NASA Canon of Solar Eclipses for Archaeologists

Solar Eclipse

Today is total solar eclipse day in a big portion of Tennessee.  We are just inside the edge of the totality path here in Oak Ridge. Automobile traffic within the eclipse pathway across East Tennessee, particularly near its center, is expected to rival that of traffic on Tennessee football Saturdays. If you are a professional archaeologist, an avocational archaeologist, or an ordinary citizen with an interest in archaeology, you probably know that solar eclipses were important celestial events in ancient times. Mel Gibson tried to capture such an important moment in his poorly done and culturally insensitive 2006 movie entitled Apocalypto. One of the settings in this motion picture is an imaginary Mayan city in Mesoamerica at the time of European first contact. The main character (Jaguar Paw) is a non-Mayan captive taken during a raid on a small settlement in the Maya hinterlands. His body has been painted with a rare and highly treasured pigment referred to by archaeologists as Maya blueto ready him for human sacrifice in the following memorable scene from that movie:

In the years prior to 2006, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) became aware of the potential effects that solar eclipses might have had on ancient cultures. With this in mind, they developed two highly detailed tools to assist archaeologists in assessing such effects. The first of these NASA tools was published on October 1, 2006, and it was entitled the Five Millenium Canon of Solar Eclipses: -1999 to +3000 (2000 BCE to 3000 CE). It includes eclipse occurrence dates, visibility pathway data, and all sorts of other data for nearly every solar eclipse that has occurred across the entire earth over the past 4,000 years and for another 1,000 years into our future. The density and complexity of the potentially useful solar eclipse data in this volume is so high that just looking at it will quite literally make your head hurt. In fact, if your head does not hurt while thumbing through it, we recommend that you pinch yourself really hard just to make sure you are still alive.

This entire volume is available free of charge in PDF form, but the file is 257 megabytes. I have a new, super fast PC with a one-terabyte hard drive, and my attempts to download it (via my high-speed Xfinity cable) crashed my Mozilla Firefox connection twice. I hope you have better luck if you are using another Internet program and want a personal copy. I had no problem just opening it and reading it. You may either read only or download a personal copy to your laptop or PC by clicking on the following safe link:

Five Millennium Canon of Solar Eclipses: -1999 to +3000 (2000 BCE to 3000 CE)

You will notice that we said “nearly every solar eclipse” in the second paragraph above. After publication of the first volume, the authors (Fred Espenak and Jean Meeus) realized that they needed to go back and fill in a large number of data holes in their first volume. They did this by publishing a supplemental volume in 2008.  This smaller second volume was entitled the Five Millennium Catalog of Solar Eclipses: -1999 to +3000 (2000 BCE to 3000 CE).  Its data density and complexity will also deliver your brain to Migraine City. This entire volume is available free of charge in PDF form, and you may download it to your laptop or PC by clicking on the following safe link:

Five Millennium Catalog of Solar Eclipses: -1999 to +3000 (2000 BCE to 3000 CE)

How might a Tennessee archaeologist use this eclipse data? Well, the eclipse occurrence date, latitude data, longitude data, and visibility pathway data should allow an archaeologist to identify every partial and full solar eclipse that would have been visible while standing on the ground surface at Mound Bottom in Cheatham County, Tennessee, between 1,000 A.D. and 1475 A.D. Recognizing that correlation does not necessarily represent cause and effect, she could compare these eclipses and their dates to her site-specific archaeological data to identify possible meaningful correlations between eclipses and major past cultural phenomena on the site. For example, an archaeologist could determine whether a full solar eclipse correlates with  the approximate date when mound building came to an end at Mound Bottom.  Does a major eclipse event correlate with the first appearance of filleted rim bowls on Mississippian sites in the Middle Cumberland region? Could these filleted rims represent the solar corona beads sometimes visible around the edge of a fully eclipsed sun? Theoretically, you could use the NASA solar eclipse data as at least one factor, among others, in testing all sorts of archaeological hypotheses or fantasies at numerous Tennessee and American archaeological sites occupied at one time or another over the past 4,000 years. If you do not mind a headache and feel up to the task, go ahead and give it a whirl.

(Note:  I used the term fantasies above for a reason. We American archaeologists like to frame our work as science and couch it in scientific language—always dressing it up in a tuxedo and “Puttin’ on the Ritz” to salve our egos. However, more than most of us would like to admit, one can often dream up multiple fantasies that adequately explain a single archaeological dataset—and while we might call them competing hypotheses at the office or in a journal article—I am more than willing to call them fantasies about the past over a good beer or while chatting around a good campfire. Baseline honesty every once in a while is good for the soul.  What?  You say it cannot be a fantasy because it is rooted in archaeological data?  Oh, come now.  Surely, you can do better than that. Until someone invents a time-travel machine, American archaeology will always contain some element of fantasy.)

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