Thursday, April 10, 2014

Archeoastronomy: Ancient Timekeeping

Timekeeping in prehistoric times focused on survival. To stay alive, well-fed and safe, people had to make sense of the various periodic clues in their environment. They developed calendars to time their activities to what was happening in their environment. From watching the seasons of the sun and the phases of the moon, people constructed a map of the cycles of nature. Other people used the changing stars of the night sky as well. For example, peoples of Australia watched for Arcturus, the star, to rise in the northeast sky, so that they could gather the wood-ant larva for food. Meanwhile, the !Kung of the arid Kalahari watched for the star Capella to rise in the evening sky for the advent of the rainy season.

 Calendars enabled people to focus on what they need to do to survive. In northern Maine, my family timed various chores by the calendar. March was sugaring season, when the stronger sun caused the sap to rise in trees. In April, people prepared for the ice to break on the Kennebec River to ship their lumber downstream. (This practice ended in the mid-1970s.) Then in June, berry picking season began for making jams and jellies for the coming winter. June was strawberries, July raspberries, August blueberries, and finally September blackberries. Then in September, we laid in logs for the woodstoves for heat during the winter.

Another part of human survival was conducting religious rites to ensure good relations with the Other Worldly Powers since the Gods were essential to their well-being. Calendars were used to keep these rites in sync with nature. For example, the Romans held Liberalia near the spring equinox to celebrate Liber, who governed plant fertility. When the pastures became green in April, the Romans asked the Pales to protect their livestock. The festival of Parilia (in honor of the Pales) was held to cleanse sheep before sending them out to graze.  During the dry hot days of August, the Volcanalia was held to pray to Vulcan, the God of Fire, to be merciful and quiet.

Works Used:
Adkins, Lesley and Roy Adkins, “Dictionary of Roman Religion,” Oxford University Press: N.Y., 1996.
Aveni, Anthony, “People and the Sky,” Thames & Hudson: N.Y, 2008.
Magli, Giulio, “Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy,” Copernicus Books: N.Y., 2009.

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