Astronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest Revisited: Collaborations in Cultural Astronomy

Feb 21st, 2016 | By | Category: Media Reviews, Online media reviews, Web Exclusive

Astronomy-and-Ceremony-in-the-Prehistoric-SouthwestEdited by Gregory E. Munson, Todd W. Bostwick, and Tony Hull
Maxwell Museum of Anthropology (2014)
163 pages

Review by Anthony F. Aveni

A co-editor of Archaeoastronomy and Ceremony in the Prehistoric Southwest (1983) recounted the commonly held perception of archaeologists that cultural astronomy (then known as archaeoastronomy) in the Southwest was “halfastroarchaeology,” a rediscovery of the sun’s path by modern Anglo populations. Three decades later comes an identically titled 2011 Conference on Archaeoastronomy in the American Southwest proceedings volume with the word “Revisited” added, along with a subtitle: “Collaborations in Cultural Astronomy.”

With a foreword by archaeologist James Judge, the culprit referenced above, the work opens with a critical review by astronomer Ed Krupp, followed by five papers on the Chaco-Mesoamerica cultural connection, a topic mandated in the closing discussion of the 1983 volume. This is followed by four papers on northern Arizona sites and three on methods and techniques. A discussion among the editors closes the volume.

To judge by attendance demographics alone, progress has indeed been made. Contributions by astronomers outnumbered those by archaeologists/anthropologists nearly two to one in the 1983 publication; that ratio is reversed in this 2014 volume. The content also reflects an increased emphasis on cultural context.

In the Chaco-Mesoamerica section, Schaafsma finds the Venus-Maize-Rain complex (well known in Mesoamerica) in Puebloan rock art, painting, and kachina adornment, though it is socially less complex. Malville summarizes new evidence against the observation of lunar standstills in the three-slab Fajada site at Chaco Canyon. He also applies, if a bit uncritically given little direct culture-based evidence, Eliade’s axis mundi concept to interpret Fajada Butte as a “cosmic mountain,” juxtaposed as it is next to the Great Kiva. Likewise, Copeland’s paper connecting the Chaco North Road with the alignment of the Milky Way needs stronger ethnographic support than just the designs on Zuni ceramics allegedly representing the Milky Way. Databases on workable horizon calendars on petroglyphs will prove helpful in future investigations.

Marshall and Baker, and Bostwick et al., deal respectively with special features in selected architecture that can aid in the testing of potential alignment hypotheses, and geo-archaeological evidence of worked stone that might bear on the study of light and shadow phenomena. Two excellent pieces by Brugge, and Bernhart and Ortman are solidly based in ethnographic studies. Method papers by Munson on archaeological documentation processes and Hull et al. on testing out false positives, testify to a renewed focus on rigor in horizon alignment studies, where almost no Indigenous written record is extant. Despite the appearance of the word in the title, “collaboration” in archaeology means engaging descendant communities. I would like to have seen a paper like that by Ted Jojola, who wrote about Isleta Pueblo storytelling in the 1983 volume.

I have long advocated that archaeoastronomy will succeed only when it is fully integrated into the discipline of cultural anthropology. This means presenting papers and offering sessions at the American Anthropological Association and the Society for American Archaeology meetings, and reducing the frequency of—though not eliminating—closed sessions. As one conferee commented: “Those who practice archaeoastronomy talk only to others doing archaeoastronomy, not to the larger community of anthropology and archaeology.” Retooling to acquire theory and method in the base discipline is no mean task. Close collaboration helps. If the bubble is still there, this volume tells us the membrane is getting thinner.


Anthony F. Aveni is the Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy, Anthropology, and Native American Studies at Colgate University and the author of The Measure and Meaning of Time in Mesoamerica.

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