Thursday, March 15, 2012

Monuments Tied to the Sky: Ancient Astronomy and its Global Heritage

Sydney Observatory welcomes you to a special night about Archaeoastronomy.  Professor Clive Ruggles from the University of Leicester, will give a special talk about ancient stone monuments and their relationship to astronomy.  This is a must see event!

The evening also includes a telescope viewing (weather permitting), a glass of wine or cup of tea, and is presented in Sydney Observatory’s marquee overlooking the beautiful Sydney Harbour.  A short ‘how to view the Transit of Venus’ presentation will be offered after the key-note presentation.

Location: Sydney Observatory
Date: Wednesday, 30 May 2012
Time: 6:00-8:00 pm
Cost: $18 adult, $14 concession - $16 adults members, $11 concession members
Bookings:  Book online or call (02) 9921 3485

Monuments Tied to the Sky
Ancient Astronomy and its Global Heritage

Naked-eye observations of the sky stretch back countless millennia into prehistory. In today’s brightly lit world it is all too easy to forget just how overwhelming the dark night sky would have been to human societies in the past—a prominent part of the observed world that was impossible to ignore. The objects and cycles seen there were vital to people striving to make sense of the world within which they dwelt and to keep their actions in harmony with the cosmos as they perceived it. For the archaeoastronomer, certain ancient monuments provide tantalising glimpses of long lost beliefs and practices relating to the sky, although they have to be interpreted with considerable caution. In this lecture Clive Ruggles, Emeritus Professor of Archaeoastronomy at the University of Leicester, will describe some major new discoveries made in recent years, focusing on his own work in Peru, Polynesia, and prehistoric Europe, and describe the efforts of UNESCO and the International Astronomical Union to preserve and protect the often-fragile heritage of ancient astronomy around the planet.

The Thirteen Towers of Chankillo, in Peru, a 2300-year-old solar observation site that hit the headlines
in March 2007 with the first publication of Ruggles’ work together with Peruvian archaeologist Ivan Ghezzi.

About the Speaker:
CLIVE RUGGLES is Emeritus Professor of Archaeoastronomy in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester, UK. He has worked in many parts of the world and published numerous books, papers and articles on subjects ranging from prehistoric Europe and pre-Columbian America to indigenous astronomies in Africa and elsewhere. He has ongoing fieldwork projects in Peru and Polynesia and is a leading figure in the joint initiative by UNESCO and the International Astronomical Union to promote, preserve, and protect the world's most important astronomical heritage sites. See more at

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Magellanic Clouds

by Duane Hamacher

Unlike their Northern hemisphere counterparts, Southern hemisphere observers have a rich tapestry of celestial objects above their heads.  of the thousands of visible stars, clusters, planets, and nebulae are three galaxies: the obvious plane of the Milky Way, and two small satellite galaxies.  Although visible for tens of thousands of years before European voyages, these clouds were eventually named after the famous Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521).  The first written account of the Magellanic Clouds was by the Persian astronomer Al Sufi and were observed by two Italian explorers at the end of the 15th century.

The clouds of Magellan.  Photo by the European Southern Observatory.

The dwarf galaxies, about 20 degrees apart in the night sky, are known as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, or LMC and SMC.  The LMC is about 14,000 light years across and contains the mass of 10 billion suns - 100 times less massive than the Milky Way.  The SMC is about 7,000 light years across and contains the mass of about 7 billion suns.  At a distance of 200,000 light years, it is one of the farthest objects that can be seen with the naked eye.

The LMC and SMC have a rich tradition in the cultures of Aboriginal Australians. It is featured in the oral traditions of most all Aboriginal groups.  Below are a handful of Aboriginal accounts of the LMC and SMC:

  • In the Northern Territory, Ngalia spirits (called the Walanari) live in the Magellanic Clouds and throw hot stones to the earth in anger if someone reveals secret knowledge.
  • In Western Australia, the Magellanic Clouds represent the camp of an old couple who can no longer obtain their own food. The Large Magellanic Cloud is the camp of the old man while the Small Magellanic Cloud is the camp of the old woman and a nearby star represents their fire. This story represents a celestial model of respect for elders and the need to share food with those who need it.
  • In Arnhem Land, the Magellanic Clouds represent an old man and woman by a campfire.  You can find a story from South Australia here.
  • The Adelaide people called the Magellanic clouds 'Ngakallamurro', said to literally mean "paroquet-ashes". Being white, they represent the ashes of the Blue Mountain lorikeet. These birds were assembled there by one of the constellations and were later treacherously roasted.
  • The Magellanic Clouds were known in the Lower Murray as Prolggi, which was translated as "cranes". The Yaraldi considered that there were two Prolggi in the sky, having got there after fighting with the emu spirit, Pindjali, who also became a heavenly body.
  • The Yaraldi people tell a story about two cranes who, knowing that the emus would hunt them and kill them, flew up into the air, circling around, higher and higher, until they reached the sky. They found it to be a good country to live in, so they stopped there. You can see them in the heavens at night, "in the form of two patches of clouds, like wisps of smoke, at the end of the Milky Way." The Aboriginal people's belief is that when anyone of them is knocked down and left bruised and unconscious on the ground by a person from another tribe, the brolgas comedown, lift him up and guide him home.
  • The Gundidjmara people held that the larger cloud was a 'gigantic crane', the smaller cloud being the female equivalent. A similar version has also been recorded in the Kamilaroi language of northern central New South Wales. As with their terrestrial counterparts, these celestial spirit beings migrated according to the season. In the winter sky, the cranes are seen lying to the southeast and then south of the Milky Way. In summer they shift towards the western side.