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The University of Southampton
TAG 2016 Southampton

S29. Visualising Skyscapes: Material Forms of Cultural Engagement with the Heavens


Session organizer:

Fabio Silva (University of Wales Trinity Saint David, and Liz Henty (University of Wales Trinity Saint David,

Session abstract:

Landscape archaeology opened up new avenues for archaeologists to understand how the environment that societies inhabit determines their interactions with their surroundings, creating part of an interwoven relationship with the world. The land itself regulates subsistence and economic possibilities and its contours and rivers determine routes and the location of meeting places, festivals and ritual centres. Above the land and its horizon lies the celestial sphere, that great dome of the sky which governs light and darkness, critical to life itself, yet its influence is often neglected in the archaeological narrative.

This neglect is, at least partially, because the average westerner today is disengaged from the sky: people notice whether the sun is shining, or whether the days are getting longer or shorter but few will know, for example, what phase the moon is on a given day, or that the sun does not rise due East every day. The scientific field of modern astronomy has helped further disassociate the sky from the common westerner by focusing on the deep sky, which is inaccessible without abstract conceptual frameworks, such as advanced mathematics, and the technological developments of the Space Age. This disengagement with the immediacy of the sky has been projected onto the past cultures that are the purview of the archaeologist. However, as the historical and ethnographic records attest, this ignorance of the sky is a symptom of modern western culture, not a universal. In fact, if one were to reverse the argument and claim that “There is no human society that does not somehow, in some way, relate its fears, concerns, hopes, and wishes to the sky” (Campion 2012, 1) one would be closer to the truth. As Darvill said (2015, 147), “the sky was an important domain that archaeology needs to understand better”.

In order to understand the role and importance of the skyscape for the cultures we study, past or present, we first need to re-engage with the sky ourselves. Only through looking at the sky with phenomenological eyes, without any need for conceptual abstractions nor a scientific take on reality, can we realize how simple it would have been for any non-modern to connect with it. Engaging with the skyscape is an embodied, lived, experience and, as such, it is available to everyone. One only has to step outside the urban sprawls and their light pollution and look up to understand this. An even better sense of what pre-modern peoples would have experienced is provided by the Dark Sky reserves that are now protected areas in the western hemisphere. But, even there, the sky is not exactly the same: like the landscape, with its changing vegetation cover over millennia, so too the skyscape changes. However, while it is difficult to reconstruct past landscapes as changes are dictated by the complex interweaving of geography, environment and climate, modern tools can accurately reconstruct, and therefore help the scholar visualize, the palaeo-skies that a pre-modern would have seen.

This session will focus on how different cultures have visualized, and therefore engaged with, their skyscapes: whether via artistic or symbolic representations, ritual, mythology, structural alignments or other architectural features. It will also feature modern visualization techniques for skyscape archaeology – such as the use of 3D modelling, non-invasive surveys, Geographical Information Systems and planetarium software – that allow archaeologists to (re-)engage with the sky and, in conjunction with traditional archaeological research, obtain a more complete and nuanced understanding of the societies being studied.

Contributor Abstracts:

Skyscape Archaeology: Where are we now?

Liz Henty (University of Wales Trinity Saint David)

This presentation looks at how skyscape archaeology is pushing back the frontiers which have limited archaeoastronomy. Ruggles (2011) expressed concern that archaeoastronomers were “running round in the same circles” rather than pushing back the frontiers of the ‘interdiscipline’. In referring to the inclusion of archaeoastronomy in Renfrew and Bahn’s Archaeology: the Key Concepts (2005) he suggested archaeoastronomy had entered mainstream archaeology.

This prompted me to ask two important questions: firstly has archaeoastronomy really entered the archaeological mainstream? To answer this I conducted a survey to assess the attitudes of archaeologists using questionnaires handed out at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conferences and those from an online version using Google Drive. My results will be examined to see if the attitudes of archaeologists have softened since the acrimonious debates of the 1970’s and 1980’s about megalithic astronomy.

Secondly, are we still running around the same circles or are we branching out? This paper will look at the initiatives of the Skyscapes sessions at both the TAG conferences and the National Astronomy meetings. Additionally there is the Sophia Centre’s ‘Skyscape, Cosmology and Archaeology’ module at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and an optional skyscapes module in their archaeology degree. Another development is the launch of the Journal of Skyscape Archaeology aimed to progress a methodological approach to archaeoastronomy which thoroughly incorporates archaeology. Finally, following a skyscapes discussion at TAG 2014 it was agreed that a short guide to archaeoastronomy, written with archaeologists in mind, would help archaeologists engage with the sky. David Connolly took this project on and a BAJR guide, Archaeoastronomy for Archaeologists (Connolly 2016) has just been published.


Connolly, David, 2016, Archaeoastronomy for Archaeologists. BAJR Guide 43 [online].

Journal of Skyscape Archaeology,

Ruggles, C. L. N., 2005, ‘Archaeoastronomy’. In C. Renfrew & P. Bahn (eds), Archaeology: the Key Concepts, Abingdon: Routledge.

Ruggles, C. L. N., 2011. ‘Pushing back the frontiers or still running around the same circles? ‘Interpretative archaeoastronomy’ thirty years on’. In Clive L. N. Ruggles (ed), Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy: Building Bridges between Cultures. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Visualizing Skyscapes: GIS-based 3D modelling and astronomical simulation

Georg Zotti (Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology, Vienna)

Computer-based visualization has become a powerful tool for both research on cultural heritage artefacts and dissemination of research results to a broader audience (Denard 2009). Virtual archaeology applies methods from virtual reality to recreate digital models of past landscapes with human settlements. Immersive applications allow the user to not only see reconstructed architecture from far away, but also to enter the recreated landscape in the first-person perspective and walk around and explore the site.

However, a proper simulation of any virtual landscape should also include the upper half, the sky dome with daylight and an accurately placed sun which can play a role for the simulation of light-and-shadow effects or epiphanies in sacred places, or for proper simulation of the nocturnal appearance, moon, stars and planets, the Milky Way and occasionally the Zodiacal light, thus recreating the complete historical skyscape (Zotti 2015).

Starting in 2010, the author has been improving the popular open-source desktop planetarium Stellarium to create the most versatile environment for historically accurate skyscape simulation, including the possibility of loading a 3D virtual model of a properly georeferenced landscape with reconstructions of buildings under the artificial sky (Zotti 2016). Moving through the architecture, the user can explore sight lines or temple axes and their possible targets (e.g., solstice sunrises) on the landscape horizon (Frischer et al., 2016), and light and shadow phenomena can be explored with the light of sun, moon or even the planet Venus. The presentation will show Stellarium in use as a simulation environment for both research and outreach to a wide audience.


Denard, Hugh, 2009. The London Charter for the Computer-Based Visualisation of Cultural Heritage. 2009. Accessed November 2016.

Frischer, Bernard, Georg Zotti, Zaccaria Mari, Giuseppina Capriotti Vittozzi, 2016. Archaeoastronomical experiments supported by virtual simulation environments: Celestial alignments in the Antinoeion at Hadrian's Villa (Tivoli, Italy). Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage (DAACH) 3, July 2016. DOI: 10.1016/j.daach.2016.06.001. pp. 55–79.

Zotti, Georg, 2015. “Visualization Tools and Techniques”. In Clive L.N. Ruggles, editor, Handbook for Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy, volume 1, chapter 29. New York: Springer Reference.

Georg Zotti. “Open-Source Virtual Archaeoastronomy”. In Vito F. Polcaro et al., editors, Proc. SEAC2015, Rome, Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, 16(4), 2016. pp.17-23 , in press.

Toads turning time: verifying visualizations of the Sanctuary

Lionel Sims (University of East London, Emeritus)

The ‘Sanctuary’ structure in the late Neolithic Avebury monument complex has been visualized in turn as a four stage mainly roofed structure (Piggott 1940), a charnel house (Burl 2002), a maze (Thomas 1999) or as a place for the ritual marking of status and identity (Pollard and Reynolds 2002). As a subsidiary wood and stone structure between the mainly stone Avebury circle and the mainly wood West Kennet Palisades, like Woodhenge in the Stonehenge monument complex, it is anomalous for the materiality model’s (Parker Pearson 2012) expectation that wood and stone structures are categorically separated places of, respectively, life and death. These various visualizations of the Sanctuary will be interrogated by the evidence of archaeological site excavation, 3D modelling of the monument in its landscape integrated with planetarium software, archaeoastronomy, and myth analysis. The archaeological data provides detailed evidence of a complex syntax of material culture at the Sanctuary. The 3D modelling reveals tiered concentric lintelled post circles and stone arrangements. The archaeoastronomy reveals a full suite of lunar-solar alignments. These three dimensions are verified by the emerging convergence between Palaeolithic Continuity Theory and the phylogenetic analysis of myth (Witzel 2012) which predicts that proto-Indo-European myth will be one regional outcome from an earlier hunter-gatherer cultural substrate. The findings from all four disciplines can be integrated into another visualization of the Sanctuary in which combined materials and alignments were intended to ritually repair a cosmology perceived in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age to be threatened with stasis.


Burl, A., 2002. The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. London: Yale UP.

Parker Pearson, M., 2012. Stonehenge. London: Simon and Schuster.

Piggott, S., 1940. ‘Timber circles: a re-examination’. Archaeological Journal 96, 193-222.

Pollard, J. and Reynolds, A., 2002. Avebury: The biography of a landscape. Stroud: Tempus.

Thomas, J., 1999. Understanding the Neolithic. London: Routledge.

Witzel, E.J.M., 2012. The Origins of the World’s Mythologies. Oxford: UP.

Reflecting the sky in water: a phenomenological exploration

Ilaria Cristofaro (University of Wales Trinity Saint David)

From a phenomenological perspective, the reflective quality of water has visually dramatic impact, especially when combined with the light of celestial phenomena. However, the potentialities of this reflection of the sky are often undervalued when interpreting archaeoastronomical sites. From artificial water spaces such as ditches, “huacas” and wells to natural ones such as rivers, lakes and puddles, water spaces add a layer of interacting reflections to landscapes. In the cross-cultural cosmological understanding of skyscapes and waterscapes, a metaphorical association respectively with the Heaven and the Underworld is often revealed. In this research, sky-waterscapes are explored through the practice of auto-ethnography and reflexive phenomenology. The mirroring of the sky in water opens up themes such as the continuity, liminality and manipulation: water spaces act as continuation of the sky on the land, so as to make the heavenly dimension easily accessible. Because of their spatial liminality when reflected, celestial phenomena can be manipulated according to their temporality. Sky-waterscapes appear as specular worlds, where water spaces are assumed to be doorways to the inner reality of the unconscious. The fluid properties of water have the visual effect of dissipating borders, merging shapes and, therefore, of dissolving identities. For this reason water spaces may embody symbolic death experiences such as rituals of initiation, where the annihilation of the individual allows the creative process of a new life cycle. These contextually generalisable results aim to inspire new perspectives on sky-and-water related archaeological case studies, and give value to the practice of reflexive phenomenology as crucial method of research.

Time pursued by a Bear: Ursa Major and stellar time-telling in the Paduan Salone

Darrelyn Gunzburg (University of Wales Trinity Saint David)

This paper focuses on the images of four bears found along the top register of the fresco scheme of the first-floor Salone of the Palazzo della Ragione, Padua, Italy. To ask why bears appear in this register is to question how bears were viewed in the medieval period. Previous scholars have described these Salone images as representing qualities, such as ‘wicked and hot tempered’. Nevertheless, as my previous research has shown (Gunzburg 2013), these top register images are reflective of the constellations that dictated the seasons and the cycle of the year as seen over Padua c.1309. Thus a more likely candidate is Ursa Major, the Great Bear. This presentation creates four sky maps at midnight, which was relevant for time telling by the sky at this time (Vincent and Chandler 1969: 375-376). The sky maps are created for Padua specifically for when the sun ingressed into the zodiac signs of Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius. They reveal the changing rotational pattern of Ursa Major from ‘hibernation’ to descent. These sky maps are then connected with the position of the bears in the Salone fresco scheme. This concept of the constellation of the Great Bear Ursa Major in its four positions as seasonal markers in the sky sits within the philosophy of time telling by the stars (Hannah 2009:14). Finally, this paper argues that these older time-telling strategies (Reeves 1916: 441; McCluskey 1990: 14; McCluskey 1998: 111) not only had practical applicability but that such knowledge-practice continued across cultures and time. Their appearance on the walls of the Salone in the ‘elite’ visual language of this fourteenth-century Paduan fresco offers evidence for that practice continuing into the late medieval era.


Frank, R.M. ‘Hunting the European sky bears: When bears ruled the earth and guarded the gate of heaven.’ In Astronomical Traditions in Past Cultures, edited by V. Koleva and D. Kolev. 116-142. Sofia: Institute of Astronomy, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and National Astronomical Observatory Rozhen, 1996.

Gibbon, William B. ‘Asiatic Parallels in North American Star Lore: Ursa Major.’ The Journal of American Folklore 77, no. 305 (1964): 236-250.

Gunzburg, Darrelyn. ‘Giotto's Sky: The fresco paintings of the first floor Salone of the Palazzo della Ragione, Padua, Italy.’ Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 7, no. 4 (2013): 407-433.

Hannah, Robert. Time in Antiquity. Abingdon: Routledge, 2009.

McCluskey, Stephen C. ‘Gregory of Tours, Monastic Timekeeping, and Early Christian Attitudes to Astronomy.’ Isis 81, no. 1 (1990).

McCluskey, Stephen C. Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Reeves, E. A. ‘Night Marching by Stars.’ The Geographical Journal 47, no. 6 (1916): 440-455.

Vincent, Clare, and Bruce Chandler. ‘Nighttime and Easter Time: The Rotations of the Sun, the Moon, and the Little Bear in Renaissance Time Reckoning.’ The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 27, no. 8 (1969): 372-384.

Moon Monitoring Politics

Suzanne Villeneuve (University of Toronto and Simon Fraser University) and Julian Henao (Simon Fraser University)

In the study of the origin of calendars and sophisticated celestial monitoring among prehistoric complex hunter/gatherers, a key issue has been the motivation underlying the development of these practices in human cultural evolution. We argue that these record-keeping systems make theoretical sense primarily as part of the socio-political dynamics surrounding the creation and maintenance of inequality in complex hunter-gatherers. From an ethnoarchaeological perspective, restricted esoteric knowledge of celestial monitoring as well as ritual scheduling served to help maintain ritual networks and political relationships. This facilitated the creation of organized religious-political groups who controlled community annual ritual rounds. It is these religious-political groups (e.g., sodalities) that were central to much larger processes of cultural developments, and their success hinged, in part, upon the careful monitoring of celestial phenomena used for ritual scheduling and the control of this knowledge. We illustrate this through an ethnoarchaeology example from Sumba, Indonesia, where the ‘skyscape’ infuses the on-going maintenance of traditional ritual practices, associated daily life, and regional political networks. We focus especially on the role and importance of the specialist, and the issue of knowledge transfer and new generations maintaining traditional practices in the face of global modern influences under rapidly changing conditions. In this context, the irony of technology comes into play, in terms of its ability for transformation yet also continuity and maintenance of knowledge systems at least in the short term. We see this in the case of moon monitoring apps and iPhones (and Facebook) changing celestial monitoring practices, calendar maintenance, announcements of ritual scheduling and youth training for their future roles in religious-political organizations.

A diachronic study of mid-Holocene skyscapes in southern England and Wales: preliminary results

Pamela Armstrong (University of Wales Trinity Saint David)

Scarre (2004, 143) said that the construction of a megalithic structure was not ‘just a crude manipulation of materials, an early form of unsophisticated architecture before anything better was available; much more than that, [monumental structures] incorporate or exemplify particular attitudes to or ideas about the world’. This paper explores those ‘ideas about the world’ which the people of prehistory may have had which were to do with the impulse, or lack thereof, to note the passage of time. Using a preliminary data set of orientations of prehistoric structures, both monumental and settlement, in Wales and the south west of England collected from the literature, this paper takes a diachronic approach in order to assess whether there was significant shift in orientation interest through the transitions of the mid-Holocene in this region of the United Kingdom. Whilst this preliminary analysis does not yet consider the broader cultural context it provides a pared down review which reveals whether seasonal affiliation, or lack thereof, existed on this landscape across a range of sites.


Scarre, Chris, 'Displaying the Stones: The Materiality of "Megalithic" Monuments,' in Rethinking Materiality the Engagement of Mind with the Material World, ed. Chris Gosden & Colin Renfrew and Elizabeth DeMarrais (Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2004).

Skyscape Exploration: From Material Site to Apparent Non-Site and Back Again

Daniel Brown (Nottingham Trent University)

A skyscape has been defined as sky framed by horizon and therefore land, sea and monuments (Silva 2015). This allows metaphors in the skyscape to become explored, meanings interpreted and emotional engagement achieved. A dialogue is established between all components including cultural and personal background provided by the viewer over time. Transforming from observer to watcher and realising a dialogue between skyscape and viewer is the moment where the full skyscape is experienced (Brown 2016a).

A skyscape experience is always a negotiation of meaning within the dialectic of materiality versus non-materiality, seeing versus non-seeing, and site versus non-site proposed by Smithson (1968). The planetarium software Stellarium has offered archaeoastronomers a resource to explore skyscapes. Researchers have found it valuable to include photorealistic representations of a site to explore possible meanings (Brown 2016b). But are we really exploring a skyscape? Should the site alone speak for itself?

This presentation will outline how skyscapes are realised by including the deep phenomenological engagement with sky, land and monuments, and also by exploring on a phenomenological level Stellarium simulations. It will illustrate how any material site will always include conceptual representations of culture. At first sight walking within Stonehenge one might appear to directly engage with a pure material site, however the stones and patterns created are manifestations of a cosmological concept and a non-site representation. Ultimately one is entangled amongst site and non-site and skyscape becomes either site or non-site, site and non-site, or none at all.


Brown, D. (2016a), The Experience of Watching, 2016, Culture and Cosmos 17.2, 5-24.

Brown, D. (2016b), Memories unlocked and places explored – Stellarium, Temporality and Skyscapes, Culture and Cosmos, in press.

Silva, F. (2015), ‘The Role and Importance of the Sky Archaeology: an introduction’ in Fabio Silva and Nicholas Campion (Editors) Skyscapes: The Role and Importance of the Sky in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 1-7.

Smithson, R. (1968), "A provisional theory of non-sites" Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (1996): 364.

The Solar Discourse of the Welsh Cistercians

Bernadette Brady, Darrelyn Gunzburg and Fabio Silva (University of Wales Trinity Saint David)

This paper reports on the continuing research of the Welsh Monastic Skyscape Project which considers how the union of sun, landscape, and architecture can produce a theologically charged environment. This paper takes a detailed focus of all extant Welsh Cistercian Abbeys and their theological relationship to sun light. In 1994, Janet Burton (1994: 159,161) claimed that Cistercian Abbeys supported the theological agenda of saving each individual monk’s soul and by extension, that this would produce the salvation of the world. Later in 2001, Megan Cassidy-Welch (2001:164) described the Cistercians’ desire to build ‘the earthly manifestation of heavenly space, a site that was suffused with celestial longing’. This paper considers these Welsh Cistercian monastic sites and rather than utilizing a statistical approach, as recommended in 2015 by Stephen McCluskey (2015:1709) we drew instead on the approach suggested by Hugh Benson in 1957 (1957). Our methodology was interdisciplinary, drawing together the fields of anthropology, archaeoastronomy, art history, and medieval architecture. This methodology took into account the orientation of the abbey, the altitude of any extant windows of the east and west ends, and how the structure made use of the local topography to emphasise the sun’s light. We then placed these discovered orientations into a cultural context by considering them within the framework of the Cistercian theology and philosophy of sun light.


Benson, Hugh, 'Church orientations and patronal festivals', The Antiquaries Journal, 36, 1956, pp. 205-213.

Burton, Janet E. 1994. The monastic and religious orders in Britain, 1000-1300 (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge).

Cassidy-Welch, Megan. 2001. Monastic spaces and their meanings, thirteenth-century English Cistercian monasteries (Brepols: Belgium).

McCluskey, Stephen C. 2015. 'Orientation of Christian Churches.' in Clive L. N. Ruggles (ed.), The Handbook of Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy (Springer Reference: New York). 

‘Three stones in his belt’… astronomical imagery in myth and ritual sites

John Grigsby (University of Bournemouth)

Following the work of Larsson and Kristiansen (2006) that uses Indo-European myth to explain the iconography of Bronze Age Scandinavian art, it is worth asking whether the ceremonial sites of the British Isles might also be illuminated through the application of myth. To this end I have used Renfrew’s ‘Anatolian hypothesis’ (1987) that argues for a Neolithic spread of the Indo-European languages to reconstruct a tentative ‘shaping mythology’ (Bradley 1998) behind Neolithic and Bronze Age ritual sites in Britain, one which includes visual references to specific events in the heavens, especially surrounding the winter solstice.

In this talk I will look at the imagery found in myth of the ‘rescuer of the sun’ and of the goddess whose obscene gestures precede the release of the sun/fertility from its winter imprisonment, arguing that such figures can be linked to the behaviour of the Milky Way and Orion at the solstice; I will show how this stellar ‘narrative’ provides an origin for certain motifs found in Neolithic and Bronze Age iconography – especially the lozenge symbols found on female figurines and in megalithic art. I will then argue that the same stars are referenced in the alignments and design of many ceremonial sites, suggesting such myths may have provided the narrative accompaniment to a seasonal drama played out both in the heavens (skyscape) and re-enacted in ceremony in the landscape, and which retain in their imagery detailed visualisations of these ancient skies.


Bradley, Richard. 1998. The Significance of Monuments. Routledge

Larsson, T and Kristiansen, K. 2006. The Rise of Bronze Age Society Travels, Transmissions and Transformations. Cambridge

Renfrew, C. 1987. Archaeology and Language. Jonathan Cape

Early Bronze Age deep postholes alignments in Linsmeau pointing towards astronomical events

Frédéric Heller (Service Public de Wallonie) and Georg Zotti (LBI ArchPro, Vienna)

The site of Linsmeau is located at the foot of the plateaus in the middle of Belgium on a colluvial beach north of the Petite Gette River and at the end of its navigable zone. A series of 15 unusually deep rooted post holes were uncovered there. Though few in number, they are atypical and they all reach and bore into the underlying bedrock, at a depth of up to 1.4 metres. Their position, diameter and spacing, rule out the idea they could have been used as part of a building. All of the posts show clear evidence of being ripped out from their holes. In this, they differ from all the other posts found on the site. Five of these posts seemed to form a cross oriented to the cardinal points with a line coming from its centre towards the winter solstice sunrise. Since the 3D simulations done at the Boltzmann Institute in Vienna showed that these were too far away from these directions, the present study systematically studied the possible alignments from each post to the sky. The results of this study show something new: when considering two posts and an astronomical event as the third point of the line, alignments to both the summer solstice sunrise and sunset were discovered. Further alignments to the sun’s cross quarter rising and setting were also noted and three others were aimed towards the Major Lunar standstills (rising and setting). This paper will also consider whether this post setting really constitutes an observing site. 

Archaeologists versus archaeoastronomers or new best buddies? A round table discussion

Moderator: Fabio Silva (University of Wales Trinity Saint David)

This roundtable discussion will debate how can archaeoastronomers and archaeologists come to work together in future and what skyscape archaeologists can do to bridge this gap. Why do so few archaeologists engage with the skyscape? Is it lack of engagement with the sky, the celestial objects and their motions, or a misunderstanding of how simple they are to track for any given society? Is it the emphasis on mathematics and statistics in archaeoastronomers’ work that has apparently given a misleading impression of past cultures? Is it the lack of corroborating archaeological detail in many archaeoastronomy papers that make them suspect? Or is it that archaeoastronomy’s mistaken association with popular fringe pseudo-archaeological books that is off-putting? We invite all archaeologists to participate in this discussion, air their concerns and put forward their suggestions to help us progress skyscape archaeology further through collaboration.


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