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Ancient Archaeoastronomy of the Mesoamericans
For centuries civilizations have relied on the stars in many aspects of their daily lives. Whether heavenly bodies were used for navigation, ceremonial, insight for agriculture, or socio-political reasons these people often put celestial bodies at the center of their ideology. Many civilizations held these celestial bodies in such high regard that they integrated their whole society around certain celestial bodies and the annual celestial events, such as the equinoxes and the solstices, and very often associated these bodies and occurrences with their gods. One such people, the Mesoamericans seemed to have a tight synthesis between archaeoastronomy and their daily life. The purpose of this paper is to show how the different people that were associated with Mesoamerica regarded celestial bodies and how they integrated certain celestial events in their architecture, ideology, and daily life.
First, a definition of archaeoastronomy is warranted to allow for a better understanding of what is being discussed herein. A.F. Aveni defined archaeastronomy in his article entitled, “Archaeoastronomy in Mesoamerica and Peru: Comment: as “more than the study of ancient astronomy through the use of archeological data and the use of ancient texts. Archaeoastronomy is an interdisciplinary meeting ground for those who are concerned about the perception and conception of the natural world by the people of ancient civilizations.” (Averi; 165). To summarize this it could be said that archaeoastronomy is not only what these ancient people saw and recorded when they looked into the skies, but also how they implemented what they saw and drew conclusions based on these findings that were carried over to aspects of their lives such as religious, agricultural, and even city planning. Averi is proposing the argument that there is more than meets the eye where archaeoastronomy is concerned. That archaeoastronomy is not only scientific data, but also what contexts these findings are plugged into in order to form an ideology based on celestial bodies or events. These implementations of celestial bodies and events in different facets of pre-Columbian cultures of the Mesoamerican are often seen in the art, architecture, and in many of the recorded religious practices that have been preserved via codices. Even though Averi may also argue that Teotihuacan is situated in a specific fashion because the alignment of it is in line with Cerro Gordo (which was the primary place where they drew water) that does not necessarily mean that archaeoastronomy does not have a scientific leg to stand on. In fact, offering multiple theories of this orientation stimulates new debates which may, ultimately, uncover new data concerning the specific reason that Teotihuacan is oriented the way that it is. While Averi holds fast to his argument many others seem to think that the astronomical alignment of Teotihuacan has to do with specific events. For example, some anthropologists seem to think that the fifteen-point-five degree orientation of the Pyramid of the Sun correlates with the setting of the sun on August 13th. Moreover, the Pyramid of the Moon’s summit has been associated with the telling of noon and midnight by its orientation. It would be hard to believe that the orientation of these structures and the coinciding relationship between celestial events are pure coincidence.
Next, it is unlikely that civilizations ignored the heavens and what they saw in the night sky. There is so much data to the contrary. Although Averi may not think that the orientation of Teotihuacan has anything to do with celestial events he does argue that many civilizations were conscious of the heavens; their orientation in the sky, and the paths in which they travel nightly (and daily). According to an article that Averi wrote entitled, “Tropical Archeoastronomy” he states that many of these civilizations had a conscious awareness of their celestial surroundings. He wrote, “In all ancient societies, the sky and its contents lay at the very base of human cognition. Early hunter-gatherers and later sedentary societies were profoundly influenced by the dependable precision of cyclic recurrence unfolding in the celestial canopy.” (Avery; 161).
Averi points out that the celestial bodies and their positions (and paths) were appreciated by ancient civilizations and were used in such ways, for example, as in aiding seafarers in navigation. In his paper, Averi goes on to explain some of the Mesoamerican astronomical concepts. He focuses on the Maya and commented about their advanced forms of writing, mathematics and astronomy. He goes on to talk about how they “also used the horizon system to monitor celestial events and to mark time.” (Averi;162). For example, Averi talks about stone markers that were used to mark certain celestial events and their correlation to terrestrial events. He writes, “Stone markers extending from behind Campo Santo up to the top of high hill west of town. From Campo Santo to top approx. 1.5km. Sun rises on lines PS & OS observed from stones O & P on March 19th 1940 two days before the equinox.” (Averi;162-3). This information, in itself, tells us nothing extraordinary about the stone markers, however, it does give a little bit of background information and helps a reader to form a mental image in their mind. It sets the scene for the next quote. Averi then writes, “Sun rises this day at 6 degrees 31.5 ms. Direction observed with simple adjustable compass. Observations are made at the stone today by zahorins (shamans) for planting and harvesting.” (Averi;162-3). This passage, although lengthy and filled with scientific jargon, does show that these marker stones that were erected can be, and were/are, used in conjunction with the planting and harvesting of the crops. Think of these markers as a “Maya Agriculture Almanac”. Every year a shaman can go to the stones and, with the simplest of instruments, make detailed calculations that will be used in ensuring a positive effect on their agriculture. Without markers such as these ancient Mayas would have had a harder time trying to figure out when to plant their crops to ensure optimum yield, and when to harvest in order to ensure optimum quality of their crops.
Averi has also written about architecture and its correlation to celestial bodies in Mesoamerica. One such site that Averi talks about in detail is that of Chichén Itzá. He, and his associates, discussed the calendrical symbolism of certain buildings within Chichén Itzá and certain correlations that could be seen from within the Maya calendar. For example, Averi talks specially cabout the Castillo of Chichén Itzá and how certain aspects of it can be related to aspects of the Maya theology, calendar, and celestial events. He describes the Castillo of Chichén Itzá and ties it to these different aspects. For example, he writes, “This stepped radical pyramid possesses nine terraces, the same as the number of levels of the Maya underwold.”(Averi; 129). Averi is showing how the Maya incorporated parts of their ideology into their architectural plans. He goes on to say, “Divided by a stairway, each side contains eighteen such layers, which is equal to the number of twenty-day months in a Maya year.” (Averi; 129) Averi is showing a direct correlation between the way in which the Maya built, and adorned, this monument and how they tied their calendar into it. Whether it is by coincidence or done by purpose there is no denying that the similarities to the two attributes mentioned concerning the Castillo shows that the Maya could have very well been implanting these ideologies into the stone monuments that dominated the landscape. When the Castillo is viewed from above it “resembles the quadripartite diagrams of the universe that the ancient Mesoamericans painted in their codices, which show the four directional gods, plants, animals, day names, etc” (Avery;129). Why would these Mesoamericans incorporate this type of theological depth to a physical structure that could only be viewed from above? Could it be that they were hoping to gain favor with the gods by showing them the ways in which they are worshipping, and paying homage, to them? Is it simply a mixture of theology and calendric mathematics that just happened to take the form that it did and the fact that it can be viewed most completely from the sky is just a coincidence? This author thinks not. This author thinks that there was a conscious intent to appease the gods, perhaps in the hopes of years of bountiful harvests and the flourishing of the civilization. The architecture of the Castillo of Chichén Itzá is filled with possible inferences. For example, Averi continues to describe the Castillo by writing, “Fifty-two recessed panels decorate both sides of each stairway, the same as the number of years in a calendar round, the shortest interval in which the seasonal year is commensurate with the tzolkin or sacred round of 260 days.” (Averi; 129). This added layer of symbiosis between architecture and Maya ideology lays further credibility to the argument that the physical makeup of the Castillo at Chichén Itzá is not random and that there was conscious thought that was given in order to incorporate these astronomical and theological ideas. Averi is arguing that the Castillo was built and functioned in a “calendrical ritual capacity in the context of the ancient four-directional New year festival cycle, which was conducted during the last five days of the seasonal calendar.”(Averi; 129). This building, in Averi’s eyes, had a specific ritualistic purpose. The building itself was incorporated with so much Maya ideology and theological beliefs that it was undoubtedly erected as a sacred location.
Avery has not cornered the market as far as archaeoastronomy is concerned. There are many other anthropologists and other interested parties that have chimed in on the topic. Once such person is Elizabeth Baity. She wrote an article for Current Anthropology entitled “Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy So Far”. In her paper she discusses the construction of megalithic structures of ancient times and the astronomical techniques that were used in their construction. She also delves into explaining a new sub disciple that incorporates engineering, archeology, and astronomy. She makes the argument that there are many structures that were erected in ancient civilizations that held a specific purpose of predicting astronomical events. These structures were not just erected for their aesthetic value alone even though many of these structures are breath-taking in their beauty. In talking about archaeoastronomy she explains that it “focuses on the analysis of the orientations and measurements of megalithic and other monumental ancient structures, many of which, as we will see, could have served for the prediction of solar and lunar eclipses and unquestionably did serve for the determination of solstices and equinoxes, enabling the setting of dates for agricultural activities and for the ritual cycle of the year”. (Baity; 390). As you can see there are some similarities between what she is arguing and the argument that Avery presented. Both are under the impression that these structures that the ancient Mesoamerican people built were built for the purpose of astronomical, agricultural, and religious events. Most of these structures were incorporated into rituals that coincided with specific seasonal events and the evidence can be seen on ceramics, art, and other mediums. It is safe to say that the Mesoamerican people put an emphasis on specific celestial events such as solstices and equinoxes. Some of these celestial events directly coincided with the planting or harvesting of the annual crops that provided the sustenance that the Mesoamericans needed to thrive as a civilization. The idea of structures to forecast specific celestial events is not a new one and is not specific to the Mesoamericans. Many other cultures throughout history have erected structures for the same purpose. For example, Stonehenge is perhaps one of the most famous celestial monuments in the world. Archeologists have tried to decode what the position of the stones relate to. Some archeologists theorize that they mark the swing of the azimuth of the moon, while others seem to think that they are directly related to the solstices and equinoxes. No matter what differences that the astronomers and anthropologists have concerning Stonehenge one thing is for sure — it was erected for a purpose other than that of pure utility. It is this pushing and stretching of long held beliefs concerning the uses of these monolithic structures that lead to new advancements and breakthroughs in anthropology.
There are many other sites in Mesoamerica that have archaeoastronomical content. One such site is the one at the Maya site of Copán. Harvey and Victorian Bricker describe some of the astronomical content at this site, referred to as Group 8N-11. In their paper, “Astronomical Orientation of the Skyband Bench at Copán”, the Bricker’s talk specifically about the Skyband Bench. Like Teotihuacan the orientation of the Skyband Bench at Copán plays a key role in laying credibility to the argument for archaeoastronomical content in Mesoamerican cultures. In their paper they write, “The Skyband Bench at Copán is a bicephalic raptorial bird (panels 1 and 9) rather than a serpent, but all the body panels bear celestial imagery. Panels 2, 5, and 8 are frontal views of the head of the personified Sun or Sun god. Panel 3 is a personified Moon and panel 7 a personified Venus. Panels 4 and 6 are personifications of, respectively night and day.”(Bricker; 435). This evidence cannot be ignored. The fact that the Mesoamericans are creating art that depicts celestial bodies and, moreover, personifying them shows that they had a deep connection with the bodies up in the heavens. The Skyband Bench is a great example of early Mesoamericans showing their consciousness of the heavens above and the celestial bodies that are held within. The Brickers’ paper is a good example of how a part of Mesoamerican architecture can offer a plethora of knowledge and credibility for archaeoastronomy. As in any other discipline the more papers that become published on a certain topic the more the scientific community will notice and, hopefully, work towards accepting these hypotheses.
The Mayas weren’t the only Mesoamerican civilization to incorporate celestial imagery into their structure, and subsequently, into their culture. David Carrasco talks about the Aztec culture in his article, “Star Gatherers and Wobbling Suns: Astral Symbolism in the Aztec Tradition”. In his essay he explains spatial orientation and symbolism. He writes, “The Aztecs observed stars, measured them, and calculated them into their social and agricultural cycles.” (Carrasco; 284). Can you see a trend appearing? In virtually all of the examples of Mesoamerican archaeoastronomy one of the prime components is agriculture. Without agriculture of some sort a civilization will surely perish. The ability to produce a bountiful harvest could mean the difference between a thriving civilization and one that is in ruins. There are a few factors to think about when agriculture is concerned. First, the sun can be both a godsend and a curse. Its warmth and ultraviolet rays are needed by the plants in order to grow and flourish. Too much or not enough heat, as well as too much or not enough ultraviolet rays and the harvest will suffer. Secondly, water is needed for agriculture to thrive. Without life-giving water a crop can dry up and the civilization will suffer. Too much water and the crops can be flooded, which will affect the yield, and the people will suffer as well. The ancient Mesoamericans thought that gods controlled all of these facets of agriculture. Rituals were held in order to appease the gods. By appeasing the gods the people were hoping that the gods would look generously down on them and grant them a bountiful harvest which would help to sustain them for another season. It is only logical that they wanted to be as well-equipped as possible when it came to the planting, overseeing, and harvesting of the crops. By incorporating a way in which to predict the best times to plant, and harvest, these people could help to ensure the sustainability of their civilization for a future generation. Many of these ancient Mesoamerican shamans could be viewed as early scientists without them even knowing that they were. In their eyes they were simply being messengers, or arbitrators, for the gods. In fact, they were using the scientific method and applying it to various measuring tools (architectural structures) in order to show a means of scientific replication year after year. These shamans knew that the solstices and equinoxes happened at specific times of the year, every year. By being able to reproduce these results they were not only helping out their people, but also laying credibility to themselves as being messengers to the gods. These structures were essential tools in order for the shaman to effectively do their divine duties.
All of these examples of archeaoastonomy are linked by certain imagery and celestial bodies. In almost every instance there are depictions of the Sun, Moon, and various other celestial bodies. Even though they may be associated with different gods, these celestial bodies were highly regarded by the Mesoamericans as key elements for their survival. Without the sun the crops would, undoubtedly, fail. Without the moon the tides wouldn’t crest and ebb and thus navigation and fishing would be inconsistent. These all-important celestial gods make up an integral part of Mesoamerican ideology.
To explore this point further one can look at Weldon Lamb’s paper entitled, “The Sun, Moon and Venus at Uxmal”. In this paper he describes elements of many mosaics in Uxmal. By looking at these mosaics one can see how they are loaded with archaeoastronomical data. Sheldon delves into this topic by explaining facts concerning the moon, sun and Venus that are found in the mosaics at the site. He writes, “that these features taken together preserve knowledge of eight facts about the sun, moon, and Venus: the moon’s synodic period is 29.53 days; the lunar sidereal period lasts nearly 27.33 days; the Venus synodic mean is almost 584 days; the observed Venus synodic can vary between 581 and 587 days; any five consecutive Venus synodics equal or come to within one day of eight vague years of 365 days each; one sun-moon correlation has five short years and three long ones together equal to eight vague years or eight true solar years or 99 lunations; the Venus sidereal period is nearly 224 days long; and finally, 13 Venus sidereals virtually equal five Venus synodics.”(Lamb; 79). Even though this looks as if it is simply a bunch of scientific data because of the vocabulary in which the information is housed one has to take into consideration that these mosaics were made around 750-1000 A.D. Taking that into consideration one can see how the Maya were very interested in celestial bodies and were very technologically in tune with the heavens. This kind of data gathering would not be done over a period of days or months, but over years and generations. That kind of dedication can only mean that the Maya were very engrossed in archaeoastronomy. These mosaics also have animal like figures, mostly bird serpents, portrayed on the walls of some of the buildings as well. This shows that astronomy was integrated and meshed very tightly with their religion. Having deities alongside astronomical data shows a strong correlation between the religious beliefs of these people and how closely knit it was in astronomy. The Maya were definitely interested in astronomy and were even more interested in trying to preserve their civilization by understanding their gods. To better understand their gods is a way to better be able to serve their gods, and appease their gods. If the gods are appeased, the Maya thought that there would be a more bountiful harvest, more successful war campaigns, and the fruition of their civilization.
In conclusion, there are many anthropologists out there that may not totally agree with the various interpretations that some archaeoastronomy researchers have made concerning the architecture and ideology of the Mesoamerican people. Much of it is just that: up for interpretation, but enough scientific data is coming through to show that there is, in fact, correlation between the events that happen in the heavens and the theological, agricultural, and cultural ties that bind many of these Mesoamerica people to various celestial bodies. Looking up at the modern sky it is no wonder that so many cultures were fascinated by the marvels in the sky both in the day time and at night. Today we have astronomers and advanced technology to compute, calculate, and make sense out of all of the data that is extracted from the heavens. Back in the time of the Aztec, Maya, and other Mesoamericans it is mind blowing to imagine that they made very scientific calculations concerning celestial bodies without the aid of computers or other pieces of modern technology. Add that with the awesome looking nature of the heavens and it is no wonder that these people often associated heavenly bodies with that of their gods —the Sun, the Moon, and other celestial bodies. Across the world there are similar beliefs from pole to pole and hemisphere to hemisphere. The next time you look up at the sky and pick out your favorite constellation, or other heavenly bodies imagine what the Maya, or the Aztec, saw. Looking up into the heavens is like looking into a window leading out to the past.
Aveni, A. F. “Archaeoastronomy in Mesoamerica and Peru: Comment.” Latin American Research Review. 16. no. 3 (1981): 163-166.
Aveni, A. F. “Tropical Archeoastronomy.” Science. 213. no. 4504 (1981): 161-171.
Aveni, Anthony, Lope Carlos, and Susan Milbrath. “Chichén Itzá’s Legacy in the Astronomically Oriented Architecture of Mayapán.” Anthropology and Aesthetics. no. 45 (2004): 123-143.
Baity, Elizabeth. “Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy So Far [and Comments and Reply].” Current Anthropology. 14. no. 4 (1973): 389-449.
Bricker, Harvey, and Victoria Bricker. “Astronomical Orientation of the Skyband Bench at Copán.” Journal of Field Archaeology. 26. no. 4 (1999): 435-442.
Carrasco, Davíd. “Star Gatherers and Wobbling Suns: Astral Symbolism in the Aztec Tradition.” History of Religions. 26. no. 3 (1987): 279-294.
Lamb, Weldon. “The Sun, Moon and Venus at Uxmal.” American Antiquity. 45. no. 1 (1980): 79-86.
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