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Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 31 March Equinox 1999


Same Time Next Year
by Alane L. Alchorn, Assistant Editor A&E News

Forget the usual rigors of fieldwork, Centennial Park affords every advantage a researcher could desire: monumental sculptures that demonstrate clear astronomical intent, a reliable written record of their creation, and willing local informants. These informants recite accurate information and are motivated to share their knowledge with outsiders. The site even offers clean drinking water and flush toilets-it is almost too good to be true. Pleasanton, California, an otherwise unremarkable bedroom community some 35 miles east of San Francisco, is the setting for this unusual civic center combining solar astronomy with landscape architecture that highlights seasonal change.

Unlike Northern Europe's standing stones, the tumuli that speckle Anatolia, or Inca ruins echeloning the Andes, Centennial Park is not isolated or enigmatic. Precisely the opposite is true. It occupies a location so accessible that even visitors limited by the infirmities of age or disability can observe sun and seasons from its benches. The park's purpose is obvious: to invite all comers to enjoy the play of light and shadow on "Albus," the central sun sculpture, and on an adjacent reflecting pond. Brick-banded alleys of summer magnolia and liquid amber trees point to solstice fiducials along the distant ridges. To an alert observer, the alignments are striking.

The anthropological questions intrigue. Why did these people invest public monies and effort in an astronomical garden? How was this particular presentation selected? What was the involvement of local citizens, elected and appointed officials, professional city staffers, the chosen artisans? What can we learn from a modern process that favored astronomy over competing interests? Can we apply any of this information to the study of older cultures or different locations? Intentional solar astronomy, while an unusual feature in modern common areas, it is not unique to Centennial Park. At least 15 similarly deliberate creations can be found within a 40-mile radius (Trost: 1998) of this site. Public lands, public funds, or both, facilitate the use of open space for astronomy in six of the nine Bay Area counties (AANC: 1996).

Although the current Pleasanton population stands at slightly more than 60,000, residents relate that they live in a friendly small town with deep historical roots. (The city was incorporated in 1894, and landmark buildings from that era are preserved along Main Street.) Pleasantonians assert that their town is not just another Bay Area suburb, but a unique community that protects its heritage and values its contributions to Early California. Cattle ranching and hops farming dominated the region throughout the first half of this century. Although both forms of agriculture retreated under pressure from residential development, locals cherish the notion that they "live in the country."

This perceived proximity to nature may predispose Pleasanton residents and officials toward an acceptance of astronomy, but a deeper cause is also at work. In October 1991, the City Council formed the Art in Public Places Committee to encourage corporate and individual endowment of public art. At the council's behest, the committee submitted a draft ordinance on the review and selection process for publicly funded art projects. The resulting 1996 Pleasanton Art in Public Places ordinance quotes the National Endowment for the Arts statement of purpose (in part) saying, " is through art that we will be understood and remembered by those who will come after us." Clearly Pleasantonians recognize their place in the stream of human history. Six residents are now appointed as Civic Arts Commissioners. They serve at the pleasure of the council, and advise professional staff member Andy Jorgensen, the city's Civic Arts Manager.

Jorgensen notes that the choice of Albus for Centennial Park capped a, "very complete selection process." It is the city's first commissioned piece of publicly funded art, as donors had purchased all prior city artworks. More than 250 Northern California artists were invited to, "submit proposals for a work that would complement the park, be appropriate for placement on the (existing) pedestal, and reflect the theme of a passage of time." (City of Pleasanton: 1998) Fifty artists accepted, sending slides of their proposed works. Five finalists were commissioned to create scale models, or maquettes, for public perusal. After a period of display and open comment, the Civic Arts Commissioners held a public meeting and selected Albus (reflectivity of light) by Diana Pumpelly Bates. The finished work is elegant and eye-catching. A shallow parabolic dish with a nine-pointed star excised from its center rests atop three tall legs, each of which is tripodal. The entire sculpture is formed of brushed and polished stainless steel, so all its surfaces trace combinations of light and shadow.

The surrounding park grounds also echo the passage of time. Michael Fulford, City Landscape Architect, acknowledges that many park users will not grasp its full impact. "We recognized that most people would not see the alignments and layout. But, we liked Stan's (Stan Heacox's) plan and its use of liquid amber trees and summer magnolias. Not many trees are active (in leaf) in the winter, but the liquid amber holds its purple leaves at the solstice." Stan Heacox, principal of Heacox Associates in San Rafael, California, won the city contract for landscape architecture. His design best demonstrated the passage of time through plantings, layout of the grounds, and garden accessories. Brass disks at the base of the pedestal supporting Albus mark the cardinal directions. The June solstice alignment even incorporates a bronze yak. One can clamber up and sight through the yak's curled horns, between two ranks of trees, to the hillside fiducial. Heacox placed benches at all significant sight lines and vantage points, so that visitors might discover the park's attributes personally and in their own time. These way stations have become vital for those interpreting the site themselves, as city officials chose not to install a visitor's guide, relying instead on common knowledge of the alignments. Fulford remarked offhandedly that he monitors comments about the park, and will suggest that the city erect an expository kiosk, should users find the alignments and pathways incomprehensible.

With distinct purpose, elected and appointed representatives for the people of Pleasanton interpreted the residents' will in the matter of public art. They identified likely artists and invited intense public scrutiny of those artists' proposals. The chosen artisans completed their sculptural and horticultural work, and city officials dedicated Centennial Park with fanfare, speeches, and music furnished by the community band. The known parallels with older cultures and other places are powerful reminders that astronomy remains a link across cultural and temporal boundaries. We can only hope that researchers inquiring a half-millennium from now will know precisely why Centennial Park was endowed with its astronomical character.


    Astronomical Association of Northern California, "Northern California Astronomy Resource Guide," Don Stone, Ed. (Oakland, CA) January 1996.

    City of Pleasanton, California, "Art in Public Places" city ordinance, 1996.

    City of Pleasanton, California, Parks and Community Services, "Albus," a dedication program distributed at Centennial Park on September 28, 1998.

    Trost, Carl, "The Historical, Monumental, and Sometimes Quirky Sundials and Sun Sculptures of the San Francisco Bay Area," a presentation to the East Bay Astronomical Society, Chabot Observatory & Science Center, (Oakland, CA) November 7, 1998.

Photo Caption The sun sculpture Albus accents the "passage of time" theme designed into Centennial Park in Pleasanton, California. Circle Wing photo, September 1998.


CLARIFICATION: Astronomical Traditions in Past Cultures, from the 1993 SEAC meeting, and the two Oxford 3 books (Astronomies and Cultures, and Archaeoastronomy in the 1990s) are available at a discount prices from Ocarina Books Ltd., 28 The Croft, Stroud Green, Bognor Regis, W. Sussex, PO21 5TH, UK.

LUNAR STANDSTILLS? Sara L. Gardner a graduate student at the University of Arizona, has speculated that the text from Joshua 10: 12-13 provided the earliest mention of this phenomenon. She also suggested that the site of Gezer in Israel with its standing stones might have been a place from which such observation were made. She presented her data on Gezer at the 1998 American Schools of Oriental Research Conference in Orlando where it was well-received, including the text connection between Joshua and lunar standstills. The biblical scholars at this conference accepted her data as evidence that the people of Gezer had a basic knowledge of astronomy. With the help of Ray White of Steward Observatory, the data show that the ten standing stones at Gezer mark the June solstice , equinoxes and the southern lunar excusion, all within 1 degree. The stones date to 1600 BCE. Nearby drawings in a cave that show how the stones were used date to before 2900 BCE, before Egyptian contact with this site. The Joshua text doesn't fit with Gezer as the place of his observation, but the organization of this site indicates the type of observations were made.

RENOVATIONS: The Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum in Chicago is dedicating an entire floor to the exhibition of human attempts to understand the universe. It will consist of five galleries: the dawn of astronomy, the Earth-centered universe (already developed), the Sun-centered universe, the Milky Way-centered universe and, finally, modern exploration of the universe. The Adler is one of the few independent museums in the world devoted to interpreting the science of astronomy to the public. Facility directors will soon open a spectacular $40 million addition, and will redevelop the original building to tell the human stories of astronomy. Visitors will first encounter the "Dawn of Astronomy" (working title) gallery, a permanent exhibit area occupying 2400 square feet (plus entry and exiting corridors). On the targeted opening date in June 2001, the Adler expects to host a symposium and to publish a catalog of essays relating to non-telescopic observational astronomy around the world.

SHOW AND TELL: "Star Tales," a new multi-media show presented in the planetarium theater of the Griffith Observatory, premiered 6 January 1999. It details the mythology of many familiar constellations and examines what these stories tell us about people who lived long ago. For information call (323) 664-1191 or visit the Observatory web site at

ANTH 391: Archaeoastronomy is a course offered by Dr. Dicken Everson of the Department of Anthropology at California State University San Bernardino. Coursework introduces the student to archaeoastronomy by considering how cosmology is manifested archaeologically as an expression of worldview. Students examine creation myths, concepts of order and chaos, and the ways in which ancient peoples attempted to observe, interpret, and interact with the forces they believed governed the operations of the universe. In short, students invoke core values from anthropology, to show how ancient peoples practiced "participant observation" in the cosmos. No prerequisites apply, so students receive a fast bath in the fundamentals (celestial coordinates, precession and obliquity, seasons, horizon positions for rising and setting bodies at various latitudes, etc.), followed by a tour through the classic sites where astronomical observations likely occurred. This entails the usual romp through Stonehenge, Chichen-Itza, Karnak, Fajada Butte, and other well-known sites. The students consider arguments and interpretations offered in a series of assigned readings, mostly journal articles, regarding these sites.
The first class, while it was a great success, was offered through the "Current Topics" program, not as a regularly scheduled course. Therefore, the opportunity to teach it a second time has not come up yet arisen. Everson continues promote archaeoastronomy in his department and encourages his most apt students to tackle topics in archaeoastronomy for their term papers in other courses (such as the ancient cultures of North America, Mesoamerica, and Andean South America).

A CENTRAL TEXAS SUN DAGGER: At the January 1999 American Astronomical Society meeting, R. Robert Robbins reported on the results of almost two years of study at Paint Rock in central Texas. This south-facing bluff is about one-half mile long and 30-40 feet high. In winter, it provides natural shelter form the cold north winds; in summer it provides shade and channels breezes created by the Concho River, less than 100 yards away. Indications of habitation in this area date from 6000 BP, and the names of known Indians can be found in the rocks. The bluff is dense with pictographs up to a height of 30 feet.
The site is on private land, and owners Kay and Fred Campbell have acted as protective custodians for years. Noticing by chance a curious solar behavior around Christmas time, the owners contacted Dr. Robbins, who found that dramatic daggers of sunlight strike the rocks at the winter solstice, shineing on the pictograph of a shield clearly drawn in the rocks. According to D. E. Sims, who purchased the ranch in 1878 and had many interactions with the local Indians, the "shield" painting signified a council meeting to divide hunting lands among five bands of Indians. A representation of the number 5 appears twice in the painting design. A light dagger reaches the pictograph within a few minutes of apparent solar noon. This suggests that the Indians using this territory (the Tonkawa and the Jumano, then later the Apache, Kiowa, and Commanche) and were constructing and using of seasonal markers that exhibit a higher degree of calendrical skills than has generally been attributed to them.

The hypothesis that the petroglyph at Paint Rock held an intentional winter solstice marker compelled evidence for a summer solstice "show." With mythology as his guide, Robbins focused particular attention on representations of turtles. Turtles are a popular theme at Paint Rock, just as they are in Mesoamerica, where the slow-moving turtle symbolized the solstice. The largest and most elaborate turtle pictograph was located, and the appearance of a new sun dagger, began to develop within 5 minutes or so of its expected passing of the meridian. For more information on this site, contact Bob Robbins in the Astronomy Department at the University of Texas in Austin , and for images, access

BAROQUE STAR CHARTS: Flamsteed's 1729 Celestial Charts was the subject of a recent exhibition at the British Library. Several images of this beautiful sky atlas are viewable through or Barry Lawrence Ruderman, who operates Old Historic Maps & Prints, has available large jpeg images (300-500k, or larger if requested). Copies may be requested by e-mailing to or writing Old Historic Maps & Prints, 141 Soledad Mountain Road, La Jolla, CA 92037 Phone: (619) 551-8500.


(If you know of a recent publication of interest that we have missed, please send all of the information necessary for our readers to find the article or book.)

Aveni, Anthony 1998 "The Star of Bethlehem, Was it a Celestial Event, a Supernatural Phenomenon, or a Story Made Up by Mathew?" Archaeology, Nov-Dec, 34-38.

Aveni, Anthony 1998 "Dialogue with the Firmament," Archaeology, Nov-Dec, 39-42.

Aveni, Anthony and Mizrachi, Yonathan 1998 "The Geometry and Astronomy of Rujm el-Hiri, a Megalithic Site in the Southern Levant," Journal of Field Archaeology, 25, #4, 475-496.

Chapman-Reitschi, P. A. L. 1997 "Astronomical Conceptions in Mithric Iconography," Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, 91, June, 131-134.

Marriner, Harry A. 1998 "Petroglifos: una breve comparacion de Tres Sitios", Rupestre, 2, #2, 25-30. Note that the entire volume is dedicated to papers on Colombian rock art. In addition, Marriner has a manuscript titled "Rock Artists and Skywatchers in Ancient Colombia."

Fowler, Melvin L, (ed.) 1996 "The Ancient Skies and Skywatchers of Cahokia: Woodhenges, and Eclipses and Cahokian Cosmology," (with contributions by Warren Wittry, Martha Rolingson, Timothy Pauketat, Edwin Krupp, John Kelly, Robert Hall, William Gartner, and Melvin Fowler), The Wisconson Archaeologist, 77, #3 and 4.

Martlew, R.D. & Ruggles, C.L.N. 1996 "Ritual and Landscape on the West Coast of Scotland: an Investigation of the Stone Rows of Northern Mull," Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 62, 117-31.

McNally, D. and Ruggles, C.L.N. 1997 "The Minor Standstill of the Moon and Stonehenge," Astronomy and Geophysics, 38, 30-1.

Ruggles, C.L.N. 1994 "The Stone Rows of South-West Ireland: A First Reconnaissance," Archaeoastronomy (supplement to Journal for the History of Astronomy), 19, S1-20.

1996 "Archaeoastronomy in Europe," in C. Walker (ed.), Astronomy Before the Telescope, British Museum Press, London, 15-27.

1996 "Summary of the RAS Specialist Discussion Meeting on Current Issues in Archaeoastronomy," The Observatory, 116, 278-85.

1996 "Stone Rows of Three or More Stones in South-West Ireland," Archaeoastronomy, 21 (supplement to the Journal for the History of Astronomy, 27), S55-71.

1997 "Astronomy and Stonehenge," in Barry Cunliffe and Colin Renfrew (eds.), Science and Stonehenge, (Proceedings of the British Academy, 92), OUP, Oxford, 203-29.

1997 "Whose Equinox?" Archaeoastronomy, 22 (supplement to the Journal for the History of Astronomy, 28), S45-50.

1998 "Ritual Astronomy in the Neolithic and Bronze Age British Isles: Patterns of Continuity and Change," in Alex Gibson and Derek Simpson (eds.), Prehistoric Ritual and Religion: Essays in Honour of Aubrey Burl, Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 203-8.

Ruggles, C.L.N. and D. J. Medyckyj-Scott 1996 "Site Location, Landscape Visibility and Symbolic Astronomy: A Scottish Case Study," in Herbert D.G. Maschner (ed.), New Methods, Old Problems: Geographical Information Systems in Modern Archaeological Research, Carbondale, Illinois: Center for Archaeological Investigations Occasional Paper no. 23, 127-46.

Ruggles, C.L.N. and Hoskin, M.A. 1997 "Astronomy Before History," in M.A. Hoskin (ed.), The Cambridge Illustrated History of Astronomy, Cambridge University Press, 2-21.

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