By Cathy Koehler
Paul Middents’ classes on archeoastronomy have covered the use of astronomy/astrology in ancient cultures. First was the Hebrew Lunar (or Lunisolar) calendar which has a 19-year cycle keeping the months tied to the moon and, over the years, their important celebrations in the correct season. The modern (western) calendar, the Gregorian, arose out of the Christian Church's desire to keep important events (notably Easter) within their seasons while reducing reliance on proclamations by the Jewish astronomers. To this day, the Churches are still striving to come to an agreement on a uniform dating of Easter. In contrast, the Muslim calendar is strictly a lunar one; thus their year is somewhat shorter than a solar year, and their dates drift through the seasons from year to year.
Mayan Temple at Chichen Itza (a possible Observatory?)
Moving to North America, we spent quite a bit of time with the Mayans who had one of the most sophisticated mathematical systems in the world. They were one of the few cultures to have a place-based number system (like the one we use today, the Arabic system; and in contrast to a non-place-based system, like the Roman). They had a zero; surprisingly, the West didn't understand zero until after the Dark Ages. I don't know about you, but this astonishes me, in light of the fact that Newton and Leibniz developed calculus in the 1600s. The Mayans were equally sophisticated in their astronomical observations and records; they were particularly interested in the cycle of Venus over the years, and they could predict eclipses well in advance.
We talked about the Chaco culture, commonly referred to as "Anasazi," a people who lived in the southwestern part of what is now the United States (the Four Corners area). They built surprisingly sophisticated cities (or centers of worship/ritual), and their cities and sacred sites were connected by mysteriously wide roads that were often lined up more or less on the cardinal directions, indicating an observation and understanding of what's happening in the sky.
The Polynesian Navigators also made sophisticated use of astronomy (as well as a wide variety of other factors). Their navigational know-how had been lost in many areas of the Pacific, but was kept alive in the Solomon/Marquesas Islands. Their ability to get around their watery environment using traditional methods rivals anything we can do with our "science." And, a reminder, these, like the peoples of the Americas, were a stone-age culture before European contact.
Because of much (inaccurate) speculation on understanding the Celts/stone circles of Great Britain, we also discussed them and their uses.
The lectures are always well-informed and feature up-to-date research, with lots of recommendations for further reading and web sites. Middents is a gripping lecturer. Cone and enjoy these last two, May 1 and May 15 at Bainbridge High, Room 311.