March 29, 2002

DDLS speaker links artifacts to cosmos

In the southeastern portion of the rocks and wooden posts encircling Stonehenge are the bones of animals and human cremations that were "placed carefully in the post holes."

The placement of these objects correlates with the most southerly rising of the moon.

"It mattered where they were putting them," said Clive Ruggles, a professor of the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester in England and Tuesday’s featured speaker. "This is evidence of what people were doing at the time."

Ruggles’ talk focused on archeological monuments and their relationship with the cosmos.

His discussion titled "Archaeoastronomy — Stonehenge and Beyond" enticed the audience Tuesday with examples of ancient monuments that have some tie to the lunar or solar cycles. For example, the building of a wooden trackway in England in 500 B.C. correlates with prominent lunar eclipses at the time.

"If astrological events influenced people, then we have to ask ourselves where and when," Ruggles said. In ancient monuments archaeologists can begin to understand "how people conceived of space and time. We can look at the diversity of how people observed the cosmos around them."

Ruggles believes ancient perceptions of space, time and the cosmos provide insight into life in prehistoric times. The sky was an integral part of the environment by which time was measured and space organized. Figures of cosmological importance often originated in the sky.

He pointed to ancient Mayan pyramids in Mexico as evidence of the link between artifacts and the sky. The pyramids contain hieroglyphics that indicate a Mayan astronomical almanac with an eclipse table.

"There is a whole list of artifacts that support archaeoastronomy, the study of beliefs and practices about the history of the sky," Ruggles said.

Archaeologists are measuring monuments throughout southern Europe to gauge whether the orientation or placement of the monuments has any significance in relationship to the lunar or solar cycles. He said a colleague has measured one of the Tomb of Giants: Li Lolghi is Sardinia’s largest Giant’s Tomb (tomba di giganti). These monuments were constructed all over the island from about 1900 B.C. to about 1000 B.C.

This collective burial chamber is very long, with a series of uprights, and it was once covered with stones or earth. The tomb features a horned semi-circular forecourt that was probably used as a meeting place for rituals. Ruggles noted that the monuments all face the sunrise. He said there is likely a connection between this burial site and the placement of the sun.
The job of an archaeoastronomer, he said, is not to look for monuments aligning with something in the cosmos because "you’ll always find something that aligns." But rather a true archaeoastronomer must look for trends and contextual information.

"We need to look at the diversity of how people observed the cosmos around them," Ruggles said. "We have to look at it and understand that there are different systems of thought."

Ruggles’ talk will be rebroadcast on Lab TV on Thursday at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 4 p.m. 8 p.m. and on April 5 at 4 a.m. For a tape of the program, call Lab TV at 3-3846.