Archaeoastronomy


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By Known Universe Production Team

Archaeoastronomy is one of those sciences in which there are few true practitioners. They’re about as numerous as paleobotonists and ecophysiologists. Archaeoastronomy is just not one of those sciences people gravitate toward. Have you ever heard a kid, a normal kid, say they want to be an archaeoastronomer when they grow up?  No.  Archaeoastronomy is one of those sciences that finds you.  And some of them are kind of hoity-toity.

There was the one archaeoastronomer who agreed to speak with us on camera if we first, bought and read his two hundred-dollar book and then paid him a thousand dollars per day of shooting.  There were the archaeoastronomers that were “simply too busy” to talk.  Busy with what?  And then there were those who seemed to have spent a little too much time alone in the library, meaning they didn’t really relate all that well with the living.  Thankfully, we did manage to find a few that were engaging and could tell us about the special relationship our ancestors had with the skies.

Listening to them, you realize that our history as a species is, quite literally, written in the stars.  Look around you.  Everything you see, every little luxury you enjoy is the product of astronomy.  Don’t believe me?  Well, consider this.  If our ancestors hadn’t looked up and wondered at the stars, there might not be civilization.  You watch the stars and you know when to plant crops.  Planting crops means you can feed more people, so your population can grow.  To understand the cycles of sky, you need math.  With math you can make even more detailed observations.  And from math you can start to engineer cities and learn more and more about your environment.

Astronomy is the world’s oldest science.  The first scientist ever mentioned in history was an astronomer.  She was a Babylonian priestess from the Temple of Ishtar who tracked the stars and was said to have the power to predict the future. That was no doubt an ability she attained by watching the stars because for our ancestors watching the skies allowed them to make important predictions, like when the rains were coming or when the environment would turn cold.  Way back then, that kind of information made the difference between living and dying.

So that’s some cool, “sciency” stuff.   However, we were still left with what to do about the ancient alien theorists.  Do we go down that road?  Well, we did and I have to say it was all very engaging. However, it wasn’t an easy decision.  One producer worried that their reputation would go down the tubes if we discussed this stuff, to which I had to say, “What reputation?  You’re a television producer.”  This is after all the same line of work that brought the world such programs as “Temptation Island” and “Girls Gone Wild.”  Considering that, whatever you do in television, your reputation’s safe.  My concern was whether there was any solid science in this theory and it turns out there is.  There are some mysteries out there that defy easy explanation.  The Dogon, a tribe in northwest Africa, who know about an invisible companion star to the giant Sirius freaked me out.  Then there are the alignments that some of the massive buildings erected by the ancients.  The Egyptians didn’t just lean four triangles against one another and say “We’re done!”  The Great Pyramid is an awe-inspiring feat of engineering even by today’s standards and how they were able to engineer such mathematical precision into this massive stone building isn’t completely understood.

“Decoding the Skies” was no doubt one of the most difficult episodes we produced this season for the simple fact that it took a lot of thinking on how to make this topic work in the context of what the series is about.  And I can honestly say there were days spent in front of the computer producing this show when I would have rather been the archaeoastronomer.  But that’s because of all this season’s six episodes; this was the hardest.

Known Universe‘s “Decoding the Skies” airs Thursday, April 29 at 10P et/pt.

Comments

  1. szenovera
    August 20, 2011, 4:38 pm

    Today students took notes on archaeoastronomy, and they discussed how ancient civilizations explained the motions of celestial objects and incorporated them into their cultures.
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