Mesoamerican Cross Circle Designs

Cross-circle designs, often referred to as pecked cross-circles, are found at several sites in the highlands of central Mexico and also as far south as the Maya city of Uaxactun, typically pecked into the stuccoed floors of buildings or carved as petroglyphs in rocks in the hills around cities. The greatest preponderance is in and around Teotihuacan, where over fifty are known. They generally consist of one, two, or three concentric circles intersecting four radial lines in the shape of a cross, though there are numerous variants on this design, including squares and Maltese crosses. They are typically around one meter (three feet) across, and made up of cuplike depressions about one centimeter (half an inch) in diameter. They have attracted a good deal of attention from archaeoastronomers, since they may have reflected aspects of astronomy and the calendar in three distinct ways.

The first way is in their numerology. Counts of the number of dots forming elements of cross-circle designs, such as on radial spokes between points where they cross the circles or on circle sectors between points where they cross radial spokes, reveal a preponderance of the numbers five, thirteen, eighteen, and twenty, which are significant as elements of the Mesoamerican calendar. Enough of them have a total count of 260 (the number of days in the sacred 260-day calendrical cycle) to suggest that this might have been significant too. They may have been symbolic representations of the calendar in some sense, an idea that seems less strange when we compare them with cosmograms found in some of the central Mexican codices. Yet ethnohistoric accounts also refer to the use of such designs, made up of cavities pecked into the floors of buildings, for a game called patolli, which involved moving pebbles around in the holes. Why should a gameboard have reflected the calendar? Perhaps because, in Aztec times at least, it had religious overtones.

The second way the cross-circle designs may have reflected aspects of

One of several cross-circle designs discovered in the 1980s adjacent to the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, Mexico. One corner has been re-pecked to avoid a hole in the stucco floor, suggesting that the actual shape was less important than the number of holes. (Courtesy of Clive Ruggles)

astronomy and the calendar is in their orientation. Systematic studies suggest that the spokes of those found as geoglyphs on natural rocks tend (more often than would be expected by chance) to be oriented roughly in the solstitial directions. This would not be surprising if they were indeed cosmologi-cal symbols, reflecting the four corners of the perceived cosmos.

Finally, those carved on rock outcrops tend to be in hilly locations with clear views of distant horizons, particularly toward the east, once again suggesting a connection between landscape, calendar, and cosmos. Could some of them have marked observing points? Or, as has been suggested, were they used as surveyor's benchmarks? In the 1970s it was proposed that three of the cross-circles at Teotihuacan—one pecked into the floor of a building by the Street of the Dead and two carved into rocks on adjacent hills—defined two baselines that were used by surveyors in laying out the street grid. This idea was criticized on statistical grounds, because it depended upon the arbitrary selection of three cross-circles from fourteen then known at Teoti-huacan (the total is now over fifty), and on archaeological grounds, because the central cross-circle, used in both baselines, was pecked into the floor of a building dating to a late phase, long after the street grid was set out. The statistical argument was criticized in its turn because of the established fact that cross-circles had different purposes. But we cannot use this as an excuse for simply selecting the data that fit a given hypotheses and ignoring the rest. The archaeological evidence seems to clinch the issue unless one appeals to the possibility (unproven) that the central pecked cross may have been cited on the position of an older one.

Be this as it may, it is quite clear that cross-circle designs had several different functions and meanings. One view is that they represent the propagation of a symbol whose form remained essentially unaltered but came to be used for different purposes. An alternative is that many if not all of these purposes were interrelated. It may seem strange to us to tie concepts of space and time together in such contorted ways, but the unfamiliar manner in which patterns of thought operate within other worldviews means we would certainly be wrong to close our minds altogether to such possibilities. See also:

Mesoamerican Calendar Round; Teotihuacan Street Grid. References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F. Skywatchers, 226-232, 329-334. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Aveni, Anthony F. "Pecked Designs at Teotihuacan." Journal for the History of Astronomy 36 (2005), 31-47. Broda, Johanna, Stanislaw Iwaniszewski and Lucretia Maupomé, eds. Arqueoastronomía y Etnoastronomía en Mesoamérica, 269-290. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1991. [In Spanish.]

Ruggles, Clive, ed. Records in Stone: Papers in Memory of Alexander Thom,

442-472. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Ruggles, Clive, and Nicholas Saunders. "The Interpretation of the Pecked Cross Symbols at Teotihuacan." Archaeoastronomy 7 (supplement to Journal for the History of Astronomy 15) (1984), S101-S107.

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