Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Cosmic Places and Sacred Landscapes

 Weeks 3 and 4 of my "Discover the Ancient Sky" class covered wandering planets, key stars and constellations, and huge sites that represented sacred landscapes that are far more than solar and lunar observatories.


Links to Key Sites and Monuments:



Links to cultural stuff:

How to read the Maya Calendar

Inca astronomy in South America. Also here.

Videos seen in class:





Additional Bibliography:

Aubrey Burl (2005)  Prehistoric Astronomy and Ritual

J. L. Heilbron (2001) The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories

University of Maryland Archaeoastronomy center

UNESCO portal: Portal to the Heritage of Astronomy

Astronomical links: 

Stanford University Solar Center

Monday, February 14, 2022

Our Wonky Moon and Lunar Alignments

 Last week we continued with solar alignments at sites like Chankillo, Peru (see this wonderful video) and spent some time on the lunar orbit. Because the moon's orbital cycle is 18.6 years to repeat its tilting pattern, it is very hard to visualize. The best explanation I have found is here, at the University of Massachusetts Sunwheel website (a sort of mini-Stonehenge created by Prof. Judith Young).

            Thirteen towers at Chankillo. Source: photo by David Edgar, Wikipedia

Another wonderful reference is "Ancient Observatories," by Deborah Scherrer at the Solar Center at Stanford University.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Why study ancient stargazers?

 During the month of February 2022, I'm teaching an Olli course on Discovering the Ancient Sky: The Archaeology of Astronomy.

Why study ancient stargazers? Because people discovered thousands of years ago that being able to predict celestial events such as eclipses of the sun or the flooding of major rivers gave them control over human resources and human behavior. How much of early astrology and astronomy is based on observation vs. mathematics? We owe a considerable debt to ancient Babylonia and Egypt for their accurate observations and timekeeping and to Greek philosophers for their views of the cosmos. However, what people were able to observe depends on several things: time of year and season (controlled by the earth’s movement around the sun and the earth’s tilt), and latitude. How ancient sites were oriented depended on what various cultures considered important (e.g. direction of Nile flow and rising of the sun in Egypt vs. Cahokia’s lunar and Milky Way alignments).

I consulted many books and websites to prepare for this class. Here are some of my favorites: 

 *Taylor, Ken. Celestial Geometry: Understanding the Meanings of Ancient Sites (2012).

*Hadingham, Evan. Early Man and the Cosmos (1984).

*Cornell, James. The First Stargazers: An Introduction to the Origins of Astronomy (1981).

*Aveni, Anthony. People and the Sky: Our Ancestors and the Cosmos (2008).

Aveni, Anthony. Stairways to the Stars: Skywatching in Three Great Ancient Cultures (1997).

Moche, Dinah L. Astronomy: A Self-teaching Guide, 8th Edition (2015).

Marshak, Stephen and Robert Rauber. Earth Science: The Earth, the Atmosphere, and Space, especially Part 5: “Our Solar System and Beyond” (2020 edition).

For a video on the earth's tilt and how that affects the seasons, go here.

For the video on New Grange, Ireland that I showed during the first class, go here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Mapping sites from above and Cahokia

In our last lecture for "Overlooked Archaeology," we discussed LiDAR and satellite photography as well as older remote-sensing techniques for discovering and mapping archaeological sites.


Good summary of LiDAR technique with examples from around the world.


Great Ted talk by archaeologist Sarah Parcak

Wonderful book (available on Amazon):


Best website, hands-down. Called "Re-envisioning Greater Cahokia," it is an interactive map with tons of information on recent discoveries.

Videos: Hour-long lecture by archaeologist Timothy Pauketat
Shorter introduction to a longer PBS video

YouTube channel for ISAS. includes hour-long lecture on Cahokia's red goddesses by Tom Emerson and a short clip on current use of drones as well as other interesting clips.

Articles and book excerpts on Cahokia:

  Tim Pauketat on Cahokia causeway and cosmology

An excerpt from Cahokia: Mirror of the Cosmos by Sally A. Kitt Chappell

Grossmann celts and Nick Wisseman discovery 

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Health and Disease in ancient times...

 This topic is from the third lecture of "Overlooked Archaeology." We covered heart disease and many other ailments in overstudied mummies such as the Italian Iceman and the Chinese noblewoman Lady Dai. We also discussed DNA studies of teeth, which reveal diet, disease, and migration patterns, ancient surgery and medicine, evidence of tooth decay in skeletal remains, and early dental remedies.


Carolyn Freiwald on Tales from Teeth

A humorous medical clip about Galen, ancient Rome's most notorious doctor


The Iceman's poor health

Lady Dai, Chinese mummy

Woman the Hunter 

The Beaded burial at Cahokia

The death of Pliny from going too near an erupting volcano

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Overlooked Archaeology, lecture 2 notes and links

 During our second lecture, we finished up a discussion of ancient pets and animals in religion and moved on to ancient sanitation (especially in Roman cities) and the procuring of food before corn agriculture in Illinois. The last major topic was consumables: wine, beer, olive oil, insect repellent, chocolate, and the "black drink" of North America.


A cherished pet bobkitten in Illinois

Plumbing at Petra in Jordan that allowed for gardens and swimming pools in a desert setting

Interesting links:

Plumbing: great article on Roman sanitation.

Vegetarian diet in Egypt

How the Egyptian pyramid workers got fed

Mesopotamian recipes

Early French wine-making

Cahokia black drink 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Overlooked Archaeology

I am currently teaching a course, “Overlooked Archaeology, at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Illinois (February-March 2021). The title “overlooked” means topics I have not addressed before, not ones that professional archaeologists ignore. It allows me to explore the odder byways of my profession while still incorporating recent advances and new information that I discover in magazines like Archaeology, The Biblical Archaeology Review, or from headlines in the New York Times or New Scientist.

Class Description:

Hollywood archaeology features spectacular discoveries of jewel-laden tombs and lost temples. In everyday archaeology, many discoveries are made far from the original site: in the laboratory, in a museum, or on a computer. Technological advances, especially in the biological sciences, make it possible to investigate everything from ancient medicine to the evolution of agriculture. New kinds of imaging and remote sensing help us read obscured texts and map roadways and underground structures. This class explores some of the odder byways of archaeology: domesticated dogs, beer-making, dental health, pleasure gardens, and locating new sites from space.

In lecture one, we talked about how the discipline of archaeology began with excavating large public buildings (tombs, temples, meeting halls) and collecting inorganic materials (metal, stone, and ceramic). Over time, the focus has shifted to domestic architecture and the artifacts of daily life: private homes, garbage pits, the graves of commoners, and even historic privies. I introduced the domestic architecture of three sites widely separated in space and time: Skara Brae (Scotland), Karanis (Egypt), and Ostia, Italy. We also began a section on ancient pets with the domestication of dogs.

          Video links:

Skara Brae

Roman Ostia 

Book recommendations:

Sarah Parcak, Archaeology from Space

Paul Bahn, The Bluffer’s Guide to Archaeology

Karanis: A Roman town in Egypt (Kelsey Museum Publication 1)

 Authors who write wonderful fiction about ancient Rome and Romans:

Lindsey Davis, Simon Scarrow, Steven Saylor (all use rich historical detail and archaeological records)

 *For more archaeological fiction, check out this review site: https://mvac.uwlax.edu/book-reviews/ (includes a few of my own novels)

Resources for Illinois and Midwestern archaeology:

Our own IllinoisState Archaeological Survey

East Central Illinois Archaeological Society (ECIAS), part of the Illinois Association for the Advancement of Archaeology: http://www.museum.state.il.us/iaaa/easthome.htm

Local lectures and some volunteer opportunities are available (and will return after COVID).

Midwestern cultures (focus on Wisconsin): https://mvac.uwlax.edu/PreEuropeanPeople/