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Tikal, Guatemala

Latitude (DMS): 17° 13' 30 N  Longitude (DMS): 89° 36' 48 W


The erection of five great pyramids, all of them more than 60 m (200 ft) in height and all of them constructed without benefit of the wheel or crane, has to be one of the most impressive accomplishments of any early people in any part of the world.

The spectacular grandeur of Tikal is in large part a result of this remarkable engineering triumph. But what makes this accomplishment even more impressive is that all five of these pyramids were conceived and built with such exacting precision that they continue to function as a giant astronomical matrix to this day!



While it may be of interest to know that some of the pyramids of Tikal also served as the final resting place of members of the Mayan elite, their primary function was to serve as observation platforms for priests working with the calendar.
Dr. Malmström discovered that pyramids had been constructed as an astronomical matrix whose purpose it was to calibrate the most important dates in the Maya year.

The five major pyramids of Tikal were all constructed within a 40-year period beginning in the mid-eighth century A.D., apparently as part of an ingeniously designed astronomical matrix.

The sight-line between Temple I and Temple IV (the highest of the pyramids) marks the sunset position on August 13, whereas the sunrise position at the winter solstice is perpetuated in the sight-tine between Temple IV and Temple III. Because Temple I and Temple III are sited due east-west of each other, they mark sunrise and sunset alignments at the equinoxes. Although there was no star located directly above the earth's pole of rotation in Maya times, a sight-line from Temple V to Temple II appears to have marked the most westerly position of the Maya's equivalent to a polestar, Kochab.

The western horizon at Tikal as seen from Temple I. The low, squat structure in the middle foreground is Temple II, which serves not only as an architectural counterweight to Temple I as seen across the plaza of Tikal but also as a horizon marker for the enigmatic "8º west of north" orientation when viewed from Temple V. The latter orientation was present at La Venta about 1000 B.C., but also shows up at the Maya capital about A.D. 800. Farther to the left, Temple III defines the equinoctial sunset position as seen from Temple I, while the highest of the skyscraper pyramids -- Temple IV, on the right -- fixes the sunset position on August 13 as seen from Temple I.


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Chichen-Itza, Mexico

Location:  Latitude 20°40'N  Longitude 88°32'W


"El Caracol" at Chichén Itzá has long been recognized as an astronomical observatory whose foundations are Maya and whose subsequent embellishments are Toltec. Perhaps the most significant alignments of this structure are those of its front door and its principal window, located just above it, both of which look out at the western horizon toward the sunset position on August 13.

The Maya were expert sky-watchers, careful observers of the motions of the celestial bodies. Proof of the Mayan fascination with astronomy is literally carved in stone in the grand architecture at sites such as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Uaxactun, Edzna, and dozens more. At many of these sites, hieroglyphic carvings refer to celestial bodies and cycles. Often, the buildings they adorn have been built to align with significant cyclical astronomical events—solstices, equinoxes, the shifting moon, or the rise of planets.

At Chichén Itzá, two structures bear witness to Mayan astronomy: El Castillo and El Caracol. Every year, tens of thousands of visitors flock to Chichén Itzá to see “the snake,” an apparition made of shadows that descends the stairs at El Castillo during the solar equinoxes each spring and fall. At El Caracol, dubbed “the observatory,” narrow shaftlike windows frame important astronomical events. One such window marks an appearance of Venus at a particular point on the horizon that takes place—like clockwork—once every eight years.


Chichén Itzá - Layout

Chichén Itzá - El Castillo (pyramid of Kukulkan)


"El Caracol" and  El Castillo at Chichén Itzá


"El Caracol" at Chichén Itzá


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Zempoala, Mexico

Location:  19°55' N, 98°40' W


Research by Vincent H. Malmström of Dartmouth College describes an interesting astronomical relationship that exists between the Three Ceremonial Rings Of Zempoala:

In the central plaza of Zempoala, just beneath the massive pyramids that frame its northeastern corner, are three intriguing rings of stone, each fashioned of rounded beach cobbles cemented together to form a series of small, stepped pillars.
The largest of the rings contains 43 of the stepped pillars, the middle- sized ring has 28 such features, and the smallest ring numbers 13 stepped pillars around its circumference. It would appear that the three rings were used to calibrate different astronomical cycles, possibly by moving a marker or an idol from one stepped pillar to the next with each passing day (in somewhat the same way that has been suggested for recording the passage of time at the Pyramid of the Niches at El Tajín).

The largest ring is the most enigmatic, for no cycle based on 43 is known from Mesoamerica. However, the manner in which the ring is constructed differs from the two smaller rings in that it is divided at the cardinal points into quarters -- on its north side by a door or gate opening into the circle, and on the east, south, and west by a composite pillar having a step on each side of it. Thus, each of the respective quarters contains 10 single-stepped pillars, all of whose steps face in the same direction -- clockwise in the northeasterly and southwesterly quadrants and counter-clockwise in the southeasterly and northwesterly quadrants. (To describe it in another way it may be said that all steps in the southern half of the circle face north while all those in the northern half face south.) While it is obvious that a conscious effort had been made to distinguish the four cardinal points or quadrants through the architectural device of alternating the orientation of their steps, what is not so clear is whether only the single-stepped pillars in each quadrant were meant to be counted -- yielding a total of 40 -- or whether one or more of the three composite pillars marking the cardinal points were to have been counted as well -- yielding a total of 43. (Naturally, if it were the steps which were being counted, the total would be 46 instead, i.e., 40 pillars with single-steps and three with double-steps). Lacking any indigenous explanation for how the circle was actually employed, we can only conclude that its Totonac builders were attempting to calibrate some celestial cycle which lay in the range of 40 to 46 days, but what might this have been?

The three stone rings of Zempoala [the Totonac capital, situated near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, about 40 km (25 mi) north of present-day Veracruz]. Inasmuch as the three rings are surmounted by 13, 28, and 40 steplike pillars, respectively, it appears that they were used by the Totonac priests as counting devices to keep track of eclipse cycles.



Of course, if it is argued that the three composite pillars, each with their double steps, served merely as architectural markers which set off the cardinal points, then the number that was being reckoned was 40 rather than either 43 or 46. However, no count of 40 days is known from Mesoamerica, although it obviously could have served to define two cycles of 20. Naturally, if it had been used as one component in defining a "year," then we might have expected to find some means of recording nine full circuits of the ring -- i.e. 9 x 40 = 360 -- but no such "device" is present.
If it had been used in conjunction with the middle-sized ring, it would, of course, define an interval of 1120 days (40 x 28), which bears no relationship to either the sacred or secular calendar. However, had it been used together with the smallest ring of 13 pillars, it could have calibrated two full cycles of the sacred almanac, or 40 x 13 = 520 days. The latter, known as a double tzolkin in Mayan terminology, equates to three eclipse half-years, and thereby provides a useful interval in predicting eclipses. (An eclipse year is the length of time it takes for the sun to move from one of its intersections with the path of the moon, or node, until it returns to the same intersection, or node. It measures 346.62 days in length. Hence, an eclipse half-year totals 173.31 days, and three eclipse half years add up to 519.93 days. In Mesoamerican terms, this value would be rounded to 520 days, or the equivalent of two rounds of the 260-day sacred almanac.)

Ceremonial Ring

The Largest Of "The Three Ceremonial Rings Of Zempoala"
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Ceremonial Rings
The Smaller Two Of "The Three Ceremonial Rings Of Zempoala"
The Three Rings Are In The North East Corner Of The Pyramid Complex
Image Source:

If we are correct in suggesting a lunar association for the two smaller rings, namely 13 full moons per year with approximately 28 days between each of them, then what observable movement of the moon has a periodicity in the range of 40 to 46 days?.
For anyone practicing a horizon-based astronomy, as did the Mesoamericans, it would soon become apparent that the average interval between extreme rising positions of the moon was about 13 days, although it varies in fact between 12 and 15 days. Were they to have defined the interval between two consecutive risings at either the moon's northern or southern extreme positions, they would have found that it averaged between 27 and 28 days -- in other words, one sidereal month (27.32 days). But for a people with no appreciation of fractions, neither of these cycles was accurate enough to pinpoint the possible occurrence of an eclipse. On the other hand, a cycle which embraces an interval of one and a half sidereal months (which is the length of time it would take the moon to move, for example, between two consecutive risings at its northern extreme and its next rising at its southern extreme) averages out at almost exactly 41 days (27.32 + 13.66 = 40.98). To have used such a cycle, of course, would have meant ignoring two of the pillars in the ring -- most likely, I would imagine, the two composite pillars marking the east and west extremes of the circle -- while counting only the southernmost one.

How might this cycle have been useful in warning of eclipses? Naturally, the 41-day cycle can be tested anywhere in the world, but for this study an analysis was made of all the eclipses which were visible at Zempoala during the years 1992 through 1997. Not too surprisingly, the most common intervals between eclipses were found to be 162-163 days (3 occurrences), 177-178 days (3 occurrences), and 191-192 days (3 occurrences), and/or combinations of these values.

To approximate the lowest of these values would obviously require four rounds of counting, perhaps each round being calibrated by a mneomic device which designated one of the four quadrants of the circle. Thus, as a given count neared the end of the fourth round of the ring, the priest would be aware that an eclipse might take place, although he could never be entirely sure whether it actually would take place (in the sense of being visible to him). If the fourth round was completed without an eclipse being observed, i.e., taking him up through day 164, he would initiate both a second count using the 13-pillar ring and a third count using the 28-pillar ring. If the second count likewise was completed without an eclipse being observed, i.e., with day 177 having been passed, he had a fall-back position by utilizing the 28-pillar ring to bring him up to day 192. Of course, if an eclipse did take place near the end of a 13-day cycle, it was also quite possible that another eclipse would occur by the time the 28-day cycle ended, in effect building an additional 15-day cycle into the equation as well. On the other hand, if day 192 also came and went without an eclipse being observed, he could quite confidently start his initial 41-day count over again.

It is, therefore, quite possible that by using the three rings in the manner described, the Totonac priests were able to calibrate the movements of the moon closely enough so as to know when it might next be "devoured" by the sun. In any event, there is every reason to believe that the three stone rings of Zempoala afford yet another bit of evidence testifying to the intellectual curiosity and architectural ingenuity of the early Mesoamericans.


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