Thursday, May 2, 2013

Rock Art and Ancient Knowledge of Astronomy

Based on the article Orientations of linear stone arrangements in New South Wales iAustralian Archaeology No. 75 by Duane Hamacher, Robert Fuller and Ray Norris.

Original article written for the Australian Archaeological Association Blog

When we think about early astronomy, people like Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and other famous scientists of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries tend to spring to mind. What most people do not realise is that astronomy – the study of celestial objects (planets, stars, galaxies etc) – is the oldest of the natural sciences.

Ancient cultures worldwide observed and considered the objects visible in both the day and night skies and constructed interpretations for their presence and change during the year. Indigenous Australians were one of these considering cultures, and over thousands of years constructed a significant understanding of how the natural world worked. This knowledge was used for various day-to-day and season-to-season activities, such as when it was time to gather certain foods, when the tides would be at their lowest (or highest) and shellfish could be safely collected or islands reached, when were the best times of year to travel and when and how to navigate across this enormous country of ours.

Stone arrangements studied by Duane Hamacher and colleagues: (left) A large stone arrangement complex near Armidale, NSW; (right) Ray Norris at the Wurdi Youang stone arrangement in Victoria. This latter arrangement marks the setting position of the sun at the solstices and equinoxes. Where Ray is standing marks the setting sun at the equinox (photographs courtesy of Duane Hamacher).

This accumulated knowledge was passed on to the next generation, not only through oral history, but also through artworks including rock art. In previous research, Duane Hamacher, Robert Fuller and Ray Norris studied astronomical knowledge and symbolism in Australian Aboriginal rock art and were able to show that Indigenous Australians had a solid understanding of the astronomical realities of our planet and its place in the solar system far back into prehistory.

Read the rest of the article on the Australian Archaeology Association Blog.

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