Ancient Zodiacs, Star Names, and Constellations: Essays and Critiques


Methodologies for Investigating Constellation Origins by Gary D. Thompson

Copyright © 2003-2018 by Gary D. Thompson


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Methodologies for Investigating Constellation Origins

Tools

Analytical tools and methods able to be applied to the problem of the origin of the constellations ranked in order of approximate reliability and importance:

(1) Historical

  1. Extant astronomical texts (both classical and cuneiform).
  2. Historical texts (basically classical - dealing with the constellations).
  3. Celestial cartography (involving consideration of modern constellation making methods).
  1. Greater reliability. (Likely the most reliable tool.)
  2. Astronomical lore items are able to be analysed.
  1. Limited to the more recent historical period from circa 3000 BCE onwards.
  2. The texts that have survived do not form a complete and uninterrupted historical record.

(2) Philological

  1. Analysis of constellation names.
  1. Possibility of demonstrating constellation borrowing.
  1. Limited to written records.

(3) Anthropological (Analogy)

  1. Concept of 'historic and prehistoric people are culturally like-minded' across space and time projected into the prehistoric past.
  2. Anthropological analogy (regarding the practical purpose of constellation making).
  3. Sky strata (regarding the Shamanistic world view).
  1. Can provide a wider understanding of the practical (and other) processes of constellation development. (Can display additional dimensions of the process of constellation development such as: Selection of stars and asterisms that are in some way provide practical services within society (i.e., calendric markers, timekeepers, weather prognostications, and navigational duty.)
  1. Assumption that people across space and time think alike without the ability of making any actual comparisons for the purpose of explanation..
  2. Limitations to the adequacy of the information collected by informed and uninformed ethnologists and anthropologists. (Can be subject to the following valve on the flow of information: Limited if ethnographers who collect the information have little interest in star lore and little knowledge of practical astronomy and so fail to ask enough questions.)
  3. Limitations to the information collected by ethnologists and anthropologists from sources of knowledge unwilling to freely discuss such. (Can be subject to the following valve on the flow of information: Limited if the detailed knowledge of the stars belongs to esoteric specialists unwilling to discuss the subject or even reveal the information exists.)
  4. When used for prehistory matters analogous (comparative) reasoning lacks actual empirical validation.

(4) Archaeological

  1. Iconography (e.g., pottery artifacts, coins).
  1. Possibility of being a somewhat more effective form of evidence than constellation myths.
  1. Its use is effectively limited to no earlier than circa 4000 BCE. (Though it a little more effective than constellation myths its disciplined use for the Near East reaches only as far back as Neolithic Mesopotamia and Elam, circa 4000 BCE.)
  2. In the absence of other supportive evidence it can be difficult to decide if astral themes are being depicted.

(5) Statistical

  1. Statistical analysis of semi-qualitative information (or qualitative information) in extant astronomical texts (both classical and cuneiform).
  2. Statistical analysis of surviving items of classical celestial cartography.
  1. Possibility of obtaining new insights not forming part of recorded historical material.
  1. Open to being a selective and subjective tool due to qualitative or semi-qualitative nature of the evidence used.
  2. Remains a statistical correlation if the conclusions are not always able to be corroborated by other forms of evidence.

(6) Mythological

  1. Constellation myths.
  1. Descriptive.
  1. Absence of demonstrable connections with prehistoric iconography. (Without clear linkages to prehistoric iconography the myths can only be taken to document what was understood and valued from late prehistory onwards.)
  2. Do not really document early prehistoric beliefs.
  3. Possibility for unconnected later inventions being attached to constellation figures.

(7) Precessional

  1. Southern zone of constellation exclusion.
  2. Constellation asymmetry.
  3. Progressive zodiacal quartets.
  1. Amenable to statistical and descriptive analysis.
  2. Possibility of obtaining new insights not forming part of recorded historical material.
  1. Open to being a selective and subjective tool.
  2. Lacks precision.
  3. Handles the constellations as an integrated set and generally excludes the idea of a gradual process of constellation development.

(8) Comparative

    1.     Identifying star groupings/constellations from the nature and/or order of burials (pits or tombs). (Note: Related to archaeological.)

    1.    Possibility of obtaining new insights not forming part of recorded historical material.

  1. Subjective. Assumption that the dot and line pattern indulged in justifies the Greek constellation pattern set for comparison purposes.

  2. Acceptance of a generic set of Northern sky constellations/patterns (or generic set of Northern sky star groupings) as illustrated by the Greek constellation set.

  3. Use of a late Greek constellation/pattern set as the Northern constellations of an earlier date.

    Note: See the 1990s work of the Dutch archaeologist Linda Therkorn (University of Amsterdam), and also the 2011 analysis by the German researcher Allard Mees (Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseum).

(9) Assumptions

    1. Zodiac quartets and palaeolithic sky strata. (Note: Related to precessional.)

    1. No obvious advantage(s).

    1. Relies whimsically on selective evidence and dubious premises.

    Other example 1: Zone of exclusion (absence of far southern constellations). The principle is assumed to be valid but:

    (1) The Aratean data doesn't possess enough precision and so latitude and epoch remain indeterminable. (2) As the strategy handles the constellations as a set, evolutionary models of constellation development are excluded from its jurisdiction.

    Other example 2: The asymmetry of the constellation figures (on the pole of the equator). The principle is assumed to be valid but:

    (1)  The shape of the constellation figures was not standardised until Ptolemy, circa 150 CE

    (2)  The application of the technique is subjective.

    (3)  In application does not involve the separation of Greek constellations (and the Babylonian zodiac) known prior to Eudoxus.

    (4)  As the strategy handles the constellations as a set, evolutionary models of constellation development are excluded from its jurisdiction.

References

Genuth, Sara. (1997). "Constellations." In: Lankford, John. (Editor). History of Astronomy: An Encyclopedia. (Pages160-164).

Krupp, Ed. (2000). "Night Gallery: The Function, Origin, and Evolution of Constellations." (Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture, Volume XV, Pages 43-63).


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