1999 Eclipse Anthropology Project
The object of this project is to study, report and analyse, from the perspective of cultural anthropology, local reactions to the total eclipse of the sun which will occur on the 11th August, 1999.
A total eclipse of the sun occurs when the sun, as observed from a point on the earth's surface, is totally hidden by the moon. This phenomenon can only occur during a period in which the diameter of the moon, as observed from the earth, is greater than that of the sun. It is only because both the sun and the moon subtend almost exactly the same angle, approximately, 1'30" of arc, at any point on earth, that a solar eclipse has its unique and characteristic attributes -- whose fascination for human populations has been recorded for more than 3,000 years.
Because both the moon's orbit round the earth, and the earth's orbit round the sun, are elliptical rather than circular, the ratio of the diameters of the moon and sun (as observed from the earth) varies between narrow limits, either side of 1. It is only when this ratio is greater than 1 (as it will be in 1999) that a total solar eclipse occurs. (A ratio less than 1 allows for only a so-called annular eclipse).
At any instant during a solar eclipse, a restricted area on the surface of the earth will be in the shadow of the moon. Because of the velocity of the moon in its orbit, and of the rotation of the earth on its axis, this shadow traces a path accross the surface of the earth. The path can extend more than a third of the way round the earth, and the shadow covers this distance in a very short period. In 1999, the path of totality will extend from the west Atlantic (just off Newfoundland) to the Bay of Bengal: at its beginning the eclipse will be observed at sunrise; at its end, at sunset. The transit between the two points will take just over three hours. The path of tota-lity will have a maximum width of 112 km, and at this point -- actually in the middle of Romania -- totality will last 2 minutes 23 seconds.
Along the path of totality (which never covers more than a very small fraction of the earth's surface) the total eclipse is an experience without equal for those who observe it. The earth, in the moon's shadow, becomes as dark as it is some 45 min. after sunset, so that stars and planets are visible. Even more spectacular is the solar corona, which can only be observed at such a time: the few seconds preceding and following totality provide the occasion for other fleeting and spectacular phenomena, which occur at no other time.
The accurate prediction, and measurement of the coordinates of total solar eclipses, goes back more than 2,000 years. Next to the historical record of eclipses (which is restricted by the need for a literate culture to flourish at some point along the path of totality), so-called canons of eclipses (based on astronomical data) not only record all solar eclipses for a period of more than 3,000 years, but also contain predictions extending far into the future. In fact there are on average 66 total solar eclipses in every century, while any one point on the earth's surface will, on average, be within the path of totality once every 375 years. (The last occasion in London was on 3 May 1715, when the path of totality covered about half of England.)
Over the few millenia of recorded history the occurrence of total solar eclipses has been highly random. Many must have passed almost unobserved, simply because the path crossed the sea or uninhabited parts of the earth's land surface. My researches into eclipse demography lead to the conclusion that with the 1999 eclipse totality will be experienced by more people than on any previous occasion in history. The greater part of the path, extending from the south-west of England (most of Cornwall and a corner of Devon) to the east of India, will be over land. What it is more, it will cross many of the world's most densely populated areas, and fall to be observed by populations with a vast range of different cultures.
In principle, almost all those experiencing totality will have been forewarned. The media, in the weeks preceding 11 August 1999, will present the coming eclipse in any number of different ways. None the less, experience from recent eclipses (Mexico in 1991, India in 1995), shows that the event is still awaited with anxiety, and reacted to with extreme emotional outbursts. Both before and after, it finds its own distinctive place in every local culture.
The anthropological record from past eclipses is scanty, to say the least. In 1999 the path of totality will cross eleven countries: England, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India. Many well-known cities, several with more than a million inhabitants, will lie along its path, but observers among agricultural populations will also be counted in tens of millions. Both topography and climate will be extremely varied.
There is thus unprecedented scope for original anthropological fieldwork. The project I have in mind depends on local anthropologists (including university students) being present at different points along the path of totality, not only during the actual period of totality (which will generally last about two minutes), but in the days before and after.
In the preceding days, the anthropologist will make contact with as wide as possible a range of local informants, to discover what expectations they have of the coming eclipse, not only as a phenomenon in itself, but as one which may affect -- probably adversely -- their own life and health. In this latter case, significant local figures, such as priests, will almost certainly play an important part, particularly in recommending counter-measures. These could be purely protective, like staying indoors during the two minutes of totality, but could extend to action, such as banging on drums, calculated to bring totality to a speedy end. (Such action, needless, to say, always appears to succeed in its aims, since totality passes anyway: this success can only enhance the reputation of those who lead in undertaking the requisite action.) After totality, local reactions -- most likely of relief -- are also interesting for anthropology. Such reactions could also include measures designed, once again, to counteract the assumed adverse effects of the eclipse. (It should be emphasised that an eclipse has no effect whatever on the course of nature: once totality is passed, natural species other than humankind, resume their normal life without any residual trauma.)
The matters to be observed are deployed at greater length in my book Solar Eclipse, due to be published by Constable at the end of January, 1999. I know of no other text which treats so comprehensively the relation between eclipses and anthropology: indeed, I had the greatest difficulty in finding useful material in the ethnographic record.
At least in England, and almost certainly in the rest of Europe, an enormous influx of visitors is expected on the occasion of the coming eclipse. In Devon and Cornwall, where the steady population along the path of totality is about a million (of which a sizable minority live in Plymouth), seven million are expected on the 11th August, 1999: hotels and holiday accommodation are already fully-booked, at three times the normal rates. For participants in the eclipse anthropology project, accommodation will be a problem: this puts a premium on anthropologists living along, or close to the path of totality, although hospitality could no doubt still be arranged for those from outside. Similar problems are likely to arise in countries such as France, Germany, Austria and Hungary, but here there will be the advantage that the path of totality passes much closer to major centres of population, such as Paris, Frankfurt, Vienna and Budapest, and actually includes such major cities as le Havre, Karlsruhe, Munich and Salzburg.
Outside Europe the project should include Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India. Karachi, with some ten million inhabitants, will be the largest single city within the path of totality. The scope for original anthropology in this part of the world is very considerable, but the problems of organisation are formidable -- at least for a project to be directed from north-west Europe.