The following essay is by an old friend of mine, Barrance C. Lespine. When he and i first met back in the 1960s, we found that we had a lot of obscure and specialized interests in common -- and because we had few other acquaintances with whom to discuss these topics, we remained correspondents for many years. Now, through the internet, i am able to contact dozens of others who contribute to the field of interdisciplinary studies, but Barry still holds a special place in my world because through three decades of sharing books and news clippings, he singlehandly had the greatest influence on my own explorations into the subjects of sacred architecture, archaeoastronomy, neo-Platonism, archaeology, and "all that stuff."

In this piece he calls upon modern architects and landscapers to make use of the "sourcebook" of celestially-inspired design that we as a race have inherited from our neolithic and ancient forebears. Virtually every building or garden, no matter what its site or orientation, he says, could be enhanced through the use of selective aesthetic references to our archaeoastonomical heritage. In a sense, what Barry is proposing here could be called a post-modern approach to archaeoastronomy. His term for it -- neo-archaeoastonomy -- sums up the idea in a nutshell.


by Barrance C. Lespine

During the past twenty years, the interdisciplinary field of archaeoastronomy has generated a huge body of material which demonstrates the observational powers and engineering creativity of traditional peoples in tracking celestial phenomena. Through the popular media, which has made much of these "mysteries," the general public fairly well accepts now that from ancient times onward, architects practiced the art of incorporating astronomical functions into their designs so that certain features of their buildings were aligned to planetary events in the heavens.

Although research articles presented in books and journals dedicated to this subject are widely read and reviewed by scholars in archaeology, anthropology, or astronomy, popular books and television shows on the subject reduce most of the information to little more than mention of full moon and Winter Solstice markers. Yet, strangely, even this simplified popular understanding of the material seems little known to members of the architectural and landscape design professions. Discussion of contemporary architectural design theory rarely harks back to the principles guiding the design of many well known sacred and imperial buildings.

Why don't contemporary architects, home-builders, and landscape designers seem to recognize these past achievements as a sourcebook from which to draw inspiration? Perhaps it is due to our fragmentary view of history, but a more substantial answer may be that a primer in celestial mechanics is not part of a typical designer's curriculum -- or for that matter, almost anyone's curriculum!

With mechanical clocks and printed calendars all around us, it is easy to forget that time-keeping by celestial observation was once serious business. With little understanding of the subject, it is also easy to forget that there is much more to celestial observation than determining true local noon with a simple garden sundial. Yet in our own age interaction with designs based on these observational principles offers a chance to reintegrate our consciousness with a greater whole -- something beyond the man-made world we typically move through.

Combining architectural and landscape designs with local geography to focus attention on cyclical patterns in the sky can provide a practical basis for aesthetic choices. In particular, planners who take a neo-archaeoastronomical approach to design will impart a strong sense of "place" to any structure built according to its principles. This is because the night sky does not look the same everywhere on Earth.

The pattern of stars one sees varies by season and also by latitude. On any given night, the sky-view is determined by the observer's position relative to the plane of the ecliptic and by the compass direction toward which he or she faces. (If the plane of the ecliptic is an unfamiliar term, think of it as a band in the sky which appears to hold the sun, moon, and planets inside its boundaries as they cross the heavens, much in the way banks hold a river.) The observer's angle to the ecliptic affects how high or low the planets, stars and constellations seem to ride as they cross the sky. Thus, well thought out structures planned around celestial movement will always reflect latitudinal differences, making each structure the unique sum of its design features and its location.

In addition, each of the cardinal directions has its own special visual features. For example, east and west views offer the chance to observe the rising or setting of the sun, moon, planets, and constellations. The north view offers opportunity to watch the night sky wheel around the pole star. In northerly latitudes it also offers a view of the constellation Draco and the pole of the ecliptic. The south offers a royal view of the ecliptic, with the paths of sun, moon, and planets moving against the background of the constellations of the zodiac. In the tropics, below the 23rd parallel, the passage the sun or the constellations across the the zenith makes that 5th direction -- upward -- almost as important as the other four.

In our era we are not impelled by practical necessity to select any of these vistas, nor is the movement of the sky bound up with our culture's religious beliefs. A landscape designer or architect who is presented with a piece of property orientated sharply in one given direction can develop ways to accentuate the features of such a piece of land in strictly aesthetic terms -- but if additional thought is given to the matter, site orientation can also become a means to establish a spiritual or historically vital affinity with the myth and philosophy of other, older cultures. Examples from some of these cultures suggest that certain geographical settings are especially suited to the appreciation of particular celestial phenomena

The following examples illustrate how diverse cultures built their edifices to capture a variety of celestial effects.


A view to the east from a high point overlooking water provides excellent conditions for spotting the first fleeting reappearance of Venus rising after a 50 day absence from the skies. This rising marks the start of a new 260 day orbital cycle. Such a high angle of view slightly prolongs the planet's first brief appearance before it is lost in the rays of the Sun dawning behind it. A temple of Venus built by Greek colonists at Tyndaris in Sicily is dramatically located on a cliff above the sea so as to capture this effect. The Sumerian city of Eridu was dedicated to Venus and the view across its harbor was similarly to the east where Venus' cyclical first appearance was easy to see.


In Central America, the Mayan ruler Eighteen Rabbit preferred to observe Venus setting in the west. At Copan in what is now Honduras, he had a wall built with a slot in it to isolate a view of the planet's descent so as to time a moment in the Venus cycle when he liked to attack his enemies. His son, Smoke Monkey, preferred a different planetary signal for warfare, and so he had his father's Venus-observation slot blocked up.


The northern view is also prominent at Copan. At this latitude Polaris the pole star appears fairly low in the northern sky. A major pyramid in the central plaza is positioned so that an observer has a clear north view with the pole star framed in the notch of a pair of twin mountain peaks. Around this axis the night sky revolves, and to the Mayas it was loaded with mythic symbolism. In February and again in August, the play of constellations across the sky during the course of the night re-enacts the Mayan creation myth just like a movie on the big screen.

In latitudes farther to the north, such as those in England or Scotland, the pole star is high in the sky. Here the drama of the Venus cycle is lost below the horizon, but the moon seems close enough to touch. While in equatorial regions planets and stars seem to rise almost vertically, in the far north they appear to move slant-wise across the sky at a low angle. In winter the moon stays near the horizon. This is especially true when it approaches the turning point in the middle of its18-year cycle of extremes. Megalithic people of the British Isles were very skillful in locating the sites of certain stone circles so as to track the moon's progress in relation to the peaks and dips in the horizon of well chosen hills


Among the most "architectural" of celestial markers are those that produce creative light and shadow play from the rays of the sun. The sun's rising and setting as well as seasonal solstice and equinox extremes produce natural lighting effects that clever designers have captured in stone. Perhaps one of the best known of these is at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. Here for a few days during the equinox, the sun's rays briefly seem to create the rippling shadow of Quetzalcoatl along the stairway of the pyramid called El Castillo. In recent years its spring appearance has become major tourist attraction.

A similar effect is visible at Ankor Wat in Cambodia. In a courtyard oriented North/South, the sun's rays highlight a bas-relief frieze depicting the eternal battle between the gods and the demons. During the summer months, the sun rises high enough in the sky so that its rays illuminate and favor the gods. As it moves lower again in winter, the gods' images go dark, and the demons gain the advantage. In another area, contrasting scenes of harmony and conflict are set on opposing walls of an East/West axis so the morning sun lights the one and the setting sun lights the other

These examples only begin to suggest the possibilities of how to involve the interaction of earth and sky in site plans. Learning about patterns of movement in the sky combined with study of relevant historical and ethnographic sources is the first step. The challenge is to translate these historic influences into contemporary architecture that links heaven and earth.

A personal comment:

While Barry's call for the incorporation of celestial phenomena in contemporary architecuture and landscape design might seem to some to entail building on the vast scale of Chichen Itza or Ankor Wat, the truth is that these celestial phenomena will play out at any size-scale, allowing one to work out plans for any price-range. Barry himself made this plain to me a couple of years ago when he visted my garden, and the design he gave to me then is a succint example of way of working.

There is a little courtyard between my house and my office, but it is partially shaded in the afternoons by trees and rose-bushes and so although a conventional neo-classical sundial on a pedestal would look good there, it would not receive sunlight consistently enough to be of any use. So instead of a sundial, i erected a neo-art-deco stoneware birdbath on a pedestal in the center of the courtyard. As Barry walked around the courtyard, he asked me why i had no sundial there and when i pointed out the pattern of afternoon shadows which precluded using one, he agreed -- but went on to explain that instead of foucussing on an hourly phenonemon, i could instead focus on a yearly one -- creating a celestial marker that could be seen for a three day period during the winter solstice, when the leaves were off the trees and the rose-pergola.

Since the birdbath was already cemented in place on flagstones, he decided that it should be part of the design. I told him that i had thought of putting a little cast-iron Japanese frog underwater in the birdbath, just for fun, and he turned to me and said, "That's it. You cement the frog on the north rim of the birdbath so that it creates a little bump or knob on the birdbath's shadow where it falls on the flagstones. At noon on the winter solstice the shadow of the frog will reach its northernmost extension. Then you put a marker on the flagstones where the frog's shadow falls, and that's your solstice marker."

What kind of marker would i put on the flagstones? Well, it took the two of us less that a minute to decide that it should be a snake with its mouth open into which the frog's shadow would fall on the winter solstice. The image is not religious, nor does it derive from any ancient culture: both of us are blues fans and what we were doing, in our own uniquely post-modern way, was visually quoting the title of one of our favourite songs by Sonny Boy Williamson II: "Fattening Frogs for Snakes."

The creation of this winter solstice marker entails an outlay of less than $100.00, thus supporting Barry's contention that just as the sun, moon, and stars shine upon us all, so can we all, from the richest to the poorest, partake of the wonders of neo-archaeoastronomy by "drawing down the sky" right in our own backyards.

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