Space and Time Ancient Perceptions of

Long before the invention of writing or the construction of observing instruments, people made sense of the world by linking objects, events, and cycles of activity, both on the land and in the sky. The regular cycles of the skies were often vital in developing notions of temporality, in the sense that they were used to regulate both practical and ritualistic aspects of human activity and played a crucial role in the development of calendars. But this is a very different matter from saying that astronomical periodicities were used to measure units of time, because this assumes an abstract notion of time that may not be appropriate in a non-Western worldview. The same can be said of an abstract notion of space.

For us, time progresses along a line and provides a backdrop against which we live our lives, constantly measurable from calendars and clocks that have become divorced from the physical, observable phenomena in the natural world that once generated them. Likewise, we measure our position in space using maps or GPS receivers that fit comfortably in the hand and, at the touch of a button, deliver our spatial coordinates to within a few meters.

Prehistoric peoples and others in the past who lacked such devices would have been no less aware of the passage of time. The basic needs of survival and subsistence would have forced them to keep their own actions in tune with various regularly recurring events going on in the natural world around them. It is also likely that the regular cycles of the heavens, starting with the most obvious one of them all—the phase cycle of the moon—provided a key point of reference for many and led to the eventual development of early calendars. But we must be careful not to approach the issue too naively. The passage of time (as we would think of it) might have been conceived in many different ways. One of the most fundamental conceptual distinctions is between circular and linear time—the one implying an endless perceived repetition of regular events and the other a single history and future. The ancient Maya are noted for having used both conceptions in parallel, in the form of the Calendar Round and the Long Count. Even the distinctions between past, present, and future break down differently in many other systems of thought.

Similarly, there are numerous ways of perceiving the world that differ from our view of things separated by empty space, from which stems our own idea of space as an abstract backdrop. Notions of the spatial interrelationship of things were inherently contextualized in places and paths with particular qualities and meanings. Furthermore, spatial and temporal attributes of things were intricately bound together in many ways, with the distinction between them (as we would see it) rather blurred. Thus, for the Lakota, the names and meanings of some places changed according to the time of year as they followed the buffalo through the landscape, mimicking the passage of the sun through the sky. The Aztecs, it has been claimed, linked the mountain dwelling of the rain god Tlaloc, the time when the sun rose in line with this mountain as viewed from an ancient pyramid (Cuicuilco), and the time when child sacrifices should be offered to Tlaloc in order to ensure rain and fertility in the coming growing season. And more generally, horizon calendars such as those of the Hopi, or those thought to have operated in central Mexico in pre-conquest times, function by directly associating time (a particular calendar date) with place (the point on the horizon where the sun rises or sets on the day in question).

Although such arguments give us a number of reasons for seeking astronomical alignments in the prehistoric context, they also provide a warn ing against pre-judging potential horizon targets of astronomical significance. Thus, while the solstitial directions have an obvious physical reality (as the limiting positions of sunrise or sunset on the horizon), the equinoxes, in general, do not. They are commonly taken as self-evident horizon targets, but in fact they only make sense as half-way points between the solstices in space and/or time, and this implies an abstract view of either or both. For a Neolithic Briton standing in a sacred stone circle, the date when (say) a crucial crop should be planted, or when the sun rose behind a particular sacred mountain—both very concrete associations (though of very different types)—are much more likely to have been significant than the abstract equinoxes. This makes it much more difficult for the modern archaeoas-tronomer to determine whether any stone circles intentionally incorporated symbolic alignments upon sunrise on significant days, since different days are likely to have been significant—and so the "targets" would have dif-fered—from one stone circle to another. Only solstitial alignments could show up consistently in a statistical analysis of several sites taken together.

See also:

Calendars; Equinoxes; Methodology; Sacred Geographies; Solstitial Directions; Statistical Analysis.

Aztec Sacred Geography; Hopi Calendar and Worldview; Horizon Calendars of Central Mexico; Lakota Sacred Geography; Maya Long Count.

Lunar Phase Cycle.

References and further reading

Darvill, Timothy, and Caroline Malone, eds. Megaliths from Antiquity, 339-354. Cambridge: Antiquity Publications, 2003.

Goodman, Ronald. Lakota Star Knowledge: Studies in Lakota Stellar Theology. Rosebud, SD: Sinte Gleska College, 1990.

Ingold, Tim. Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology (revised ed.), 503-526. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Lucas, Gavin. The Archaeology of Time. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice (4th ed.), 408. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.

-, eds. Archaeology: The Key Concepts, 268-273. Abingdon, UK:

Routledge, 2005.

Ruggles, Clive, Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, 148-152. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Ruggles, Clive, and Nicholas Saunders, eds. Astronomies and Cultures, 275-283. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1993.

Tilley, Christopher. A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Monuments, 7-34. Oxford: Berg, 1994.

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