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School of Archaeology & Ancient History

An Undergraduate-level Learning Resource

For information and as a resource, we offer the complete archaeoastronomy course material online here as it was given to students in the spring term 2003. The introduction follows below, or you can use the navigation on the left to browse the course content.

Course AR3015: An Introduction to Archaeoastronomy

Archaeoastronomy has emerged in the last three decades as a thriving 'interdiscipline', but it is one that continues to be viewed with suspicion by many mainstream archaeologists.

Together with what has become known as ethnoastronomy or cultural astronomy, it strives to comprehend the nature and meaning of astronomical practice in past (as well as modern non-Western) societies. This has tended to be of particular interest to astronomers and historians of science, but for the archaeologist or anthropologist forms merely one aspect of the study of human societies in general. It is an important one, though: the movements of the heavenly bodies are of almost universal concern, even amongst small bands of hunter-gatherers. Stellar lore and astronomical practice invariably form part of a broader frameworks of understanding--cosmologies--which define and dictate the nature, place and timing of various human actions.

Archaeoastronomical investigations involve the integration and interpretation of evidence from widely ranging fields such as archaeology, history, anthropology, astronomy, and statistics, and require a well-developed critical perspective in all of them. This in itself raises some fascinating methodological issues: differences of approach, misunderstandings and ignorance lay behind many of the interdisciplinary conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s concerning Stonehenge and "megalithic astronomy", and many other controversies that have arisen since then.

The course will focus upon questions of archaeoastronomy's aims and objectives, scope and methodology, and its place (if any) within modern archaeology and anthropology as a whole. The first part of the course will concentrate on the Neolithic and Bronze Age in Britain and Ireland, and particularly on the interpretation of astronomical symbolism in monumental architecture. The remainder of the course will draw upon numerous examples from world archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy. Basic astronomical concepts will be introduced in the course of the first few lectures, but the course as a whole will not concentrate upon technical details.

The general aims of the course are:

* to introduce you to the scope of problems addressed by archaeoastronomy;

* to introduce you to the methodological principles and conflicts involved in archaeoastronomy;

* to help you develop a critical understanding of the role of archaeoastronomy within archaeology; and

* to help you develop an appreciation of the value and problems of highly interdisciplinary studies.

By the end of the course you should have:

* an appreciation of the type and range of issues that archaeoastronomers strive to address;

* a basic understanding of the principal concepts and techniques used in archaeoastronomy;

* a basic understanding of the appearance of the night sky and the general principles of the diurnal, annual and longer-term motions of the celestial bodies; and

* an appreciation of the theoretical and methodological conflicts that arise through the clash of different disciplinary perspectives in this field, and the attempts that have been made to resolve them.

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