The Etic Approach

In the first part of this book I invited you to join me on an informal trip around the world to look at some of the monuments that best represent the astronomical knowledge that people have had over the course of history. I also tried whenever possible to present only factual information and, when it was impossible to avoid interpreting those facts, to at least do so in a light-handed, even skeptical way. The reason was explained in the previous chapter: I think we are too laden with schemas, too accustomed to attributing meaning to words that are a priori empty and filling them with content that comes exclusively from our way of thinking.

However, the moment has come to try to understand a little more about the motivations that drove so many peoples of the past to build such splendid astronomically anchored structures, even to plan entire cities on the basis of "cosmographic" principles.

In talking about humans, and therefore about human thought and knowledge—religious, astronomical, technological—we are faced with two apparently irreconcilable approaches (Murray 2000) that we can call the

G. Magli, Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy, DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-76566-2_14, 267 © Praxis Publishing, Ltd. 2009

rigorous method (or etic approach) and the humanistic method (emic approach).

The rigorous method treats a monument or group of monuments like a lab sample to be analyzed: one approaches the site as if landing on Mars, with measuring instruments, maps, and computers, taking data from 300 megalithic tombs or 50 Nascan geoglyphs, plugging them into a computer, and then publishing the results. But by doing this we are imposing our own mental framework on the evidence. In fact, we are using the king of all schemas, that venerable old mainstay known as the scientific method to which we scientists are attached like chicks to a hen, the one that allows us to make predictions on the basis of models, to elaborate models on the basis of data, and to sneer at inanities such as flying tables, pranotherapy, and the "memory of water." For example, a table cannot fly powered by thought. If it seems to be flying, it is a trick. Physical actions never occur from a distance but are always mediated by particles, such as photons, that is, light. The brain does not emit particles, and so the table cannot fly; the scientific method tells us so, in an unequivocal way.

In this same way, the rigorous approach can give formidable results in archaeoastronomy; we need only think of the case of the orientation of the Maltese temples discussed in Chapter 3, which had been an enigma until Klaus Albrecht meticulously diagrammed alignments of the altar stones to the left of each structure's entrance, thereby demonstrating their solstitial alignment.

However, if we go to Cusco to measure the alignments of the ceque system there (Chapter 10), and then compare them with a series of important astronomical events visible to the naked eye, applying to this the "rigorous" method, we will discover that the astronomically significant directions appear to be lost in a tangle of others that are not significant at all, and we will therefore confidently conclude that the ceque system had nothing to do with astronomy—thus missing completely the profundity of Incan thought.

The solution to the fascinating problem of interpreting the ceque lines and their symbolic content must take into account all the available sources: colonial accounts (ambiguous and untrustworthy though they may be), excavations in the field, and ethnological investigations such as that of Gary Urton, who found many aspects of the Incan vision of the skies living on in the indigenous population of Misminay. The scientific method must therefore be mediated by and integrated with the human component. This does not mean renouncing rigor. If tables do not fly, then neither do the 300-ton stone blocks of Sacsahuaman. Whatever the solution to the question of how the blocks were put in place, a problem that has by no means been satisfactorily resolved (see Appendix 2), it must be compatible with the basic laws of dynamics. But no physical law prevents the human mind from thinking in a nonsequential way, so that there was nothing stopping paleolithic man from inventing pottery 16,000 years before agriculture. And this is exactly what happened, as we learned in Chapter 1, when someone at Dolni Vestonice figured out how to make vessels from clay and harden them by fire, 160 centuries before such vessels would have served to store food. Accepting this fact was very difficult for scholars, because there was a "law" of history, a law clearly based not on scientific rigor but on preconceptions—and therefore a false law—that prohibited such a thing.

In the end, if we limit ourselves to studying only the technical-practical aspects of things (how the Babylonians made astronomical observations that were accurate within an arc minute, how the Incas managed to move stones the size of containers, how the Egyptians worked diorite without iron tools, etc.), there is no room for alternative approaches; the scientific method is the method, for the simple reason that the ancients used systems based on the same laws of physics that apply to us and every thing else in the universe. Far more insidious, on the other hand, is the question of motivation: not how, but why would anyone build walls with 300-ton boulders instead of 20-pound stones?

In a case like this it is difficult to distinguish between real, inviolable scientific limits and what are essentially nothing more than debatable dogmas. This is not intended to offend in any way those who dedicate their work to the fascinating problems of ancient history. In a certain sense it is easier being a scientist, knowing that you can rely on the rigor of your equations and the repeatability of experiments, than an archaeologist, where you cannot repeat your experiment—the archaeological dig—and you risk seeing your theories dissolve due to new excavations.

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