Fig 1. Dr Nicholas Campion Associate Professor, addressing the delegates. Photo: Dr Jennifer Zahrt
The City of Bath 12-16th September 2016
The Marriage of Astronomy and Culture: Theory and Method in the Study of Cultural Astronomy
The SEAC 2016 conference was well attended by delegates from all over the world and from many different academic disciplines. The theme was the marriage of astronomy and culture, specifically regarding theory and method in studying Cultural Astronomy. The venue was the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, in Queen's Square, which provided a lecture hall, a welcoming social tea/coffee room with bookstall and a quieter room for viewing the posters and the Sophia photo competition of sky-art.
Five days of fairly intense lectures, with the opportunity for discussion, was interspersed with three varied social events. An evening reception in the gardens of William Herschel's house, which is now a museum; a superb public lecture given by Frank Prendergast on the monuments at Brú na Búinne, Ireland - primarily Newgrange, and its cosmology, which is now on you tube plus a very tasty meal/wine reception and book launch to mark the publications of three of Sophia Centre Press' brilliant books: Heavenly Discourses, edited by N. Campion; The Materiality of the Sky, edited by F. Silva, K. Malville, T. Lomsdalen and F. Ventura; and the Imagined Sky edited by D. Gunzburg. All are proceedings of conferences held at Bristol, Valetta and Bath and are also available via Amazon.
Fig 2. Reception at Herschel's House. Photo: Dr Jennifer Zahrt
Fig 4. Dr Campion launching the thee publications with Sophia Press Editor Jenn Zahrt on his right. Photo: Eva Young
By this stage of the party (photo right), the gannets had been at the food. At the top of the table are Frank Ventura, Vito Franchesco-Pulcaro, Tore Lomsdalen, Fabio Silva and Andrea Rodriguez-Anton.
Fig 5. A more formal gathering of the Sophia Centre Press with Professor J McKim Malville, Katherine White, copy editor, Tore Lomsdalen MA, Dr Fabio Silva, Dr Darrelyn Gunzburg, Dr Nicholas Campion Associate Professor and Professor Frank Ventura in the back row. Dr Jennifer Zahrt, designer, and Val Hall publisher front row.
The conference was opened by Nick Campion (who co-chaired the week's proceedings with Lionel Sims) on behalf of the organising committee. One unusual feature of this year's SEAC was the inclusion of delegates from abroad via a web-link. The sessions were streamed live to delegates who were unable to be present in person and their questions tabled during discussions by the monitor, largely Fabio Silva, ably assisted by Bernadette Brady and Frances Clynes. These sessions were recorded for online viewing by those delegates who participated and the response from online delegates has been very positive indeed.
Fig 6. Stan answering a question during a panel discussion session. From left Dr Darrelyn Gunzburg, Dr Fabio Silva, Dr Stansislaw Iwaniszewski and Dr Bernadette Brady. Photo: Anna Estaroth
The quality of the presentations was high, but the range of subjects covered was stupendous - the archaeology focus included North, South and Meso-America, the Middle East, the Iberian Peninsula, the British Isles, Italy, Sicily, Malta, Switzerland, Romania and Finland, with special reference to utilising photographic, modelling and digital techniques. A stimulating array of diverse cultural monuments was considered, each connected with the sky.
Calendrical matters were discussed within these sessions and in the Text and Archival sessions, which also explored such fascinatingly varied material as Dead Sea Scrolls, Icelandic Mythologies, Sumerian Shirk, Science fiction, Mayan codices, Irish Myths, Russian Legends, Homer's Odyssey, Plato's Cosmos, Roman Cornucopia, Victorian Theology/Metaphysics, Ptolemy's Almagest, Comet Encke and the Geograhiam et Sphaeram. The ethnographic element was excellently expanded upon by explorations across the Atlantic facade, the World Tree, Irish folklore, West African Yoruba concepts, Dark Sky attitudes in Sark, the Pan-European Sun cult, the Early Abbasid transition and recent academic developments in archaeoastronomy.
Fig 7. Seated panellists, including right from Dr Bernadette Brady, Dr Steven Gullberg, Dr Thomas Gough and Dr Silvia Motta chair. Dr Cesar Gonzales-Garcia is standing. Photo: Dr Jennifer Zahrt
As one would expect the Images and Music sessions exhibited a breadth of analysis,but retained a focus on the sky, from Chartres Cathedral in France, the Visoki Decani Monastery in Kosovo, Burne-Jones' Planetary Cartoons, Raimondi's Sibyls in Rome, Senenmut's ceiling in Egypt, Solari's surrealist art in Argentina, the Skyscape Planetarium in Austria, Land-art and non-site explorations of Stellarium, the sphaera of the Salvator Mundi, the lack of celestial iconography in Minoan art, Albuquerque's stellar art installations and Stockhausen's zodiacal compositions. Lastly there were three lively skill sessions helping people to develop their handling of WGS data and GPS, tools for assessing skylines and the latest Stellarium developments.
At previous SEAC conferences some delegates had commented upon a duel stream of scientific versus humanities presentations, which might be described as 'hard' and 'soft', whereas this conference appeared to have more of a softening of the 'hard' and a hardening of the 'soft', so that the material exhibited a richer enmeshing of both scientific and humanities themes. The round table forum was perhaps the most intriguing as it attempted to pull together various threads from the conference, largely concluding that Cultural Astronomy was enriched from being trans-disciplinary, it did not fit into existing academically-defined course structures and while that may be insecure, in the long-term it needed to remain true to its own purpose, however that is defined and continue to improve - many expressed satisfaction with this broad-approach. It engendered much-appreciated invigorating debate among the delegates.
Fig 8. Round Table Forum on day five, from the left Dr Bernadette Brady, Dr Frank Prendergast (who was creating and then projecting a live stream, visual summary of the discussion as it unfolded), Professor Liana De Girolami Cheney, Dr Juan Antonio Belmonte, Dr Darrelyn Gunzburg, Professor McKim Malville, Dr Frances Clynes and Dr Fabio Silva chairing. Photo: Anna Estaroth
Sadly the author missed the SEAC AGM due to the exigency of travel. As with most SEAC conferences many welcome long-standing members reliably attended, but there were also several new faces which may enhance the field - attracting new recruits over the years maintains interest and bodes well for further discovery. As mentioned in Kim Malville's article, Dr Fabio Silva was conferred the distinguished Carlos Jaschek Award during this meeting, which then reportedly erupted into the warmest cheers. Fabio is one of the youngest to ever achieve such an honour.
In addition to the proceedings in the conference chamber, delegates could choose from three different tours in Bath and across the region. Thursday morning's excursions were to Bath Abbey with Jon Cannon and there was another to Stonehenge with Lionel Sims. The author thoroughly enjoyed Bath Abbey, which was placed in an interesting historical context, while those who travelled to Stonehenge described having a unique time at the monument, minus the crowds and experiencing mystical mist which the sun burnt away - it seemed apt. A tour of Avebury Stone Circle with Lionel Sims was held on Saturday and would have rounded off an intriguing conference, allowing the mind to sift through all the sky-laden discussions, whilst engaging with a very special landscape.
Fig 9. Official group photograph of the 2016 SEAC delegates, Queen's Square Gardens, Bath. Photo: Dr Jennifer Zahrt
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