large chambered tomb, 18 meters long and 6 meters wide, built entirely with enormous slabs (the roof of the chamber is made of a slab that is 2^ meters thick, 6 meters wide and 7 meters long). The orientation of the monument is unusual for the region, a few degrees east of north (Hoskin et al. 1994); however, the axis is oriented toward a prominent mountainous peak, of quite unique shape, which suggests the profile of the face of a reclining man. It is thus extremely likely that the tomb is topographically aligned in a direction that had symbolic, and not astronomical, significance.

In this case, therefore, archaeoastronomical methods allowed a conclusion to be drawn in the negative and at the same time the symbolic content of the landscape to be identified with some certainty.

Unfortunately, such predictive examples are still the exception in archaeoastronomy. This discipline is considered a ""technical'' science (read ""secondary'') by many archaeologists. On the other hand, often the attitude of archaeoastronomers is too timorous, and it is very rare for a historical-archaeological proposal to be based on archaeoastronomical data and crosschecked with the archaeological record, and it is even rarer for such a proposal to be accepted by the archaeological community. As a consequence, as we shall see, only in recent years are we beginning to understand the most renowned, fascinating, and complex archaeological site on planet earth. Before we make its acquaintance, however, we need to collect the ideas discussed so far to aid us in our interpretation.

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