All those ancient astronauts; Astronomy of the Ancients, edited by Kenneth Brecher and Michael Feirtag. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press. $12.50
Erich von Daniken and other purveyors of ancient-astronaut mythology would have us believe that the body of astronomical knowledge among early civilizations -- not to mention a good part of their architecture and art -- must have resulted from the noblesse obligem of extraterrestrial colonialists. How else could they have got so much of it right, those loutish Assyrians, Egyptians, Mayans, all of them lacking telescopes and computers?
It's a vivid story they tell, in which the visiting aliens eventually fly off , taking with them the secret means to such knowledge, leaving only artifacts.
But the realm fall from astronomical percipience, as Anthony F. Aveni notes in this volume, was much more likely a loss within ourselves. We modern folk have less need and less opportunity to observe the well-darkened night sky, he says -- with the result that the average person today is very possibly more ignorant of basic astronomy than the average person was in Celtic Britain or Teotihuacan Mexico.
"Astronomy of the Ancients" is a collection of eight articles from the borning interdisciplinary field known as archaeoastronomy. Together they provide ample refutation of the von Daniken fallacy. They also provide, more importantly, a picture of the broad role that astronomy played in most ancient cultures: its application to chronology, meteorology, agriculture, religion, astrology, mythology, and the satisfaction of simple curiosity about nature.
The book is full of interesting facts cited, interesting questions raised. We learn of the apparent (but under current theories, impossible) transformation of Sirius, the Dog Star, from a red giant (as recorded by Cicero, Horace, and Ptoleny) to a white dwarf, in the inexplicably short time of only 2,000 years. We learn that the Maya somehow, with uncanny precision, determined the length of the lunar month -- to within seven minutes of its exact value. We learn that Stonehenge was probably notm an ancient observatory -- but the stylized monumentm to an even earlier observatory.
We are tantalized to wonder how the Dogon, a primitive tribe of the former French West Sudan, possessed within their oral tradition the kind of accurate knowledge about Sirius (that it is a double star, whose invisible twin is one of the most dense physical objects in the universe) which can supposedly be gathered only with advanced astronomical technology. We are treated to judicious speculation about the connections among the anatomy of the Aegean octopus the Medusa myth, an the naming of the constellation Perseus, with its great winking star Algol, the Gorgon's eye.
Locating the virtues of this volume is like opening, with short thumbnails, a pound of pistachios. We are given much here -- but not, unfortunately, a very readable book.
Although the eight archaeoastronomers combine an impressive array of intellectual tools -- astrophysics, archaeology, history of technology, textual criticism, mathematics -- good writing is not among them. The exception is the piece by Jerome Y. Lettvin, authority on cephalopods and Medusa, whose essay "The Gorgon's Eye" would stand up as both informative and engaging in any collection. Otherwise, the bits read like scholarly journal articles with the scholarship diluted for popular consumption; disrupted by wasted precision, by major digressions to prove minor points, and by other bad manners of academic prose, the readability is in no way enhanced. It's a shame.
One of the authors even admits that, having presented the same material to a live audience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he found it far easier "to wave my arms in three dimensions and to spin a large armillary sphere, than to convey the same concepts on a flat printed page. As I contemplated the difficulties of this presentation on paper, I could all too easily imagine my readers laying aside their volumes and quietly sneaking off to their refrigerators. And then inspiration struck." What struck him was the idea of appending a cut-out sky chart designed to be taped onto the flanks of a soup can.
At exactly this point I went sneaking off to my refrigerator.