Star Cluster NGC 2074 in the Large Magellanic Cloud  
NASA, ESA, and M. Livio (STScI)
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Welcome to IYA!

Cultural Astronomy Working Group
Cultural Astronomy is the relationship between people, their cultures, and astronomy. It is also an interdisciplinary field that studies current and ancient societies, through anthropology, sociology, history,
astronomy, archaeology, folklore, and philosophy. Some areas are:
Archaeoastronomy : How peoples in the past understood celestial events, how they used celestial pheonomena and the role of the sky in their cultures.
Ethnoastronomy : How people in current cultures and societies understand and use astronomies and cosmologies.
History of Astronomy is the study of the origins and evolution of the academic disciplines of astronomy and astrophysics.
Historical Astronomy is the application of historical records to modern astrophysical problems.

The goals of the Cultural Astronomy and Storytelling working group are to
1) collect cultural astronomy information,
2) create resources such as films,pamphlets, and computer aids,
3) design activities and events that utilize our research findings and resources that engage the public, and
4) implementation with public participation.

Our group will explore the ideas and concepts of the different oral and written traditions among those who would pass down such teachings of the night sky, what the cosmos meant to the ancient observer, what it means to the current observer, and how past and present traditions relate to all of us today, enabling those who participate to gain a fuller understanding of their own cosmology or, at least, become aware of other frames of reference with which to look at the universe. Those who hold the knowledge and are responsible for teaching it to the next generation are our teachers, elders, professors, astronomers, observers.

Please join in this effort to reach out to local communities, underserved audiences, Native American peoples and the public at large to bring forth cultural perspectives on the sky. Contact the Cultural Astronomy Working Group chair by email at holbrook_at_email dot arizona dot edu.

The Cultural Astronomy Summer School

JC Holbrook, Chair 

Before CASS, I thought ancient astronomy was only something that modern astronomy grew from. After CASS, I realized that other ancient cultures had completely different concepts of astronomy and there are branches of cultural astronomy throughout history that need to be respected for their individuality and their own circumstances…not just in relation to my culture’s modern astronomy.” - Christine Johnson

The Cultural Astronomy and Storytelling  (CAST) Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 USA (IYA2009USA) organized the first Cultural Astronomy Summer School as part of the weekend activities of the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) Summer meeting in Pasadena, CA. Professor Thomas Hockey of Northern Iowa University was the creative force and lead organizer of the Summer School. His vision was to provide two days of lectures and activities that would introduce participants to the field of cultural astronomy. 

Cultural Astronomy is an interdisciplinary field that traditionally included archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy, but now includes the history of astronomy, historical astronomy, and contemporary studies of astronomers. In a nutshell, cultural astronomers study all aspects of the way that humans interact with the sky. The discipline is too broad to cover in two days, so for the Summer School three topics were chosen along with three instructors: Associate Professor of Astronomy (Chaffey College) Joann Eisberg taught history of astronomy, Professor Emeritus (University of West Virginia) Stephen McCluskey taught indigenous astronomy, and Griffith Observatory Director Ed Krupp focused on time keeping, navigation, and calendars.


Sixteen people participated in the Summer School. I interviewed two participants about their experiences and the highlights of the two days.

Dr. Olga Kuhn holds a Ph.D. in Astronomy and is currently an astronomer with the Large Binocular Telescope, Mt. Graham, Arizona. Johnson is a producer for “Known Universe” an National Geographic Channel program.

Early in 2009, Kuhn traveled to Mexico to learn more about the indigenous culture there and had the opportunity to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico. She was fortunate to be traveling with someone who had a deep understanding of Maya cosmology. Kuhn says, “I think that my interest in ancient astronomy derives from a wish to understand better the indigenous culture and peoples and the conflict that may sometimes arise between their ways and those of ‘modern’ society.” She saw the Cultural Astronomy Summer School as a way to meet more people that were interested in Cultural Astronomy as well as to learn more.

Johnson says: “I was field producing a show for National Geographic called, “The Known Universe,” and I attended the workshop to learn about archaeoastronomy subjects for an episode about how ancient cultures first started observing and utilizing the stars and sky in their daily lives, and how tracking the stars helped lay the foundation for modern civilization. [At the Cultural Astronomy Summer School] I expected to learn about ancient astronomy and archaeoastronomy sites around the world. My expectations were met and exceeded. I walked out with about 15 pages of typed notes.” 

There was an unscheduled excursion to Griffith Observatory in which Kuhn had a revelation about the connection between the design and layout of observatory buildings and their functions. “[Dr. Krupp] discussed the fact that the buildings are designed to be instruments for example the Meridian Arc building. Not only had I not really thought too much of buildings as instruments, but I was impressed by the elegance of the concept. The simplest things (e.g this arc, the solstice markings, a prism or the Foucalt pendulum) can sometimes leave the greatest impact.

 McCluskey’s lectures on ancient astronomy in other cultures inspired Kuhn: “I was impressed by the ancient cultures’ attentiveness to the sky. They watched the skies and the tracks of the stars and planets carefully, and these played a significant role in their lives, not only in marking time and determining the times for important events, but also giving them a sense of their place in the cosmos. While our culture also measure time and events by the cycles in the skies, in general I don’t think that we are so attentive to the sky from night to night —the familiarity which I imagine the early astronomers and others had with the skies struck me.”

I asked both Kuhn and Johnson if they thought that the Cultural Astronomy Summer School should be offered again. 

Kuhn: “If there could be a new rotation of subjects every year then I think it should be offered every year.”

 Johnson: “I definitely think CASS should be offered every June and promoted to more of the general public. It’s the perfect way to educate non-scientists about how astronomy affects all cultures through all time.”

IYA2009USA would like to see this unique opportunity offered beyond 2009. The Cultural Astronomy Summer School was financially supported by the Historical Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society. The participants only had to pay a $50 registration fee. For future Cultural Astronomy Summer Schools other sources of funding will be needed to keep participant costs to a minimum.