The Mayan astronomers were enormously precise. But where, and with what instruments, did they work? As we have seen, the only astronomers of ancient times who perhaps used telescopes, as far as we know, were the Babylonians. The observation of the sky was practiced by the Mayas, but also, throughout Mesoamerica generally, with the naked eye aided with a simple instrument that is well documented in the colonial codices. This is essentially a cross that was used to see heavenly bodies and measure angles. In the colonial codices, the astronomer is plainly visible, with his cross-staff, sitting in what appears to be a suitably observatory-like building, with star symbols (like lamps) all around him. Indeed, in almost every Mayan city we find buildings designed for astronomical observations or at least clearly connected with them; listing them all would be outside the scope of this book. I have selected three classic examples, each of which has some interest for us: the first is the so-called Group E of Uaxactun.
Situated a few dozen miles from the city of its great rival, Tikal, Uaxactun was inhabited as far back as the preclassical age, but it sustained maximum growth during the classical age. The most important structure in the city is the pyramid called E-VII-B. The square-based pyramid has staircases on all four sides and dominates a huge square. Aligned to the front of it, in the eastward direction, we find three other buildings—E-1, E-2, and E-3— standing on the same platform. This complex constitutes a stone calendar, totally analogous in conception to the Maltese temple of Mijandra. In fact, from the center of the staircase of E-VII-B, facing east, one can see the sun rise at the winter solstice, at the equinoxes, and at the summer solstice in alignment with the three small platforms E-3, E-2, and E-1, respectively (Aveni and Hartung 1989). This is undoubtedly an extremely old structure. Since, as we have seen, the 260-day calendar was almost certainly based on cycles of zenith passages, the fact that at Uaxactun there was rather evident interest in the solstice and equinox cycles has prompted the suggestion that the Mayas originally had only the standard solar calendar, and that they then reformed the calendar in Teotihuacan style at a later date. The question is still open to debate.
The second building we shall visit is the most famous and most studied Maya observatory, the Caracol of Chicen Itza, in Yucatan (Aveni 2001, Aveni et al. 1975) (Plate 17). The Caracol, which means snail in Spanish, is an enormous structure with a circular layout. From the outside it looks as if it is covered by a domed vault, but the vault has been filled in on the inside, except for a narrow spiral passage that gives the building its name, and some embrasures looking out. The upper section has partially collapsed, but the original structure of the Caracol was different from other roof coverings typical of many Mayan buildings, which have a showy crested or crenellated facade called a cresteria. Thus, Caracol's resemblance to our observatories is purely coincidental, though many believe (including myself) that it was actually conceived, planned, and built with the very specific aim of carrying out astronomical observations. That this was the real purpose of the structure was already suspected as far back as the 1920s by the archeologist J. Ricketson, who concentrated, however, on sun-moon alignments, which he did not succeed in determining precisely. Consequently, even in the 1950s, there were some who thought that Caracol was the result of a strange taste for the asymmetrically weird—among them Eric Thompson, the foremost Maya scholar, who had the nerve to write the following atrocious passage:
Every city sooner or later erects some atrocious building that turns the stomach: London has its Albert Hall; New York, its Grant's Tomb; and Harvard, its Memorial Hall. If one can free oneself of the enchantment which antiquity is likely to induce and contemplate this building in all its horror from a strictly esthetic point of view, one will find that none of these is quite so hideous as the Caracol at Chichen Itza. It stands as a two-decker wedding cake on the square carton in which it came. Something was pretty clearly wrong with the taste of the architects who built it. [J. Eric Thompson, A Survey of the Northern Maya Area, Amer. Ant. 11, 1 (1945) page 10]
The "asymmetries" and "bad taste'' attributed to Caracol are nothing but the result of a design worked out with a specific aim: the observation—or rather the control, see below—of Venus's standstills, as well as other astronomic phenomena. According to Aveni (2001), the Caracol may have had 26 astronomical alignments. For instance, the lower part of the building has a central inset facing the maximum northerly excursion of Venus, while the east-west diagonal is oriented toward the summer solstice sunrise, and various slits in the walls indicate the rising points of particularly bright stars. The upper cupola contained at one time six narrow embrasures of which only the ones on the west side are left (after a collapse during the last century), which define alignments toward the setting of the sun at the equinoxes and toward the setting of Venus at its north and south major standstills. A further window faces generically, but not precisely south; this might have nothing to do with astronomy but it has sometimes been suggested that it may indicate magnetic south, that is, the north-south direction determined by a magnetic compass (which does not usually coincide with the geographical north-south direction; see Appendix 1).
It has indeed often been suspected that the Mayas invented the magnetic compass and used it for identifying the north, which might explain numerous orientations in Mayan buildings that face north "generically" At any rate, it is extremely difficult to check the theory directly since magnetic north changes too rapidly in time to be able to re-create reliably its position at the approximate time of construction of the buildings, and the Mayan compasses, if they ever existed, have never been discovered (so the credit for inventing the compass must stay with the Chinese).
All in all, the Caracol is indubitably one of the Mayas' most intriguing buildings. Maybe the Dresden codex was actually drawn up here, as has been supposed, but the relevant astronomical observations performed must in any case have been decided before the construction of the building, since the alignments were created by means of narrow tunnels inside the stonework, which allowed only very limited portions of the horizon to be framed from the inside. Whoever designed the Caracol was well versed in astronomy and already possessed accurate data. It is for this reason that the word observatory, in my opinion, does not do justice to the idea of what this building really is. A modern observatory is a place that is "open to phenomena"; the roof slides open and the telescope is pointed wherever one wishes. The Caracol is a "closed" place; significant events must take place within predetermined windows. A good description of the Caracol is a control tower from where the astronomers were verifying the regularity, repetitiveness, and measurability of heavenly cycles (a copy of the Caracol, described in the 19th century but today almost completely destroyed, was at Mayapan, a few dozen miles away).
A third interesting building unquestionably linked to the astronomical observation of Venus is to be found at Uxmal, also in the Yucatan. Uxmal is dominated by a pyramid that is quite unique in the world, the Pyramid of the Magician, a huge elliptic-based structure, extremely steep, the top of which looms over the surrounding jungle for many miles. The pyramid was likely used for astronomical observations, too, and many significant alignments depart from it and pass through various other buildings. However, looking at a map of the city, attention is drawn to another construction, the Governor's Palace, which looks out of place. In fact, unlike the other buildings—which display the characteristic orientation slightly
east of north and have their front facing the interior of the city—this monument is directed 28 degrees south of east, and its facade looks onto the jungle (the infelicitous name Governor's Palace has no historical justification and can be blamed on the Spanish, as can the name Pyramid of the Magician and that of the large buildings arranged in a quadrilateral, dubbed the Nunnery Quadrangle).
Glyphs representing Venus, identical to those in the Dresden codex, are to be found on the Palace. This has prompted Aveni (2001) to surmise that the "anomalous" orientation of the structure had something to do with Venus standstills. By tracing a perpendicular line to the facade, Aveni and his colleagues discovered that this direction marked, on the horizon, the southerly extreme of the rising of Venus in its complete 8-year cycle, and, to their amazement, they realized that the alignment passed precisely, on the horizon, through what seemed to be a small natural hill. Beating a path through the jungle, they discovered that it was not a natural formation, but
rather a 25-meter-high pyramid. Today we know that this pyramid emerging from the jungle is one of the structures of a Mayan site described by the explorer Stephens in the 19th century but then largely forgotten (Aveni 1997, 2001; Sprajc 1993). From its peak one could watch the setting of Venus at its northerly major standstill in alignment with Governor's Palace in Uxmal.
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