Posted by: wadahp | October 8, 2009

THE NIGHT SKY AS A CULTURAL RESOURCE

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The Great World Wide Star Count begins during World Space Week this week. This is the third annual Great World Wide Star Count that encourages all to observe and learn about the stars above.

As an archaeologist and preservationist it is also important to recognize the historic and cultural aspects of the night sky. A recent issue of the National Park Service publication Common Ground discussed the loss of the night sky and our ability to observe the stars above.

This topic is most discussed in the Desert Southwest where the clear nights offer stunning views. At Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico the layout of the structures reflect a stellar orientation and hence the night sky is integral to understanding the archaeology, history and culture. At Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona archaeologists have described an ancient planetarium or star ceiling displaying the stellar patterns.

In the much more cloudy and rainy Pacific Northwest, the discipline of archaeoastronomy or the study, in part, of how past cultures have understood the night sky is as rare as an annular eclipse. An intriguing study by Gerry Hedlund in (appropriately enough) 2000, was the discovery and analysis of the Skystone in Pierce County.

The Skystone is a large flat glacial boulder that has a series of twenty holes over its flat surface. His analysis of the alignments of holes led him to hypothesis this was a precontact observatory and seasonal calculator. One of the alignments was probably a winter solstice sunrise that would be at or have Mt. Rainer as a heelstone.

In addition to the archaeoastronomy connection with historic preservation, there are other links as well including quality of life, environmental quality, design, land use planning, and cultural tourism. Interest in protecting the dark sky is rapidly increasing reflecting mounting efforts to achieve sustainability goals and reduce carbon emissions. Night sky/dark sky protection ordinances have been enacted in a number of cities across the nation and legislation introduced in the Washington State Legislature to curtail skyward light emissions from building, street, and parking lot lights. The Goldendale community in south central Washington is taking protection of the night sky very seriously. The community has seized upon the presence of Goldendale Observatory State Park as leverage to attract tourists as part of its economic development strategy. The strategy is to incorporate dark sky protection mechansims into its comprehensive land use plan to tout sustainability efforts and attract new clean energy and tourists. The vision for Goldendale is for new residents and tourists to enjoy the region’s historic and scenic attractions by day and a night of stargazing at the Observatory.

For more information on the Great Worldwide Star Count, visit http://www.windows.ucar.edu/citizen_science/starcount/.

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