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Night Skies as a Cultural Resource

Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night
One of the world's most famous paintings—Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night
Chaco Culture NHP, NM
Seeing the night sky over Chaco Culture NHP, New Mexico, is one way to connect with the ancient peoples that once lived there and built Pueblo Bonito. Click on image to enlarge.
Shiloh National Military Park
A naturally dark setting enhances the impact of luminaries honoring the fallen soldiers at Shiloh National Military Park. Click on image to enlarge.

When we look up at a dark night sky, we are essentially seeing the same sky that humans have looked upon for thousands of years. It is the same sky that has motivated cultures from around the world. The impression of a dark and starry sky has evoked countless myths, art, literature, and religion. It has been rightly called "The Ultimate Cultural Resource" (Rogers & Sovick, 2001). The night sky is a timeless and boundless resource important to many people, cultures, and religions.

People were probably much more connected to the rhythms and wonders of the night sky before the widespread use of electric lighting. The sky marked the changing of the seasons, and the passage of time. It represented order, yet was mutable. The night sky has held images and patterns reflecting the beliefs and morals of various societies. Its importance is everywhere, from Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, to tales of escaped slaves following the drinking gourd, from the architectural alignments of ancestral Puebloans at Chaco Canyon, to the Washington Monument mimicking a giant gnomon at the center of a sundial, and from lyrics of your favorite songs to the myths of ancient Greece embodied in the constellations.

Even where the night sky is not prized for its natural beauty, it may still hold profound cultural significance. A naturally dark surrounding is part of the historic fabric of many national parks. Just as we keep historic structures intact and the surrounding landscape looking as it did during the time of historic significance, so should we try to mimic the lightscape during the period of significance. This lightscape is important as we imagine Teddy Roosevelt sitting on his porch in his later years, Carl Sandburg crafting his poetic words amidst natural beauty, or hardscrabble homesteaders finding respite in the prairie sky after a long day's work.

The tradition of cultural astronomy continues today. When we point out the North Star to our grandchildren or take a scout troop out to sleep beneath the stars, we are keeping alive this natural affinity humans have for looking beyond our planet. This is the way of people; we only need a little darkness and a starry sky to gaze upon.


Rogers J. and Sovick J. 2001. The Ultimate Cultural Resource, The George Wright Forum, 18:4.

Last Updated: November 13, 2013