March 20th: The Tradition of Looking Up


nps-02Date: March 20, 2009


Title: The Tradition of Looking Up

Podcaster: Chad Moore and Angie Richman

Organization: U.S. National Park Service

Description: As long as humans have been on the Earth we have identified a part of ourselves and our culture by how we interact with the heavens above. In modern times we have come to rely on our tools, namely computers and telescopes, as a way for us to understand our place in the universe. But many of us still cherish the experience of sitting around a campfire with family and friends just looking up in awe. In these moments we are perhaps closer to our ancestors than at any other time, maybe thinking many of the same thoughts. The archaeological record richly reveals the connection our ancestors had to the cosmos. We find beautiful stellar patterns woven into clothing and painted on pottery. We find sophisticated alignments in buildings and rock art that they carefully developed to tell time and establish calendar systems. It is logical to conclude that ancient peoples were in tune with the annual migration of the sun, moon, and stars using this information to tell time, navigate, and generally make their lives better. We mark the Vernal Equinox today by examining how we connect with the cosmos­ past, present, and future.

Bio: U.S. National Park Service’s Night Sky Program

Today’s Sponsor: The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). Explore the hidden Universe in radio at


INTRODUCTION- Chad Moore, National Park Service

This Podcast is put together by the US National Park Service’s Night Sky Program. Today’s podcast features Angie Richman, an interpretive ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, in Western Colorado. Angie has a degree in astrophysics with a minor in archeology; this unique combination gives her insights into how past civilizations have interacted with the starry night.

STORY- Angie Richman, National Park Service

Today, March 20th, we celebrate the vernal, or spring Equinox, with a look at cultural astronomy and humanity’s connection with the cosmos – past and present

So you might be asking yourself, what is cultural astronomy anyway? Well, this is a young and exciting science that began in the 1960’s with new research regarding Stonehenge. England’s Stonehenge is a collection of stone monoliths that are precisely placed in a circular pattern. In the 1960’s these monoliths were studied with astronomical alignments in mind, and it was revealed that many of the placements of the stones aligned to the rising and setting of the sun, moon, and bright stars. This new concept proved Stonehenge as not just a work of art, but something elaborately planned. It told us of the level of sophistication and astronomical understanding of the culture that build it. Scientists then began to see this same level of thought incorporated into many of the world’s ancient ruins, and thus the science of cultural astronomy was born.

Cultural astronomy is the study of how any culture, even your own, relates to the cosmos. This discipline is also referred to as Archaeoastronomy, and combines the sciences of astronomy, archaeology, and ethnology. With it we can better understand the value of the sky to many cultures and how they have incorporated the sky’s rhythms into daily living.

In the American Southwest many of our National Parks beautifully preserve some of the best examples of prehistoric astronomy. There the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly known as the Anasazi) were sky watchers for thousands of years. The sky and the objects within it were their companions, being both magical to them and faithfully the subject of serious observation and science. These people, who once lived off this land, also lived off the sky. By looking into the archaeological record and by understanding American Indians of today we have gleaned some of the importance of the sky to the Ancestral Puebloans. We see the evidence in their rock art, building alignments, material culture, and in modern day oral histories. Keeping record of the annual migration of the sun, moon, and stars was so important that they had chiefs who were “sun watchers” like our modern astronomers. These sun watchers had the critical job of telling the rest of the society the time throughout the day, and keeping the calendar throughout the year.

By watching the rising and setting of the sun throughout the year, one can see its annual migration pattern. In late June the sun will rise far to the north east along the horizon, and set in the north west, marking the longest day of the year. This is the summer solstice. The sun will appear to rise in that position for about a week and then start its morning ascent further and further to the south each day. Three months later the sun will rise due east, and set due west; this is the day of the Autumnal equinox, where there is an equal 12 hour day and 12 hour night. This equality happens in the spring as well- the vernal equinox. On these two days 6 months apart the sun will rise and set on the horizon in the exact same position. By late December the sun will rise at its most south east position along the horizon marking the shortest day of the year- The winter solstice.

Cultural Astronomers find record of our ancestors marking these special days in their rock art; with astronomical images artfully carved or painted into rock surfaces. Many of these images interact with the celestial objects throughout the year revealing light and shadow events that mark the passage of time. Astronomical connections are also found in the architecture of buildings with windows or doorways aligned to catch the first or last glimpses of the sun on the solstices or equinoxes. Entire communities may have settled in certain locations based on a distinct horizon marker in order to obtain an accurate calendrical cycle. They relied on their calendar just as much as we do today. Their calendar was used to determine such events as planting and harvesting crops, hunting, and when to start preparing and performing certain ceremonies. These are the basic activities that need to be done at certain times in order to sustain societal life. It also seems apparent that simply looking up in awe at the night sky was fundamental in the ancient’s beliefs, possibly giving them a way to identify their role and place within the universe. Many of these prehistoric alignments can still be experienced today within our National Parks.

Just as the ancients designated sunwatchers to tell time for society, this tradition continued on into more recent times. Before the establishment of time zones and accurate atomic clocks, each town had a sun watcher, called an astronomer, who was responsible for time keeping. A great example was in the town of Sydney. Sydney surrounds a harbor, Australia’s bustling economic center. It was important to let the townsfolk and the ships know when it was 1 o’clock in the afternoon. So they established an observatory in the center of town on a hill. The astronomer using a sundial would watch the gnomen’s shadow until it grazed 1 o’clock. He would then drop a flag from on top of the observatory to signal a canon down below. The resounding boom heard throughout the harbor would synchronize life in the town and trade in the South Pacific.

Today we have come to rely upon our tools like compasses, watches, pre-made calendars, computers and telescopes as a way for us to fix our time and place in the universe. However, many of us still cherish the experience of sitting around a warm, crackling fire with family and friends and just looking up at the night sky in awe. In these moments we are perhaps closer to our ancestors than at any other time, maybe even asking the same questions of the sky.

TRAILER- Chad Moore, National Park Service

We hope you have enjoyed today’s podcast on cultural astronomy. The National Park Service strives to preserve the best of America for this and future generations. This includes the starry night sky. More information on the National Park Service can be found at There you can find further links to parks like Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The Night Sky Program of the National Park Service can be found at

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at or email us at Until tomorrow…goodbye.

About Chad Moore and Angie Richman

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2 Responses to March 20th: The Tradition of Looking Up

  1. AJ March 20, 2009 at 12:38 pm #

    You have it in one; Stonehenge is a geometrically inspired construction that has a solar axis(midsummer sunrise midwinter sunset):

    ‘England’s Stonehenge is a collection of stone monoliths that are precisely placed in a circular pattern.’

    The circle is the simplest accurate shape that can be marked on the ground- just using a peg and cord, the next easiest shape to lay out is the hexagon (the circles radius struck around the circumference). To early people these simple geometric ‘truths’ may have seemed magical.

    That the hexagon is the basis for the design of a very important early Bronze Age artifact found near Stonehenge in 1808 (the Bush Barrow Gold Lozenge), proves that the people around that time knew quite a lot geometric constructions ( a second Gold Lozenge from a place in Dorset was based on a decagon). And those that ‘used’ Stonehenge knew quite a lot about geometry. The fact that the sarsen Circle at Stonehenge employs 30 uprights (5×6) is almost certainly related to the use of the hexagon buy the prehistoric surveyors. What the circle, and the central ‘horseshoe’ form of the monument actually meant to the people, we can only guess. But that guess is somewhat easier when we understand how they used their knowledge of geometry to create the structure.

    Importantly Stonehenge was designed to ‘face’ the midwinter sunset. The Great Trilithon uprights were raised from the inside – outwards towards the midwinter sun (also look at photographs of Stonehenge you will see that almost all the stones have one flat surface and one rough). It was the flat surfaces that registered against the wall of the foundation hole – on the opposite side of the hole a ramp was usually cut down which the upright was introduced. So clearly the prehistoric surveyors markers which positioned the centre face of the stones (and they were very accurately positioned) was placed against the side where the flat face of the stone was to register. So they didn’t ‘jiggle the stones around’ to ‘align’ them with this or that distant object – they knew exactly where they had to be placed because they were working to a carefully premeditated geometric plan.


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