SEAC Conference 2016 Report
by Anna Estaroth
SEAC conference Bath, England was held on the 12-16th September 2016. SEAC stands for Societé Europeenne pour l'Astronomie dans la Culture or European Society for Astronomy in Culture.
This conference is the annual gathering of people whose main interest is the sky in all its meanings for people. There is a strong element of archaeoastronomy, which is more comfortably termed skyscape archaeology and what I call ancestral astrology. Our ancestors showed as great an interest in celestial phenomenon as we do today, only theirs was quite graphically real, they interpreted what they saw, including sun, moon, stars, planets, comets and meteors. Today we focus on computer diagrams and only rarely do we gaze up at the sky itself, which is the source of all our material. We may not know how peoples of the past interpreted what they saw in the sky, especially where no written material survives from their culture, but we can be sure that they made some decisions about what the stars meant for them. SEAC is not just about ancient cultures; it embraces a wide range of disciplines including the history of astronomy though art, cultures and artefacts, plus ethnographic studies where the sky is the focus, encompassing calendrical studies, mythologies and legends. Textual archival material ranged from Ptolemy, Plato and Homer to the Dead Sea Scrolls and Science Fiction. There was a stunning array of visual material, so much so it is hard to do justice to it in this short piece, but it ranged from the star imagery in Chartres Cathedral to the sound of Stockhausen's Zodiac compositions. In a sense SEAC is for everyone, provided you have an interest in the sky.
There were four days of intense lectures, interspersed with social activities and, on this occasion, optional excursions to Bath Abbey or Stonehenge (before any visitors arrive) and an all day tour of Avebury on the Saturday following the conference. I went on the Bath Abbey tour led by Jon Cannon, who is an expert on Church architecture, but he managed to embed this Abbey and its history into the changing face of Bath over the centuries. My friends, who went on the Stonehenge adventure with Lionel Sims, described the early morning mist which created a fantastic mystical landscape - then the sun burnt through, before they had to leave and that it was absolutely wonderful to have the place all to themselves.
The conference was held at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, in Queen's Square which has a lecture hall, a quiet room for the poster displays and the results of the Sophia photo competition of sky-art. It also has a good-sized room for refreshments and it was here that the Book launch, wine reception and delicious buffet meal were held on Wednesday evening. The books launched were all Sophia Centre Press books: Heavenly Discourses, edited by N. Campion; The Materiality of the Sky, edited by F. Silva, J. McKim. Malville, T. Lomsdalen and F. Ventura; and The Imagined Sky edited by D. Gunzburg which were on reduced-cost sale to attendees, but can be bought at Amazon.
Lectures are quite different from AA conference lectures - they are divided into groups of four or five speakers, who present their material for 20 minutes each, then all speakers come to the front and the delegates can ask questions to any of the speakers. This can lead to some considerable debate as audience experts, in any given field, may have concurrent or opposite views from those expressed by the speakers. On the whole there is respect shown for one another's learning and these sessions are followed by a coffee/tea break or lunch which allows people to get together to continue their discussions. In fact sharing ideas and cross-fertilisation of knowledge is one of the reasons why people attend these gatherings. Each time I attend it I find it is easy to make new friends and I thoroughly enjoy catching up with old friends, because the social events are perfect for mingling. This year we all went to Herschel's House in Bath, which is now a museum, on the Monday evening. There was complementary wine and nibbles in the garden, which was rather long and narrow, but you could wander round the museum at any time and people did so in small groups - cementing old friendships and meeting new people.
There is always a free public evening lecture of about an hour, which welcomes members of the public and is given by someone who the committee feel commands both the respect of the SEAC community, but can also appeal to people who have only a modicum of interest. This year it was given by Frank Prendergast who has a warm and friendly personality and whose knowledge of archaeoastronomy in Ireland is second to none. His lecture, plus the question and answer session, can be seen here on Youtube. Interestingly, this year had an experiment whereby delegates could attend online, via web-link, at a reduced fee. The web-link was recorded live, but could be viewed whenever delegates were available, they being a world-wide audience and often in different time zones. Those who attended live were able to ask questions via the recorder, just like those who attended in person.
During the conference Fabio Silva was awarded the distinguished Carlos Jaschek Award. You can read about this at www.uwtsd.ac.uk/news/press-releases/press-2016/uwtsd-lecturer-awarded-the-seac-2016-carlos-jaschek-memorial-award.html
And delegate Eva Young was awarded second prize in the 'Our Moon' category in the prestigious Insight Astronomy Photographer of the year 2016, which had over 4,500 international entries. Eva is currently an MA student with University of Wales Trinity Saint David.
Perhaps the most fascinating session was the round table forum where SEAC discussed what it's doing and where it sees itself going in the future, which engendered a lively discussion and prompted a few good ideas. There is always an AGM. Next year it will be at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. You can keep track of developments at the SEAC website. SEAC has a more scholarly approach to its varied subjects than we find in general at the AA, so if you are considering offering a talk it might be worth exploring what is expected. The archaeoastronomy thread at previous AA conferences would be a good guide. I gave a presentation on Clava Cairns of the Central Highlands, which I have been researching for the past 18 months. Ancestral astrology is not complicated to do, it just requires a great deal of rigger in interpretation; we can't leap to groundless conclusions based on a couple of alignments. In that sense it is similar to astrology, once beginners grasp the basics, it all comes down to the quality of interpretation: time and practice enhances what you do. It's also very important to tie any stellar, solar or lunar findings into a local culture, in order to work out why the builders of monuments elected to build where they did.
Regarding measuring ancient monuments someone once asked me 'what is it all for?' which is a hellish question to get, because there are multiple answers, and I am still mulling it over for more possibilities. For some the academic challenge is more than enough, for others it has to feed-back into the cultural mix and might improve tourism, education, understanding our ancestors or simply satisfying their curiosity. For myself it enriches my connection with the sky - thousands of years ago someone's ancestors built a lasting stone monument which allowed the community to wonder at the sun and moon in such a way as to be transformed, both the living and the dead. We have inherited something of that inspiration, it lies within all of us today, whenever we see a sunset or delight in the moon. Occasionally we transfer that experience onto a cold paper or tablet chart - it's always magical whenever that happens.