The link between astronomy and architecture

Archaeoastronomy is an interdisciplinary science that is still young, if approached with the right rigor, can lead to important discoveries about the history of architecture, astronomy and human thought.




One of the first instincts of man was to contemplate the sky. One of the earliest human activities was the construction of megaliths. Astronomy and architecture have traveled for thousands of years in close contact, and today we know that in ancient times, many people tailored their buildings according to specific astronomical alignments, following and analyzing the movements of the Sun and stars.

The study of these connections is known as archaeoastronomy, an interdisciplinary science that provide for precise analysis that has to deal not only with the position of the stars and with the archaeological findings, but also with the iconography, the interpretation of texts and history, philosophical, religious and cultural man.

Astronomical orientations have been found in hundreds of temples and other religious buildings and everywhere around the world. But how many of these alignments are purely random and how many are the reflection of a specific cultural history? One of the first tasks of an archaeoastronomer is precisely to show that the alignments are not only the result of the case. “To do modern archaeoastronomy, we must use all sources, including even when there exist, the ethnological sources,” says Giulio Magli, professor at the Faculty of Architecture at the Polytechnic University of Milan, where he teaches the only college course in archeoastronomy in Italy . “For example, there are still rural populations who use the Tzolkin calendar of 260 days, the sacred calendar of the Maya from thousand years ago. And the scholars of the Maya have now become clear that learning about astronomy and archaeoastronomy is a key piece to try to understand a Mayan site. ”

When we speak of the relationship between monuments and the stars, we inevitably think of the pyramids of Giza. “In Egypt, the link between astronomy and architecture is that of a cultural identity that remains largely unchanged for three thousand years,” Magli said. But such examples are also found in the Ancient Greek, where, he says, “the vast majority of the temples are oriented to the rising of the Sun, like many Christian churches also reflected here in a very culturally specific.” “The Roman temple had typically orientation or random depending on the equipment or the city’s urban and topographic features. No one has ever demonstrated a recurrence of orientation in the Roman temples, and of course, we cannot figure it out from a single city: it would take a complete database,” explains Magli.

The reference is a research presented a few days ago by Vance Tiede on religious buildings of Pompeii. “In Roman culture, the emperor is especially to be linked to the celestial motions,” Magli said. “One of the examples is the Pantheon, which is constructed in such a way to celebrate the birth of Rome, on April 21. On that day the beam of light that enters in the eye, directly affects the entrance, at noon. This phenomenon, which we have studied, Robert Hannah and I, a few years ago, it was already known in the cultural tradition of the city, for example in the drawings and described in 1700 by Giovanni Battista Piranesi.” Relations between the foundation of Rome, the figure of the emperor and the heavens are present in several Roman buildings, such as the Domus Aurea or the Sundial of Augustus. “For the temples, we are still very far from having a complete database and thus a proper statistical knowledge. This new analysis of the temples of Pompeii may be interesting from the point of view of cataloging. However, we have no information yet from strong cultural and archaeological sites in order to draw conclusions.” On the other hand the fact that a building is aligned with some celestial motion is not in itself evidence, particularly because of the huge amount of stars in the sky.

The undoubted charm that carries this discipline, with its echoes of ancestral and cultural influences, often leads to strong pitch invasions by amateurs who, in good faith, with their research lax end up complicating the job of scientists. “A classic example is the Etruscans”, Magli said .



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