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In the Shadow of the Moon - Anthony Aveni ***

This is a book with niche appeal. For a reader who is aware of Anthony Aveni’s specialist field of research, and who shares the same interests and outlook, it might be worth more than the three stars I’ve given it. On the other hand, a general reader buying the book at face value is likely to be disappointed. It’s a heavier-going and more specialised read than the packaging suggests.

The book’s subtitle is ‘The Science, Magic, and Mystery of Solar Eclipses’, while the publisher’s blurb reads ‘In anticipation of solar eclipses visible in 2017 and 2024, an exploration of the scientific and cultural significance of this mesmerising cosmic display’. That led me to expect certain things even before I opened the book: a simple but lucid explanation of the science of eclipses, a description of how to observe them safely and what to look out for, and various quirky myths, superstitions and anecdotes connected with eclipses. The book does include these things, but they only account for about a sixth of the total page count. The rest focuses on a subject – history – that’s barely hinted at in the marketing copy.

Anthony Aveni is an anthropologist, and one of the founders of astroarchaeology as an academic discipline. Before I read this book, I thought ‘astroarchaeology’ was confined to speculating about the purpose of astronomical alignments seen in Stonehenge and similar structures. It does include that – and Aveni offers evidence that the builders of Stonehenge knew about eclipse cycles – but his main interest is in later cultures where the archaeological evidence is supplemented by written documentation. In this context, astroarchaeology becomes a much more robust discipline – a matter of interpretation rather than speculation.

I mentioned myths and superstitions, but those aren’t really what the book’s about. Regardless of what the uneducated masses might have believed about eclipses, many ancient cultures had people who understood perfectly well that they were caused by a close conjunction of the Sun and Moon, and that their occurrence could be predicted by extrapolating forwards from past eclipses. The ancient Greeks, Babylonians and Chinese all knew how to do this, as did Mesoamerican cultures such as the Aztecs and Maya – the main focus of Aveni’s professional research.

The 80-odd pages dealing with the astroarchaeology of eclipses were the high point of the book for me. After that, Aveni’s history lesson (which goes on for another 100+ pages) got a little quirky for my tastes. There’s no mention of later Greek astronomers like Hipparchus and Ptolemy, who as far as I know were the first to make accurate eclipse predictions based on orbital modelling, rather than historical extrapolation. Similarly, Aveni skims rather too swiftly over the European renaissance, although he does give due credit to Edmond Halley, who was the first to produce a modern-style map of the Moon’s shadow passing over the British Isles (albeit after the eclipse in question, rather than before). By the beginning of the 19th century, however, Aveni’s focus has shifted entirely to the United States. I guess that’s fair enough, for a book that’s marketed in conjunction with the ‘Great American Eclipse’ of 2017, but he lost the interest of this reviewer at that point.

To reiterate, this is a book with a limited audience. If you’re interested in the social history of the United States and the role of astronomy in non-Western cultures, and if you’re not that bothered about the science of eclipses or European history, then you’ll probably love Aveni’s take on the subject. But if you’re a more typical popular science reader in search of a good book on solar eclipses, you might be better off looking elsewhere.

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Review by Andrew May

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