Pawnee Star Chart

In 1906, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago acquired an oval-shaped piece of thin leather measuring fifty-six by thirty-eight centimeters (twenty-two by fifteen inches) with lace holes around the edge. One side is covered with several hundred four-pointed stars of various sizes, painted in irregular patterns, with a band of smaller dots running across the middle (on the narrower axis). Several configurations of larger crosses stand out as possible bright stars or constellations, and the band of dots could be inter preted as the Milky Way. That this was a representation of the sky seems beyond question.

Early attempts to identify particular stars on the star chart tended to start from the assumption that it was a literal map of the night sky. Larger crosses were thought to represent brighter stars and positions were assumed to be marked with considerable accuracy. Yet even though some groups of stars such as the constellations Ursa Major and Corona Borealis, and the Pleiades, are certainly recognizable, it quickly becomes clear that their shapes, positions, and relative sizes are approximate at best. Most of the smaller stars seem to be just a backdrop, not representing any stars or groups of stars in particular.

It is a mistake to take an indigenous artifact out of context and to judge it by our own standards of precision. Before anything else we should ask what its purpose was. Fortunately, cultural data do exist in this case: ethnographic notes associated with the chart indicate it was part of a medicine bundle used in various ceremonies that ensured well-being. It was used, in other words, to harness the sacred power of the stars.

Examples such as this expose the dangers of imposing our own criteria when trying to interpret an astronomical artifact from another culture. We might seek a literal representation of the configurations of the stars and be impressed if it achieved a high degree of accuracy, but in doing so we are being ethnocentric: imposing our own predilections on another culture. Accuracy in this literal sense might matter to us, but we cannot expect that it mattered to them. These dangers are especially great where we do not have a cultural context, as in the case of the prehistoric Nebra disc. A similar lesson can also be extended to those who try to find literal representations of constellations in the positions of monuments on the ground.

See also:

Constellation Maps on the Ground; Ethnocentrism.

Angkor; Nebra Disc; Pyramids of Giza.

References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony. Ancient Astronomers, 132-133. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 1993.

Chamberlain, Von Del. When Stars Came Down to Earth: Cosmology of the Skidi Pawnee Indians of North America, 185-205. Los Altos, CA, and College Park, MD: Ballena Press/Center for Archaeoastronomy, 1982.

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