Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Archaeoastronomy is not looking for an ancient UFO

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At Machu Picchu, I am involved in astronomy and the Inca calendar. For them, it was a great surprise that Europeans came and made them introduce a seven-day week. They had a completely different form of time organisation before that,” says Professor Mariusz Ziółkowski from the University of Warsaw, archaeologist and head of the Andean Research Centre.

TVP WEEKLY: What does archaeoastronomy do?

MARIUSZ ZIÓŁKOWSKI: I am an archaeologist and a bit of an anthropologist and historian. I do archaeoastronomy somewhat on the side, but I have also published on the subject and teach students about it. My master was the late Professor Andrzej Wierciński, who pioneered seminars on the subject at the University of Warsaw in the 1970s. So when, years ago, I started lectures on archaeoastronomy at the UW – following in his footsteps – I asked the students the same thing you asked me: what do you think archaeoastronomy does? Consternation, slight trepidation in the eyes of the students, finally one of the most daring stood up and said: “But Professor, to be honest I don’t believe in UFOs” (laughter). So let’s start by explaining what archaeoastronomy is not, as it is often associated with the ‘Ancient aliens’ series from the US TV History Channel.

In Poland, this series is also shown b>

Well, that’s where the continuing confusion comes from. So, to be clear: this is what archaeoastronomy is not, this is what it does not deal with. But what is it? It is a discipline on the intersection of archaeology and the history of astronomy, which deals with ancient knowledge of the wider sky. This is because we must remember that so-called pre-industrial societies linked meteorological and astronomical phenomena of the celestial sphere. However, it is not only a matter of studying the traces of this ancient knowledge, but also – perhaps most interestingly – its impact on the functioning of society as a whole. If, for example, the decisions of the Assyrian rulers were made after consulting astrologers, this had an impact on the functioning of the entire state.

Probably also today – whoever knew the details of the horoscope set for the Year of the Rabbit to the Chinese Communist Party authorities would probably be smarter than the legendary diplomat Henry Kissinger… But let us return to the past and archaeoastronomy. How do archaeologists interact with astronomers, as it seems necessary?

First of all, for the astronomer, there is no such thing as an approximate value. He must have everything precisely stated to a number of decimal places: magnitudes, distances, rotation times and so on. When it is explained to him that, long ago, certain things were determined with considerable approximation, the astronomer feels a little confused.

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