Cognitive archaeology for observing

RASC—Eyes on the Universe for 150 Years


Viewing the Moon Across Time


Cognitive archaeology

It may be sufficient for your purposes in deciding how you'll mould your participation in Viewing the Moon Across Time to concentrate on finding suitable equipment (antique or modern analogues), and observing and recording techniques. Such an approach can be fully satisfying, and may even produce new science, or recover science fallen by the wayside (see below). It is unlikley, however, to enable you to enter a perceptual space different from that you normally inhabit when observing. Much may be gained through the experience of trying to see astronomical phenomena through the visual or theoretical context of the past. Doing so may provide valuable insights into explaining the textual and graphic records of some nineteenth-century observations. And this is where cognitive archaeology comes into its own.

Cognitive archaeology is more recent (ca. 1990-) than its sometimes complement experimental archaeology, yet both grew out of the same general matrix. Like experimental archaeology, it has chiefly been deployed on prehistoric remains. Renfrew & Zubrow (1994) is often taken to be the foundational text in English, and its very opening provides a succinct definition of what the subdiscipline is about:

"One of the most taxing problems in archaeology is to determine about what and in what manner did prehistoric people think. Is it possible to make the 'mute stones speak', and will they tell us how (if not what) our predecessors were thinking?" (Renfrew & Zubrow 1994, xiii).

Fortunately, those working on historical period materials have an easier time of it. Paraphrasing Renfrew & Zubrow, the cognitive archaeological aim of Viewing the Moon Across Time is “to determine in what manner Elvins and Co. thought about what they observed”. Using a cognitive archaeological approach on a historical period which, whatever the gaps in surviving evidence, is still luxuriously well-documented compared to prehistory, allows for refinements of focus (the reasonable objections of Renfrew [2003, pp. 41-45] to those—his bêtes noires, the "post-processulaists"—who imagine they can enter unconstrainedly into the minds of prehistoric peoples, may be alleviated somewhat by the evidential checks and balances available to those who try to constrainedly enter the mental space of a historical period, as advocated here).

For orientation, Renfrew & Zubrow is still worth perusing. Preucel (2010) attempts to provide some critical context for those new to cognitive archaeology (and, perhaps, a useful counterbalance to Renfrew), and Malafouris (2013) offers a well thought-out recent approach. Abramiuk 2012 usefully tries to bridge the approaches of the positivistic (processualist) and "idealist" (post-processualist) camps to studying how and what past people may have thought. More specifically astronomical (but still largely dealing with prehistoric materials) is Clive Ruggles’ (2005, 108-109) balanced entry in his encyclopedia; Magli’s (2013) interesting reflections on various issues when recovering cognitive archaeological aspects of early historic Archaeoastronomical sites; and Frake’s (1994) paper in Renfrew & Zubrow (pp. 119-132) dealing with the cognitive archaeology of some practical astronomy largely in the historic period.

For Viewing the Moon Across Time, probably the best way to try to enter into the perceptual and conceptual space of the lunar observers of 1868 before putting one’s eye to the telescope, is to:

  1. work from contemporary lunar maps;
  2. look at a sufficient number of contemporary renditions of the lunar landscape, till you can draw on those visual images at will from memory;
  3. read the 1860s recommendations for programs of lunar work;
  4. and become familiar with 1860s written descriptions of lunar landscapes, identifications and interpretations of features, and explanations for the appearance of the formations.


Expectations, and limitations of method

It is crucial to note that much of the past is destined to remain unknown, and unrecoverable. Materials often survive imperfectly and partially, and once common procedures, precisely because they were common, may never have been carefully described at the time they were current. And, as noted above in the protocol for an experimental archaeology of astronomical observing, a successful experiment provides only one possible way something may have been done (point 11).

As with the equipment and techniques for observation, so it is with past perceptions and conceptions of the universe. It is impossible for a modern observer to forget everything of modern astronomy she has read, and seen. The observer of 2018 performing an archaeological replication of an historic observation of the Moon from 1868 cannot simply lay aside all that we’ve learned about impact cratering since the 1960s, and post-Apollo lunar geology; nor can she forget the imagery from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter any more than she can forget the decades of Hubble Space Telescope imagery. Even if she could erase her modern selenographical knowledge, it would be an unreasonable request for her to do so. It is not as an empty slate to be filled with 1868 images and theories of the Moon that the experimenter is to fulfil the cognitive part of Viewing the Moon Across Time. Yes, as much of the graphic tradition of 1860s selenography with its contemporary theoretical underpinnings should be taken in as practicable. Once acquired, it will be used as the mental setting for the observer replicating the observations, where it will coexist with the observer’s modern knowledge of the Moon. To the extent that any incomplete 1860s mental framework can be used when performing a replicated observation, it will be a success. Any contrasts which arise between the two coexisting mental contexts of lunar observation, that of 1868 and that of 2018, will be worth noting, exploring, and pondering.

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Monday, April 10, 2023 - 1:42am