The Influence of Astronomy in the Layout of Mayan Cities

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The Influence of Astronomy in the Layout of Mayan Cities

Patrick Kush

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The Maya society was rich with culture and knowledge. Most of our current knowledge of these marvelous people has been circumstantial. Historians and archeologists have pieced together an approximate representation of these people. Being unable to decipher all the glyphs found on ruins, we still possess an incomplete picture. We know they had an interest in astronomy. Many cultures have had more than a passing interest in the heavens. Can we see how strong their understanding of astronomy was by examining the way they used the knowledge in the temporary and permanent structures they built? Simply by using a permanent structure to study the skies demonstrates a higher skill and desire to understand the celestial sphere over the passing of years. Which types of structures did the Maya use to study the skies? What will examining the orientation of these markers reveal? Were the orientations of the markers significant enough to build a more permanent monument? How did the Maya celebrate this additional knowledge? Could the discovery of multiple building groups provide crucial evidence of the Maya knowledge of astronomy? Can single structures be used to provide a common reference for all the Maya people? We hope to then surmise that the Maya were greatly influenced by the heavens to such a degree that they built their society around this knowledge. I will examine the incorporation of astronomical knowledge into the city layout will be the topic to examine.

Our study of Maya people will begin with stelae and the Maya calendar. Limestone monuments, called stelae, were about ten to twelve feet high. Most have glyphs or inscriptions. These glyphs can represent festivals, successful conquests or even the commemoration of certain astronomical knowledge. Some inscriptions reveal for whom the stelae was built. The carvings described when they were built and for what purpose the stelae was commissioned. Maya numbers were common on the stelae. These were placed to mark the date of the dedication of new cycles or an important event in a ruler's life (Hunter, A Guide to Ancient Maya Ruins, p. 107). The Maya calendar was based on the length of a uinal (20-day month). Eighteen uinals would then be a year, or a tun. This does not total to 365 days. The Maya knew this and added five days at the end of each year. These were the unlucky days. It was during these days, called the Uayeb; that most of the Maya people would fast and stay indoors. A few unfortunate souls, mostly captured slaves, were put to the task of constructing a road to idols placed at cardinal points outside the town limit (Coe, The Maya, p. 172). Each year one road would be constructed or lengthened for five days. Roads were assigned each year by a counter clockwise progression around the city. The road would be aligned north to south or east to west. These roads were marked with stelae. Many stelae were built to commemorate the katun or twenty-year mark. This was a more significant event. It was sometimes significant enough to be commemorated with the addition of an altar. Unfortunately, while many altars were moved to a permanent place of worship, most were destroyed during the early political turmoil of the Maya. The calendar was important to the Maya. We can see that astronomy also played a part in the lives of the Maya. By a conscious effort, the Maya knew the length of a year and the error of their math. To appease the gods, they atoned for their error by having unlucky days, and marked stellar alignments with stelae.

There were other alignments associated with stelae. At Copan, Honduras, two stelae are aligned so that the two mark the line of sunset on April 12. The significance of April 12th is a mystery. It could be an attempt to test this day as being astronomically significant. After learning it was not an event of importance, they probably left them there and placed new stelae in what could be a worthy configuration. Verification of a meaningful placement was then a more noteworthy event. The Maya consciously used stelae to display their knowledge of astronomy. By combining stelae with buildings, the Maya broadened their display of astronomical skill.

Tikal, Guatemala, accentuates this point. The palace at Tikal is located in the middle of the city. Towards the north lies what is called the celestial domain. This is a place where the Mayan people believe the connection between them and the heavens meet. The celestial domain would then be a reasonable location for the placement of the ruler's throne. This placement would reinforce the legitimacy of the ruler by the gods. This location would also provide the population with the reassurance of living in a sacred and ordered place (Sharer, Daily Life in Maya Civilization, p. 157­). Putting a temple there would suffice. What we see is the development of the celestial domain over time. Within the temple stand two stelae and a stone throne. Many stelae were discovered to have valuable connotation. The significance of two stelae in a structure could be to ensure the exact placement of the vital astronomical positioning. The Maya did not want to jeopardize the importance of this connection, so they built around it. They also left the celestial domain open to the sky. This could be for various reasons. Perhaps the ruler wished to see within the celestial domain from the temple. Or just the opposite, he wanted to view his palace from a divine temple. Another possibility is that Maya architects could learn to use this knowledge in the building of future structures. These architects probably watched how the heavens changed with respect to stelae and with buildings from a single reference point.

The people of Tikal learned and then used this knowledge. The twin pyramid groups helped reinforce the connection with the heavens. These pyramid groups lie on the east-west axis through the city. They were built to honor two katuns and signified the birth and death of the sun (Ibid, p.155). The importance of each katun was demonstrated by naming a katun. There were only thirteen named katuns. The building of two pyramids must have been very momentous to the Maya. This influence spread to Yaxha, Guatemala. The people of Yaxha built the only other known twin pyramid structures. The size of the complex in Yaxha is smaller than the one in Tikal. This can probably be attributed to Yaxha being in subordinate status to Tikal (Henderson, The World of the Ancient Maya, p. 160). We can now see how the Maya calendar and the orientation of buildings direct Maya life. We have demonstrated the significance that the stelae had in placing and marking alignments.

Another astronomical building, Mundo Perdido, at Tikal, provides us with a glimpse into the process. An astronomical temple in the city lies along the centerline of an astronomical axis. The temple contains single stelae. This stelae may have originally marked an east-west axis point (Ibid, p.119). Another temple was constructed to the west and probably replaced the need for a stelae that served as a marker. The Maya were a wise people, and understood the knowledge tied to the stelae, and moved it to the central astronomical building to preserve the stelae's substance. The Maya realized that the stelae were tools that composed their knowledge base. These actions appear to be just a stage in the development of buildings based on astronomical principles.

The Maya people needed a foundation for their knowledge to grow. They needed a steady frame of reference that they could rely on from generation to generation. They could then watch events and record them to look for changes or patterns. The next step the Maya would take would be the construction of an observatory. The Maya built numerous observatories, which were utilized in different ways. There were obvious observatories and subtle ones. We will see how each impacted their society.

The Caracol is a well-known Maya observatory. It is located at Chichen Itza, Mexico. It is a round cake-like structure sitting on top of two older superimposed rectangular platforms (Hunter, A Guide to Ancient Maya, p. 293). The views through windows line up with the setting sun on March 21. There are also views that reference the moonset on the same day. There are windows that align with the northern most extreme of Venus. Therefore, the people could rely on a permanent structure to reinforce celestial beliefs. Communicating cardinal direction from the celestial sphere strengthens this. The Maya would then have direction from the heavens, which was constant and unchanging. This unvarying motion is evidence to how the Maya understood astronomy. There are subtle clues that come from two sources. The first is from existing written records.

The Nuttall Codex is one of the few existing written records. This document contains what are apparently readings of the cycle of Venus. The Nuttall Codex also contains a method of how to view astronomical objects in the sky. It explains that when two crossed sticks are placed in a window or a doorframe, these sticks can be used to align stellar bodies. This is the situation at the Temple of the Sun in Palenque, Mexico. The temple houses the Jaguar God Mask. The mask has an image of the sun disappearing into the night between two crossed spears (Coe, The Maya, p. 107). This representation shows an eye between the spears, observing the setting sun. This demonstrates how the Maya developed a method for observing celestial events. It also communicated the knowledge so that the method can be replicated elsewhere.

The Great Palace at Palenque has the knowledge of astronomy built into it. There is a four-story tower in one corner of the palace. At the top of the tower, the window frames have holes where sticks could be placed to form a reference point. This alone is not proof that it was used for astronomy. There is more evidence that supports the knowledge of observational astronomy. The top level has engravings of important positions of Venus. The position of the tower also has relevance. A person watching from the top of the tower on the winter solstice can watch the sun set into the Temple of Inscriptions. It has been shown that astronomy was subtly incorporated into Maya buildings.

The Maya were using markers to observe important alignments. The next step for the Maya was to place a building in an alignment. The House of the Magician in Uxmal, Mexico, is one such building. It was built to view a mound three and a half miles away through a doorway. This viewpoint was the most southern extreme of Venus thirteen centuries ago (Ibid, p. 178). It can be seen that the Maya were in the process of further observational astronomical study by using buildings as a subtle preservation of knowledge.

The Maya understood that they used structures to align important positions in the skies. It took archeologists some time to see the whole picture. The first recognized complex is in Uaxactun, Guatemala. The discovery of astronomically oriented building complexes is called Group E. This set of buildings is designed for a very specific purpose. They map the motions of the sun over the course of the year. The focal point of the complex is the central radial pyramid. It is from here that the sun is observed when it rises. Three temples were constructed to align themselves with the rising sun on four particular days. The northern temple coincided with the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. The southern temple aligned with the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The middle temple serviced the sun on the two days when day is equal to night, the equinoxes. This knowledge of astronomy influenced the development of the city. The placement of multiple buildings now depends on the skies. The growth of the city is focused around these temples. The influence is strong enough to copy in other cities. Mundo Perdido also has an astronomical complex. This complex has the temples on an elongated platform. The function of these temples matches all the purposes of Group E in Uaxactun, yet these are not the only two. Replications of this Group E formation can be seen at Calakmul, Nakum and in a few other cities of the lowlands (Henderson, The World of the Ancient Maya). The theme of this type of astronomical complex construction reflects how the Maya communicated this observational knowledge.

It has been shown how the Maya have used forms of markers to identify celestial alignments. They used stelae as a temporary markers before constructing a permanent structure. The Maya even incorporated buildings into vital positions for observations. This progression of learning and construction demonstrated the incorporation of astronomy into the Maya lifestyle.

The next step the Maya used was the integration of this knowledge into buildings beyond obvious alignments. The Maya used this knowledge to justify the connection between a ruler and his ascension to power by providing authentication from their gods. The Maya knowledge of astronomy helped Chan Bahlum establish his true authority to the throne after the death of his predecessor, Pacal, in the Late Classic Period. Chan Bahlum called upon Palenque's architects to build a structure that could be used as a tool to interpret astronomical principles as a blessing from the sun god. The commissioned building was built over Pacal's crypt. This building was the Temple of the Inscriptions. We have seen how the setting sun, as viewed from the palace, would fall behind the temple on the winter solstice. The inscriptions within the temple describe how the building was to be a legitimate transfer of royal authority to Chan Bahlum. The building was also designed to use astronomical knowledge. A notch in the ridge behind the Temple of the Inscriptions would allow light to pass through on the winter solstice and cast a spotlight on a succession of scenes in the Temple of the Cross. The effect occurred only on the winter solstice. During the rest of the year, the notch was not aligned to allow light to pass. This weak and dim light would follow an oblique path along the line of the stairs to Pacal's tomb. Symbolically, the dying sun confirmed the succession of Chan Bahlum (Ibid, p. 188). This spectacular demonstration of supernatural forces reinforced the legitimacy from the sun god that the succession was divine. The knowledge of astronomy served as a tool in the layout and construction of these buildings. This knowledge was also used by Chan Bahlum to attain the throne the following summer solstice after Pacal's death. Once again it can be seen that astronomy played a role in Maya society and in the development of a Maya city.

The marriage between architecture and astronomy was significant. It preserved the knowledge of astronomy in permanent structures. These structures connected the stellar world to the Maya world. This association with the celestial domain provided order for the people. Only a trained priest or ruler used most of the structures we have seen. The Maya are a culture that shares this knowledge. The priests or rulers could plan ceremonies to commemorate this knowledge. They did this with the construction of the Castillo.

The Castillo was built in the same city as the Caracol, Chichen Itza. The Castillo is Chichen's main temple, dedicated to Kukulcan. An imposing structure like this accentuates the divine power of the priests. Since the Maya appreciated the significance of repeating celestial events, they probably had festivals to celebrate and honor this consistent world. Priests could use these festivals as a demonstration of their knowledge. The Castillo provided a backdrop for such festivals. The Castillo was constructed to provide the illusion of a serpent climbing the sides of the central stairs. The large steps of the Castillo were aligned so that on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, a shadow would be formed on a wall on the side of the main stairway. As the afternoon advances, a shifting patterns of light and shadow transforms the balustrade into images of slowly writhing diamondback rattlesnakes (Henderson, The World of the Ancient Maya, p. 214). The shadow would appear to climb these steps as the sun rose or set in the sky. A procession during this event enhanced the relationship between the rulers and priests to the celestial gods above. The additional benefit of a large illusion in a very public arena probably provided the rulers a sound justification and other worldly entitlement to the throne. The power of astronomical knowledge validated the ruler's authority.

Astronomy was a tool that the Maya used and they preserved that knowledge in the placement of buildings within their cities. A progression from temporary to permanent structures characterized their advancing knowledge of astronomy. The Maya used stelae to communicate information throughout the land. Some stelae even provided directional orientation for the Maya people. The placement of some stelae was worthy of a more permanent structure. The Celestial Domain at Tikal is an indication that astronomy incorporated more than one type of gauge to view the skies. The replacement of stelae with temples and pyramids helped validate an increasing knowledge of astronomy. The Maya even placed a building along a celestial orientation. For example, the House of the Magician in Uxmal was aligned with a mound in the distance. The advancement of astronomical knowledge grew as additional stellar alignments were verified. These noteworthy discoveries could only be celebrated by building multiple temples. The importance of an astronomical development, such as what we see in Group E formations, can then be portrayed in many Maya cities. Cities like Uaxactun and Mundo Perdido complex are just a couple of the few cities that adopted the Group E configuration. Another type of arrangement was even simpler. Tikal and Yaxha boast a twin pyramid structure that connects east and west. The Maya knowledge of astronomy continued to grow. To consolidate this knowledge they combined known astronomical orientations in one building. The Caracol acted as an observatory for the Maya. It served as a visible and available tool to impart the sum of this wisdom. The Caracol also educated rulers and priests as to how observational readings of the heavens can be accomplished. The knowledge can also be used to substantiate the ruler's power in conjunction with a building's construction. To honor his predecessor, Chan Bahlum commissioned the construction of the Temple of the Inscriptions to commemorate Pacal. This temple utilized stellar alignments in two different fashions. The resulting knowledge can then be used by priests and rulers to validate the connection between the Maya people and their gods. A visual demonstration interconnected the two at the Castillo twice a year.

The progression the Maya used in city development flowed from their knowledge of astronomy. The use of important buildings played a vital role in the shape and expansion of a city. The distance between cities was shortened with shared knowledge. Worship corresponding to celestial events could take place in different cities. This could instill a sense of community throughout the kingdom and unite the people through astronomy. The sky is limitless when a culture can grow around knowledge.

Coe, Michael (1987): The Maya, Thames and Hudson, London

Henderson, John (1981): The World of the Ancient Maya, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY

Hunter, Bruce (1974): A Guide to Ancient Maya Ruins, University of Oklahoma Press

Sharer, Robert (1994): The Ancient Maya, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA

Sharer, Robert (1996): Daily Life in Maya Civilization, Glenwood Press, Westport Connecticut

Ancient Mesoamerica, Olivares, Patrick, 1999,

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