Constellation Maps on the Ground

It is often claimed, especially in popular accounts of archaeoastronomy, that human artifacts or constructions were laid out on the ground in the form of groups of stars in the sky. One such idea is that a group of temples at Angkor in Cambodia were laid out in the shape of the constellation

Draco. Another claim is that the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt were laid out in the form of the three stars of Orion's Belt. Groups of cup-like depressions resembling the Southern Cross and other constellations have been found on rock platforms in Aboriginal Australia.

Given that there is no independent evidence to support the supposition that any of these correspondences was intentional, we must ask how likely it is that they could have arisen by chance. (The patterns of stars in the sky, as opposed to their positions, have not changed significantly since earliest antiquity, so insecure dating is not a problem.) The chances of being able to fit a random set of points on the ground, such as buildings, to a set of stars in the sky might not seem very great. However, there are a large numbers of stars in the sky and a lot depends upon the size of the errors one is prepared to tolerate. And once the researcher selects some points and ignores others, the likelihood of a good fit is very greatly increased. A British television documentary broadcast in 1999 managed to fit the locations of selected major public buildings in New York City to the brightest stars of the constellation Leo with surprising ease. This correspondence clearly was not intentional.

We cannot dismiss outright the possibility that, at certain times in certain places in the past, things on the ground were configured to map out, represent, or reflect constellations in the sky. Anyone proposing this, however, must be able to describe and justify the selections made, provide an objective assessment of the goodness of fit, and determine the probability of the results obtained being fortuitous. They also face wider problems. First, there are few, if any, known cultural precedents among historical or modern indigenous communities for arrangements that map the stars; this will increase any archaeologist or anthropologist's inherent skepticism. Second, patterns visible archaeologically were often created in many stages, over a considerable period of time, whereas this idea implies that a single planning concept was adhered to. Finally, the use of some of the more sinuous Western constellations, such as Draco, must also arouse suspicions, since which collections of stars are perceived to form a constellation varies from one culture to another.

A particularly notorious example is the so-called Glastonbury Zodiac. This theory, which dates back to the 1920s, holds that features in the area surrounding the isolated hill of Glastonbury Tor, in Somerset, England—ancient field boundaries, paths, ditches, and banks—mimicked the shapes of zodiacal constellations. As soon as the evidence is examined in any detail, however, the arbitrary nature of the whole scheme becomes readily apparent. Those fragments of boundaries that best fit the theory are simply assumed to be the remnants of ancient boundaries, while others that do not are discarded. When we do this, we are forcing the evidence to fit the theory rather than using the evidence to test the theory, which any objective assessment soon shows to be unsupportable.

It is not out of the question that some sacred architecture in the past was laid out to reflect the configurations of groups of stars in the sky. But without due attention to the cultural context and a strict attention to methodology, investigations in this area can become no more than a modern game of fitting stars on a star chart to points on an archaeological map, with no cultural significance whatsoever.

See also:

Ley Lines; Methodology.

Aboriginal Astronomy; Angkor; Pawnee Star Chart; Pyramids of Giza.

How the Sky Has Changed over the Centuries.

References and further reading

Bauval, Robert, and Adrian Gilbert. The Orion Mystery: Unlocking the Secrets of the Pyramids. London: Heinemann, 1994.

Hancock, Graham, and Santha Faiia. Heaven's Mirror. London: Penguin Books, 1999.

Maltwood, Katherine. A Guide to Glastonbury's Temple of the Stars. London: James Clarke and Co., 1964. Originally published in 1929.

Williamson, Tom, and Liz Bellamy. Ley Lines in Question, 162-170. Tadworth: World's Work, 1983.

0 0

Post a comment