Chapter 8

The Golden Age


            As the wave of urbanization swept over the peninsula of Yucatán in the centuries following the founding of Edzná, the flat and featureless landscape of the low, limestone plateau afforded the Maya with few opportunities to orient their incipient cities to topographic features of any significance. At El Mirador, in northernmost Guatemala, for example, evidence is just now coming to light regarding its impressive proportions, its age, and its configuration. Dating to just about the beginning of the Christian era, this site appears to have followed the pattern of Edzná in its layout, for its dominating structure -- a lofty pyramid called by its excavators Danta ("tapir") -- is squarely oriented toward the setting sun on August 13 over the Tigre pyramid, some 2 km (1.25 mi) to the west (Matheny, 1987, 334-335). This does not mean, however, that the principle of solsticial orientation had been either forgotten or totally abandoned, because that was definitely not the case. Where the topography permitted -- and among the lowland Maya, this was in very few instances indeed -- locating a ceremonial center with respect to a solsticial sunrise or sunset was still most probably the preferred principle to employ. Thus, when the ceremonial center of Uaxactún in the Petén region of northern Guatemala was founded -- most likely about the first or second century A.D. -- its site represented the point on the watershed between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean from which the winter solstice sunrise could be calibrated over Baldy Beacon (1020 m, 3346 ft) in the Maya Mountains of Belize. (However, this did not prevent the local priests from "reinforcing" the azimuths of both the summer and winter solstices architecturally, for one of the earliest illustrations of archaeoastronomic alignments ever reported -- by Frans Blom in 1924 -- was the relationship of the structures in Group E at Uaxactún. He noted that sight-lines from Building VII to the northern corner of Building I and to the southern corner of Building III mark the sunrise positions on the summer and winter solstices, respectively, while a sight-line through the middle of Building II commemorates the equinoctial sunrise [Rojas, 1983, 25, 281.)

            Ironically, when the so-called Maya capital of Tikal was founded just 25 km (16 mi) to the south of Uaxactún about a century later, along the same height of land between the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, its site marked the point where the winter solstice sunrise could be seen over Victoria Peak,, which is the highest peak in the Maya Mountains (1122 m, 3681 ft). Indeed, one is tempted to speculate that the Maya may initially have thought that the culminating peak of that range was Baldy Beacon, but upon discovering some years later that this was not true, they felt obliged to build a second and larger ceremonial center to commemorate the critical calendrical event over the higher mountain. Otherwise, there is certainly little reason for having located two major ceremonial centers so close to one another -- a matter which, it may be pointed out, has long puzzled most archaeologists (see Figure 39).

            Because the oldest Long Count inscription found at Tikal traces back to A.D. 292, archaeologists have chosen this general time frame as the commencement point of the so-called Classic Period. Thus, depending on the source consulted, the Classic Period of Mesoamerica's cultural evolution is usually considered to have begun in A.D. 250 or 300.

Figure 39.

Solsticial alignment to mountains was, of course, impossible in regions like the Yucatán, so El Mirador built its orientation into its architectural monuments as Edzná had done earlier. Both Uaxactún and Tikal, on the other hand, were close enough for the peaks of the Maya Mountains to be utilized as winter solstice sunrise azimuths, but priests at both ceremonial centers likewise reinforced their calendrical alignments by incorporating them into the layout of their buildings as well.


            During the following two to three centuries, civilization spread through the jungles of Petén like a tidal wave. In what has to have been the greatest crescendo of land clearing and city building that the Mesoamerican world had ever witnessed, the Maya peoples rose to unparalleled heights of political organization, economic prosperity, and social sophistication. Although several writers have labeled this the "Old Empire" period of the Maya, Frans Blom more accurately defined it as the "Petén period," for most of this feverish expansion was geographically concentrated in the rain forests of what is today northern Guatemala, Belize, and the southern Yucatán. Only in later Classic times (after 600 A.D.) did a similar wave of development occur farther north, giving rise to what the same writers called the "New Empire" of the Maya, but which Blom has characterized as the "Yucatán period" (Blom, 1983, 309 - 310).  The preferability of Blom's terminology derives not only from his insistence on the difference in geographic focus, but also because the Maya seem never to have developed anything like a unified empire. Indeed, most likely because of the environment in which they lived, their most extensive political unit did not evolve beyond the level of the city-state. The most unfortunate consequence of this fact, in turn, was an ongoing rivalry between adjacent political dynasties which manifested itself in an almost endemic state of warfare. A strikingly frequent subject of both Maya art and inscriptions are dynastic struggles and slave raids, whereas fortifications were an integral part of many of their early urban centers, such as Edzná, Tikal, and Becán.

            Throughout the Classic Period, literally scores of major ceremonial centers were erected, and each of these in turn probably served as the "central place" for a cluster of as many as a dozen other subsidiary settlements. In each instance, the location of the ceremonial centers was dictated by the presence of water, in the form of either a cenote (Spanish for "sinkhole," derived from the Mayan word tzonot) or an aguada such as that which gave rise to Edzná. As populations grew, however, additional measures were undertaken to impound or store water during the rainy season, including the construction of chultunes, or underground reservoirs, cut out of the limestone bedrock and plastered with clay. Nevertheless, to suggest that the resultant settlement pattern of the Maya approximated that which would have theoretically developed on an isotropic (or homogeneous) plain, as some writers have done, is to ignore totally the fact that the availability of water was neither ubiquitous nor uniform throughout the region.

            On the other hand, it is probably safe to say that during the entire Classic Period not a single major Maya ceremonial center was erected without preserving in at least one of its key structures an alignment either to a solstice or to the sunset on August 13. Denied the option of using a topographic feature for such a purpose, the Maya incorporated these sacred precepts into the very façades of their buildings. The palaces at Sayil and Labná, the Codz Pop at Kabáh, the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, the Temple of the Magician at Uxmal, El Castillo at Chichén Itzá, and the main pyramid at Toniná are but a few examples of such alignments. All Maya ceremonial centers likewise employed the Long Count in the dating of their monuments.

Figure 40.

The principle of solsticial orientation was developed as early as the fourteenth century B.C., and diffused as widely as was practicable in terms of local topography. Its heyday was definitely limited to Formative times.



            If there ever was such a period as a golden age among the peoples of Mesoamerica, it occurred during the late fifth and early sixth centuries A.D. By that time a relatively homogeneous cultural landscape extended from the southern margins of the region in El Salvador and Guatemala through Soconusco and the Gulf coastal lowland of Mexico as far westward and northward as the uplands of Oaxaca and the high basins of the plateau and as far eastward as the jungles of Petén and the outer reaches of the Yucatán Peninsula. Here was a culture region characterized by organized political entities with hierarchical social and economic systems dominated by priestly castes; great ceremonial centers laid out according to carefully executed plans and adorned with imposing structures of monumental architecture; an elaborate and extensive trading network which linked its every corner and penetrated even the adjacent areas of present-day Central America and the southeastern United States; and an essentially uniform religious philosophy. Although the names of the deities differed from one language area to another, it is clear from the manner in which they were artistically depicted that the rain-god, for example, be he known as Tlaloc, Chac, Cocijo, or Pije, was really one and the same. Moreover, the calendars with which the different peoples of the region recorded their history and scheduled their rituals were likewise but variations on a common theme. Indeed, by this time the cultural influences which had given "Mesoamerica" its regional distinctiveness had been diffused to all but the farthest reaches of its geographic frontiers.

Figure 41.

The principle of orientation to the August 13th sunset was probably first utilized about 800 B.C. and continued well into Classic times. Its use implies an enhanced level of sophistication over and above the basic principle of solsticial orientation. The extent of its geographic diffusion is a good approximation of the limits of the Mesoamerican cultural realm as it existed at the peak of Teotihuacán's influence.

Figure 42.

"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.


            It was during this relatively peaceful and harmonious period that a couple of what appear to have been Mesoamerica's most intriguing intellectual quests were undertaken. And because it was at precisely this juncture that the great metropolis of Teotihuacán had its greatest influence over the region as a whole -- as witnessed both in artistic motifs and architectural innovations -- there can be little doubt that the impetus for these quests stemmed from the priests who lived and worked in this bustling highland city.

            We have already seen how their "obedience" to the sun-god seems to have led to the founding of a "relay station" on the ridge that visually separated Orizaba from the Valley of Mexico and how they had laid out their city in the valley to align both with the winter solstice sunrise over Mexico's highest mountain and with the sunset on August 13 (see Figure 23). Somewhat later, their preoccupation with the movements of Venus had prompted them to establish an astronomical observatory in the northeastern hills at Xihuingo to mark the planet's extreme rising and setting positions (Wallrath and Ruiz, 1991, 297). Therefore, it was probably only a question of time before their curiosity would send them off on a couple of more distant expeditions to answer two of the most fundamental questions posed by their cultural heritage.

Figure 43A. This screen display produced by the VOYAGER computer program recreates the sky at sunset in late April in the year A.D. 1000, as it would have appeared through the main window of "El Caracol" at Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán. From the information inset at the top of the display, it will be noted that the sun is directly overhead at the latitude of Izapa (declination 14º.47) and that it is setting at an azimuth of 285º.5 -- which would have been precisely in the middle of the observatory window. Although the Pleiades set within minutes of the sun -- at the right-hand edge of the window -- they were not visible in the bright afterglow of the sun. Such a reconstruction proves with dramatic eloquence the author's thesis that the sunset on August 13 -- the only other day of the year that the sun is vertically overhead at the latitude of Izapa -- constituted one of the key astronomical events in ancient Mesoamerican timekeeping. (The VOYAGER program is a product of Carina Software, San Leandro, CA 94577.)

Figure 43B.
A reconstruction of a late April sunset in the year A.D. 1000 with a photograph of the window
of El Caracol superimposed over the dome of the Griffiths Observatory planetarium. It clearly
shows the setting sun in the middle of the window and the Pleiades to the upper right.
On August 13th, when the sun is again overhead at Izapa, the same phenomenon may be
observed, but without the presence of the Pleiades. (Photograph courtesy of E. C. Krupp.)


            The first question had to do with the 260-day sacred almanac. Inasmuch as it had begun with the southward passage of the zenithal sun, it must be possible, they reasoned, to find a place where such an interval could be measured. Naively enough, they probably assumed that if they could locate that place, then they would have discovered the birthplace of their cultural forefathers.

Figure 44.

For some inexplicable reason, the Long Count either never diffused into the highlands of Oaxaca or onto the Mexican plateau, or if it did, it was never appreciated and adopted by the peoples of these regions. As a result, its use was restricted to the Maya, for whom it became a tool of inestimable value in furthering their knowledge of complex astronomical cycles, such as those of Venus and of solar and lunar eclipses.


            The second question was related to the 365-day secular calendar. Its count was initiated when the sun reached its farthest northerly point in the sky. Every year the priests watched as the sun made its annual "pilgrimage" from far to the south -- over Orizaba -- to far to the north -- somewhere in the northern desert. Would it be possible, they wondered, to find out where "the sun stands still"? (Expressed in terms of Western geography, they were asking where the Tropic of Cancer was located.) And, perhaps if they discovered where this happened, maybe they would even find out why it happened.

            These, of course, were two very sound geographic questions and to answer them fieldwork would be required. Expeditions would have to be sent out to determine physically where the sun passed vertically overhead on the equivalent of August 13 and where the sun "stood still" on the equivalent of June 22. In the first instance they realized that the quest would take them southward, no doubt to the fabled paradise of Tamoanchan. (According to the legends of Teotihuacán, their forebears had come from a lush, green forested region so named, replete with exotic birds and butterflies, far to the south.) Much as they may have been tempted to undertake this journey themselves -- and who knows, perhaps one or more priests from Teotihuacán formed part of the expedition's personnel -- this was a task best left to someone nearer at hand, so this assignment they allocated to their Maya subordinates in Tikal. The mandate was clear: keep going southward until a place was found where a 260-day interval exists between zenithal sun positions.

            For carrying out the second expedition, the Teotihuacanos themselves were the best situated of any people in Mesoarnerica, for the vast expanses of the northern desert began almost within sight of their own city. This was not to be an easy mission, however, for it would take the explorers directly out into the barbarous, unforgiving country of the "Chichimecs" -- the nomadic hunters and gatherers who somehow scavenged a living from the meager resources of this desolate region. But again, the goal was not in doubt: keep going northward until a place was found beyond which the sun does not venture (beyond the zenith).

            For an expedition starting southward out of Tikal, the choice of routes was a relatively clear-cut one. Even before the journey had started, the rainforest had closed in on every side. If their course veered too far to the southeast they would find themselves encumbered in the granite ridges of the Maya Mountains, whereas if it turned too far to the southwest they would soon get mired down in the swampy lowlands in the headwaters of the Usumacinta drainage system. To avoid these obstacles, they found it best to follow the height of land on which Tikal was situated (i.e., the drainage divide between the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico) almost due south, at least until the final ridges of the Maya Mountains were passed. By that time, however, the folded ranges of the Cuchumatanes were looming up on the southern horizon, arcing into ever higher crests toward the southwest. Now they opted to swing east around the end of Lake Izabal, then across the Río Dulce, and over the low eastern spurs of the Sierra de las Minas into the broad fault-valley of the Motagua River.

            By this time they had put more than 150 km (90 mi) of forest trail behind them, but the priests who were leading the expedition knew that many more days of travel still lay ahead. Back in Tikal the zenithal sun passed overhead on the equivalent of August 5 and did not again cross the zenith until May 8. Although the former date was only 8 days before the "day that time began," the sun was also 8 days too late in its second passage over Tikal, resulting in an interval of 276 days between the two zenithal passages. Now, as they entered the Motagua Valley, the priests checked the interval between vertical suns again, and found that it had narrowed to about 265 days. Its southward passage took place on the equivalent of August 10 and its northward transit occurred on May 2. There was no option now but to follow the Motagua upstream until the correct interval could be located.

            As the expedition moved up along the river, it found a place where two tributaries joined the Motagua, one from each side of the valley. There, in this nexus of valleys, they also discovered that the bedrock changed dramatically from the white limestone with which they were so familiar in the Petén to a fine-grained rosy beige sandstone. It may well have been that the priests thought that their quest was over, because they erected here a ceremonial center which has become known to us as Quiriguá. Certainly, its location was a strategic one, for it ultimately came to dominate the trade routes which led from the Caribbean into the Guatemalan highlands. But if they thought they had found the "birthplace of time," they were wrong, because the closest interval they could measure between zenithal sun passages was 262 days. The sun was still moving southward a day too early and returning northward a day too late!

Figure 45.

The golden age of Mesoamerica came about A.D. 500 when the Maya wave of urbanization was spreading rapidly through the Petén, Yucatán, and into the highlands of western Honduras. The Zapotecs and Mixtecs constituted a localized pocket of urbanization in the valleys of Oaxaca, while on the Mexican plateau the metropolis of Teotihuacán was a flourishing city of some 200,000 inhabitants.


            No doubt heartened by the fact that they must be drawing near to their goal, the priests probably sent scouts ahead to assess what results their continued journey up the Motagua Valley would produce. The report that came back may have been somewhat disappointing, for the scouts would have noted that the countryside quickly began to deteriorate into an environment the Maya had never experienced before. The forest thinned out and disappeared, becoming first an area of low scrub trees bristling with thorns, and finally, where not even these would grow, patches of cactus took over. Here, in the middle of the Motagua Valley, the Maya had stumbled into Guatemala's only region of semidesert, ensconced in the rain-shadow of the Sierra de las Minas -- surely not the earthly paradise described in the creation myths.

            Another bit of information which the scouts brought back must have unsettled the priests equally as much, for they reported that upstream, beyond this uninviting pocket of desert, the Motagua Valley curved to the west. Therefore, it would no longer provide a convenient corridor to "the birthplace of time," which still lay about one day of "sun travel" to the south. (At the time of year the zenithal sun passes over this region in its apparent north-to-south "migration" it is moving about 16 km [10 mi] per day.) The only reassuring news with which they returned was that, in the desert-pocket itself, a tributary river joined the Motagua from the south. Perhaps by following that to its headwaters a "green oasis" might be found where the sacred 260-day interval could be measured.

            Thus, in the heart of the cactus-covered valley of the Motagua the Maya turned up the tributary valley of the Río Copán, following it first southward and then eastward into the mountains whence it came. As they climbed higher into the mountains, they watched as the desert browns were exchanged with forest greens as the scrub-thorn trees disappeared and stands of pine and oak took their place. Finally, where the valley widened out and the river slowed its pace in a series of sweeping meanders, the priests jubilantly announced that "this is the place!" The zenithal sun passed overhead on the equivalent of August 13, and 260 days later it passed over again on its way northward. It was not the tropical paradise that most of them had probably visualized when the expedition began, but it did meet the criteria of the "place where time began." In a sense, for the Maya it represented a "homecoming" in an otherwise alien land, for they had discovered a place where the sacred almanac -- the very essence of their preoccupation with time -- could be calibrated as it had "in the beginning" but in an environment with which they were quite unfamiliar. Copán, the ceremonial center which they founded here, was to become not only the southernmost major center of the lowland Maya civilization, but ultimately one of its most important astronomical centers as well. Its earliest Long Count stela dates to the year A.D. 426.

            About the same time that the Maya priests were beginning their southward probe for the "birthplace of time," the priests of Teotihuacán were setting off into the northern desert to determine where the sun stopped on its annual migration. Like the Maya expedition, they were confronted with a choice of three possible routes. The first led out onto the plateau along the inner side of the Sierra Madre Oriental, the great eastern wall of the Mexican meseta. Shaped by the westward thrust of the North American plate, the Sierra Madre Oriental was made up of a jumble of contorted limestone ridges. By staying in the foothills, the explorers could avoid the rugged terrain of the folded mountain crests, but along the backslopes of this range they would forever be in the rainshadow of the moisture-bearing winds from the Gulf of Mexico; hence, water would be almost impossible to find.

Figure 46.

About the first half of the fifth century A.D., it appears that the priests of Teotihuacán dispatched an expedition into the northern desert to determine the place where "the sun stood still" -- in other words, the Tropic of Cancer. The astronomical site which the expedition founded was Chalchihuites, where sight-lines marking the summer solstice sunrise were perpetuated as trenches in the earth. About the same time, and perhaps under the influence of Teotihuacán, the priests at Tikal may have sent off an expedition to locate the parallel of latitude at which the 260-day sacred almanac could be calibrated --the astronomical site of Copán.


            A second possibility would be to strike out through the middle of the plateau, though along this route water would likewise be at a premium. Furthermore, out of sight of the principal mountain chains, even finding recognizable landmarks by which to mark their trail would be difficult, for amid the "swells" of this desert sea it was very easy to lose one's way. The third possibility lay along the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental, the massive basaltic barrier which formed the western edge of the Mexican plateau. The result of extensive outpourings of lava during earlier movements of the North American plate, the Sierra Madre Occidental rose in many places to even higher elevations than its counterpart range on the east of the plateau. As a result, its crests intercepted whatever moisture escaped being squeezed out on the windward side of the Sierra Madre Oriental, and therefore they supported extensive forests of pine. Indeed, these cooler, damper uplands gave rise to several rivers of considerable size which descended to the floor of the plateau and in some instances even managed to snake their way for a distance out into the desert basins before disappearing into the sand or evaporating in a temporary salt lake. Surely, of the three alternatives this latter route was the most promising, because along it the occurrence of water would definitely be the most dependable.

            When the expedition left Teotihuacán, the priests were probably under no illusion that they would find their goal quickly or easily, because in the sky above the pyramids of their home city the sun consumed no less than 69 days between its zenithal passages. Their journey would continue until they found a place either where the sun moved no farther north at all or where it stood still for a day or two and then turned southward once more.

            It is, of course, conceivable that the expedition itself was timed to coincide with the sun's journey, for the sun's daily northward movement as it passed over Teotihuacán averaged only about 11 - 12 km (7- 8 mi). Keeping pace with its migration would have been no real problem in a latitudinal sense, but finding a suitable route in terms of terrain and access to water posed more of a challenge -- perhaps doubling the actual distance covered in a given day.

            In any event, whether the journey was accomplished in one season or in many, it resulted in the founding of a ceremonial center at what is now known as either Alta Vista or Chalchihuites in the state of Zacatecas. Located at an elevation of 2200 in (7200 ft) in the eastern foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental, it has access to a stream just below it and a sweeping view over the mountains to the east. Situated within 2 km (1.25 mi) of the Tropic of Cancer (Aveni, 1977, 5), it is aligned with Cerro Picacho, a notably sharp peak on the northeastern horizon, at the summer solstice sunrise. To reinforce this alignment the builders of the site dug trenches about 2.5-3.0 m (7- 10 ft) into the hillside and plastered them with adobe. Nearby, a temple with 28 irregular columns apparently replicates the changing size of the moon as it advances from one phase to another, and on an adjacent hilltop, two pecked crosses of unmistakable Teotihuacano vintage have been found (Aveni, 1977, 5). Dating to the late fifth or early sixth century A.D., Chalchihuites provides clear-cut evidence of the active astronomical concerns of the priestly elite of the great Mesoamerican metropolis at the apogee of its economic, political, and cultural existence.


Figure 47. The ceremonial center of Chalchihuites, or Alta Vista, Zacatecas, appears to have been founded early in the fifth century A.D. by an expedition sent out from Teotihuacán to mark the northernmost limit of the vertical sun. From this place, located a short distance south of the Tropic of Cancer, the summer solstice sunrise could be calibrated over Cerro Picacho, the sharp peak in the middle background.



            Although it is difficult to visualize Tikal without its five soaring skyscraper pyramids, archaeologists tell us that they were a relatively late embellishment to the Maya capital. Indeed, in the first centuries of its existence it was under strong influence from Teotihuacán, and following a war in A.D. 562 it was eclipsed by the rival city-state of Caracol to which it remained subject for over a hundred years. Not until it was freed from such foreign domination did Tikal blossom into the grandiose center that its spectacular ruins reveal today. Radiocarbon samples from the lintels of the doorways of the five skyscraper pyramids prove that all of them date to about the middle of the eighth century, plus or minus 50 years. This fact alone suggests that their construction was part of an integrated plan, no doubt conceived and directed by a single priest or group of priests.

            But was this monumental effort simply a vain-glorious attempt to enhance the impressiveness of the city -- a dramatic example of the urban renewal of a ceremonial center which had already flourished, albeit in much less spectacular form, for over four centuries? Or was it just another grandiose public-works project that served to reinforce the authority of the priestly caste, while at the same time testing the patience of the laboring masses?

            Unfortunately, the discovery that one or more of the pyramids contain the tombs of nobles and/or their consorts has tended to confuse some scholars who have been reluctant to lift their gaze out of the holes they have excavated in the ground and look skyward instead. As the loftiest creations of the Maya, the five pyramids of Tikal represent an earthly fixation with a celestial concern, for in 1979 1 discovered that they had been constructed as an astronomical matrix whose purpose it was to calibrate the most important dates in the Maya year.

            While it may be of interest to know that some of the pyramids 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. When first attempting to explain why it was necessary to construct pyramids that were the equivalent height of a modern 20-story building, I argued that it took a structure at least some 60 m (200 ft) in elevation to get above the canopy of the surrounding rain forest, which averages from 45-50 m (150-180 ft) in height in the area of Tikal. To this argument the reply was made that at the time Tikal was at its peak, the rain forest had all but been cut down and the city was surrounded instead by rolling fields of maize. Naturally, this may well have been the case, but it leaves us, then, still asking why it was necessary to build such high structures.

            The true explanation most probably lies in a microclimatic condition which I first observed during field studies near Tikal, but about which one never finds mention in a standard physical geography textbook. It works as follows: in a rain forest region such as that which blankets the Petén of northern Guatemala, both the temperature and humidity are high during the day. After sunset, as the temperature begins to fall, even the drop of a few degrees results in the moisture in the air beginning to condense, and during the night the wisps of ground fog become thicker and thicker. Not until an hour or two after sunrise, as the temperature once more begins to rise, is the moisture reabsorbed into the air and the ground fog dissipates. Indeed, it is this condition which prompts Aviateca, the national airline of Guatemala, to radio Tikal each morning to inquire if the ground fog has lifted enough to allow the scheduled tourist flights from Guatemala City to land. It may very well have been this same condition which prompted the Maya priests to elevate their observation platforms to the point where the sky always remained visible to them.

            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!

            Whereas we have already described how the siting of Tikal caused the ceremonial center to be built on the height of land between the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico drainage systems at precisely that point where the winter solstice sunrise could be calibrated over the highest point in the Maya Mountains, the internal spatial arrangement of the city itself is our concern now. It would appear that while all five of the pyramids were conceived as a functional unit, the sequence of their construction was of fundamental importance to the final layout of Tikal.

Figure 48. 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.


            Thus, as will become apparent from the discussion to follow, there is good reason to believe that the highest pyramid of the five -- that labeled by the archaeologists as Temple IV -- was actually the first to have its site established. It was constructed on the water-divide directly in line with the sunrise position over Victoria Peak on December 22. (It should be kept in mind that staking out the site of a pyramid and completing its construction are two very different things; the lintel of Temple IV was not put into place until after A.D. 741.)

            However, because Victoria Peak is not easily visible on the southeastern horizon, the Maya erected a second pyramid to mark this alignment as seen from Temple IV (no doubt following the pattern of architecturally reinforcing key astronomical alignments which seems to have already been established at Uaxactún). This was Temple III, which was constructed on somewhat lower ground about 400 m (1300 ft) to the southeast. In order that it actually serve as a horizon marker, it was necessary to surmount the pyramid with a massive roof-comb, an architectural embellishment which the Maya frequently used to give their otherwise squat-looking structures more impressive height. And, in the case of Temple III, the roof-comb was a full three tiers high -- not just for aesthetic reasons but quite obviously for the practical one of intersecting the horizon. Thus, as viewed from the top of Temple IV, the middle of the triple-tiered Temple III will be seen to just intersect the distant horizon at the azimuth (i.e., 115º) where the winter solstice sunrise occurs over Victoria Peak. (Radiocarbon dating reveals that the finishing touches were not put on Temple III until after A.D. 810.)

Figure 49.

The eastern horizon at Tikal as seen from Temple IV.  While neither Temple I nor II intersects the horizon as seen from this highest of the pyramids in the Maya capital, Temple III (on the right), by virtue of being surmounted by a triple-tiered roof comb, does just touch the southeastern horizon at the azimuth of the winter solstice sunrise (115º).

            With the location of Temples IV and III now worked out, the position of Temple I was automatically fixed. It would be located directly east of Temple III so that priests standing atop the latter structure could calibrate the equinoctial sunrises (i.e., on March 21 and September 21) over Temple I. (Of course, once both pyramids were in place, priests standing atop Temple I could use the backsight to Temple III to calibrate equinoctial sunsets as well.) Temple I's exact distance from Temple III, about 300 m (1000 ft), would be determined by the intersection of the equinoctial sunrise line with the point from which the August 13 sunset could be viewed against the midline of Temple IV's doorway. In other words, priests standing atop Temple I could calibrate their most important day -- "the day the world began" -- by sighting to the middle of the doorway of the highest pyramid the Maya ever constructed.

            After the positions of the first three pyramids had been worked out, the siting of a fourth structure (Temple V) could now be established. For this a hill about 250 in (800 ft) to the southwest of Temple I was chosen. The exact position of Temple V, however, forms an alignment which makes a perfect right angle with that of Temples I and IV Ironically, Thompson, for all his fascination with and love for the Maya, was not terribly impressed with their architecture, and candidly makes the claim that they were incapable of constructing a right angle (Thompson, 1974, 94). However, the alignments between Temples IV, I, and V at Tikal convincingly prove him wrong (Hartung, 1977, 114).

            But what was the purpose of Temple V, oriented as it was to Temple I in the same way as the axis of the "Street of the Dead" was aligned at Teotihuacán? It is unlikely that a line of sight to the horizon was intended at an azimuth of 15º'.5 from Temple V or at an azimuth of 195º.5 from Temple I, because such alignments could only have served to mark the positions of stars. Due to precession, the rising and setting positions of stars would have changed all too rapidly to give them anything other than a transitory value. However, because Temple V is clearly oriented toward the north, there definitely seems to have been an alignment in that direction which the Maya sought to mark, and if it was not with Temple I, one is tempted to suggest that it must have been with its lower, more squat counterpart across the central plaza, Temple II.

Figure 50.

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 latter is the lowest and most unpretentious of the five skyscraper pyramids. Indeed, when one stands atop Temple I and views the western horizon, the equinoctial sight-line to Temple III and the August 13 sightline to Temple IV bracket Temple II on either side. Although it might seem that Temple II's function was merely to serve as an architectural counterweight to Temple I, its construction for such a purpose would have represented a sizable commitment of both manpower and resources solely for aesthetic reasons. Moreover, the site of Temple II -- offset slightly to the south, allowing unobstructed sight-lines between Temples I, III, and IV -- suggests that aesthetics alone did not dictate its placement. Furthermore, when the azimuth of Temple II as viewed from Temple V is found to be 352º, or 8º west of north, one cannot help but remember that the Olmecs had used that same orientation for the layout of La Venta nearly 1800 years earlier.

            In the case of La Venta we had argued that the point in the heavens toward which its central axis was aligned was the closest thing to a pole star that existed for the Olmecs in 1000 B. C. Naturally, any point so close to the north celestial pole would be circumpolar and therefore have no rising or setting position which could be marked against the horizon. On the other hand, the star Kochab (magnitude 2.07), with a declination of 83º.5 in the year 1000 B.C., was only about 6º.5 away from the pole of rotation in that year and was thus the celestial body with the smallest radius of movement. However, in the intervening 1800 years, precession had caused Kochab to shift its declination to just under 79º, so by the year A.D. 800 it was 11º away from the pole. But, in the same time period, the star Polaris (magnitude 2.02) had precessed from being just over 17º away from the pole in 1000 B.C. to the point where its declination was 82º.7, or just under 8º away from the pole in the year A.D. 800. Thus, by the time the Maya were reaching their apogee, Polaris had replaced Kochab as being the closest bright star to the pole of rotation but even then it was still a good 8º away from where it is today. In fact, the present generation of humanity is one of the few which can actually think and speak in terms of a "polestar," for at no other time in recorded history has a highly visible celestial body stood so close to the pole of rotation as Polaris does now.


            The discovery of the Dresden Codex in the Yucatán speaks to much of the Maya's lunar research having been carried out in that region, most likely at places like Edzná and Uxmal. However, it would appear that the ultimate breakthrough for the Maya came at their astronomical site of Copán, in the mountains of western Honduras, some eight years after the base dates recorded in the Codex, for in 763 an event of singular importance took place there. For well over half a century debate has centered on what this remarkable event must have been, for the date of its occurrence is engraved no fewer than eight times on seven different altars, stelae, and buildings (Carlson, 1977, 105). Initially, Herbert Spinden proposed that an astronomical congress must have taken place on that occasion, for the date is accompanied by portraits of what seem to be important personages seated on pillows (Spinden, 1924). Epigraphers have more recently suggested that the much-repeated date commemorates the accession to power of an important king. Although I cannot evaluate the merits of either of these arguments, I can point out that on the date in question a total lunar eclipse, visible from Copán, took place just after sunset. When the difference of longitude between Honduras and London is factored in, the Maya Long Count date (using Thompson's original correlation value) and Oppolzer's date agree perfectly. (The multiply recorded Maya Long Count date is 6 Caban 10 Mol, which equals Maya day-number 1,415,637. Adding the GMT correlation factor of 584,285 yields Julian Day number 1,999,922, which equates to June 29, A.D. 763. Since the midpoint of totality occurred at 7:10 P.M. Honduras time, it was then 1:10 A.M. in London, where a new Julian Day had begun at midnight. Thus, the lunar eclipse in question, listed as number 3050 in Oppolzer's catalog, is recorded as having taken place on Julian Day number 1,999,923, which is, of course, what the date then was in Europe.) It would appear, therefore, that coming so shortly after the "near misses" which had been calculated in the Dresden Codex (see Chapter 6), the eclipse at Copán may well have been the first such event which the Maya successfully predicted. Indeed, it may well be that they were so certain of their success, that for the occasion they had convened an astronomical congress to witness it.

            In pointing out that a lunar eclipse visible at Copán did in fact occur on this oft-repeated date, I am left wondering why an event of such transcendental importance, coming so shortly after the debacle the Maya astronomers had experienced with the Dresden Codex, was not given more prominence than it was. David Stuart, one of the leaders of the new epigraphy movement, not only states that the "astronomical conference" hypothesis has long since been refuted (1992, 170), but goes on to describe the accession to power of Ruler 16 on that date (178). In the discussion which follows, we also learn that a mysterious "Personage A" was likewise "seated" on that date, as well as a chieftain known as Yax K'am Lay (180). Stuart admits that he is not certain to what these "seatings" refer, but cautions us that a "seating" event does not necessarily imply a ruler's inauguration, nor do they point to patterns of co-rulership. Thus, at least we can be assured that Copán did not acquire three new chieftains on the day the eclipse took place.

Figure 51.

This screen display produced by the VOYAGER computer program recreates the total lunar eclipse of June 29, A.D. 763, as seen from the major Mayan astronomical center of Copán in present-day Honduras. The sky has been 'whitened' for ease of reproduction and the author has superimposed upon it explanations of the various symbols. As explained in the text, the author's identification of this eclipse as the event which occasioned the multiple recordings of the Mayan date of 6 Caban 10 Mol at Copán strongly argues for the validity of the initial Thompson correlation rather than for his "revised" one. (The VOYAGER program is a product of Carina Software, San Leandro, CA 94577.)


            Of course, in pointing out my uneasiness with even this one result obtained by the epigraphers who, in Coe's words, have "broken the Maya code," I realize that I have already defied one of the most outspoken professional warnings that I have ever seen in print, to wit this quote from Linda Schele: "The decipherment has occurred. There are two ways to react to it. One is to embrace it, and if you can't do it yourself, get someone on your side who bloody well can. The other is to ignore it, to try and destroy it, to basically dismiss it" (Coe, 1992, 273). On the other hand, if anyone has any doubts about the solsticial and other alignments which figure so prominently in the exposition presented here, he or she can either replicate my observations in the field or make the required measurements on large-scale maps for themselves.

            The much-recorded lunar eclipse at Copán seems to have represented the triumphal solution to a problem which had first begun to intrigue Olmec priests nearly eight centuries earlier. It is therefore all the more ironic that this climactic breakthrough came as late as it did, for in little more than another half century, the Maya went into a decline from which they never totally recovered. One can only wonder whether they might have gone on to even greater intellectual achievements had their civilization not collapsed so abruptly in the ninth century. Surely, no other native people or culture within the Mesoamerican region would ever reach the same levels of sophistication or attainment again.


            After the sun and the moon, the planet Venus is the brightest object in the heavens. Small wonder, then, that for the peoples of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica it figured prominently in both their mythology and religious rituals. Unlike the ancient Greeks who only belatedly realized that the "morning star" and the "evening star" were one and the same body, the Mesoamericans recognized it as a single celestial object which passed through a cycle having four distinct phases, even though they did so without ever truly understanding what occasioned these respective changes. Among the Maya, who formalized their observations of Venus in the Dresden Codex, it was described as a morning star for a period of 236 days, followed by a 90-day period of invisibility when it was assumed to be in the "underworld." This, in turn, was followed by a 250-day period when the planet was seen as an evening star, after which there was another 8-day period when it again "disappeared" into the underworld. Although the lengths of the individual phases were certainly not as precise as suggested by the above numbers, the complete Venusian cycle according to the Maya totaled 584 days, a value which is remarkably close to the planet's 583.92 day synodic period recognized by modern astronomers. (As David Kelley has pointed out, however, the Venusian interval varies from 579.6 days to 588.1 days within a given five-year period, so the 584 value is really a mean [Kelley, 1977, 58].)

            The mysterious disappearances of Venus into the underworld were, of course, the result of its conjunctions with the sun. In other words, as the planet revolves around the sun on an orbit which is inclined at 3º.4 to the plane of the ecliptic, there are two positions in its path when it comes visually so close to the sun that it can no longer be seen. One of these is when Venus is directly in line between the Earth and the sun -- a position which astronomers call inferior conjunction. In this position it can approach to within 24 million miles of the Earth, reaching its maximum brightness just before it visually disappears. At the reduced radius of its inferior conjunction, Venus moves very rapidly through its invisible phase -- indeed, as we have seen above, in what the Maya measured as a period of eight days. On the other hand, when the orbit of Venus takes it behind the sun -- a position which astronomers call superior conjunction -- it may be as distant as 162 million miles from the Earth. Its daily horizontal motion is then so small that it took 90 days, according to the Maya, between the time it disappeared as a morning star and when it reappeared as an evening star.

            These differences can perhaps best be understood by examining the following tables which present critical data relating to two of Venus's most recent conjunctions with the sun. In both tables, the rising and setting times of the sun and Venus are as they would have been experienced from the major ceremonial site of Cholula on the Mexican plateau. Cholula was chosen for this example because (1) it is known to have been a key center for the worship of Quetzalcóatl, the god-king who was believed by the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of the meseta to have been reincarnated as the planet Venus, and (2) it is considered by many anthropologists to have been the source of the Codex Borgia, the primary indigenous account of the planet's movements stemming from the Mexican plateau (Krickeberg, 1982, 193). In the first table, the superior conjunction of June 13, 1992, is presented statistically, whereas in the second, the inferior conjunction of April 1, 1993, is displayed in the same manner.

Table 4 - Superior Conjunction, Venus / Sun -June 13, 1992


Time of

Time of



Sun Rise

Sun Set

Venus Rise

Venus Set



5:15 A.M.

5:50 P.M.

4:30 A.M.

4:43 P.M.



5:05 A.M.

5:54 P.M.

4:30 A.M.

5:02 P.M.

11º52' (D)


5:02 A.M.

5:56 P.M.

4:30 A.M.

5:09 P.M.

10º33' (B)


4:58 A.M.

6:00 P.M.

4:33 A.M.

5:24 P.M.



4:55 A.M.

6:10 P.M.

4:56 A.M.

6:10 P.M.



4:48 A.M.

6:14 P.M.

5:21 A.M.

6:35 P.M.



5:03 A.M.

6:13 P.M.

5:43 A.M.

6:49 P.M.



5:06 A.M.

6:11 P.M.

5:54 A.M.

6:54 P.M.

10º47' (B)


5:08 A.M.

6:09 P.M.

6:04 A.M.

6:57 P.M.

12º26' (D)


5:09 A.M.

6:07 P.M.

6:10 A.M.

6:58 P.M.


*B -- Limit of invisibility according to the Codex Borgia.

  D -- Limit of invisibility according to the Dresden Codex.

            Although no Mesoamerican observer could have known when the actual moment of conjunction took place, had he been privy to the calculations contained in the Dresden Codex he would have expected the planet's disappearance on April 30 and its reappearance on July 28. As can be seen from Table 4, this meant that the Maya were essentially unable to distinguish the planet's position any closer than about 12º from the sun at the time of superior conjunction. Someone employing the calculations of the Codex Borgia would have anticipated the planet's disappearance on May 5 instead, when its angular separation from the sun had narrowed to about 10º.5, and its reappearance on July 22, when its angular distance had once more widened to about the same value. In other words, using the naked-eye astronomy available at the time, there was an angular discrepancy of at least 1º.5 -- equivalent to about 6 days in time -- in the two observational records, revealing how difficult it was to actually pinpoint the planet's location with any degree of accuracy. However, recent calculations by Anthony Aveni have demonstrated that the 8-day period of invisibility used in the Dresden Codex at inferior conjunction can actually vary from as few as 3 days to as many as 16, depending on the ecliptic's orientation to the horizon (Aveni, photocopy preprint, 8).

            In contrast to the very slowly changing positions of the sun and Venus during superior conjunction, it will be seen from Table 5 how rapidly they move first toward one another and then away from one another at the time of inferior conjunction. Again, the Mesoamerican observer would not have been able to precisely establish the time of their closest passage, but anyone employing the Codex Borgia would have anticipated the planet's disappearance on March 26 and its reappearance about 12 days later on April 7. In this instance, the angular separation of the two bodies would have diminished to just under 12º. Using the Dresden Codex, the disappearance of Venus would have been calculated as occurring on March 28 and its visual return would have been anticipated some 8 days later on April 5. Interestingly, in this instance the visual extinction of Venus would occur when the angular distance between the sun and Venus fell below 10º. Though the angular values are identical to what they were at the time of superior conjunction, they have here been reversed in the two indigenous sources, again reinforcing the difficulty which the early Mesoamericans had in pinpointing the planet's true position during its supposed absence in the underworld.

            According to Lucrecia Maupomé (1986, 44), most scholars believe that the ancient Mesoamericans used the inferior conjunction of Venus to define the length of its cycle, although both Eduard Seler and Martínez Hernández are dissenters to this view. In any event, Aveni's findings concerning the variable length of Venus's disappearance at inferior conjunction scarcely makes that any more reliable an indicator of the planet's location in the sky than any of the other longer phases.

Table 5 - Inferior Conjunction, Venus / Sun -April 1, 1993


Time of

Time of



Sun Rise

Sun Set

Venus Rise

Venus Set



5:36 A.M.

5:43 P.M.

6:13 A.M.

6:56 P.M.

20º 00'


5:33 A.M.

5:44 P.M.

5:51 A.M.

6:32 P.M.



5:31 A.M.

5:45 P.M.

5:40 A.M.

6:20 P.M.

12º36' (B)


5:29 A.M.

5:45 P.M.

5:28 A.M.

6:07 P.M.

10º23' (D)


5:26 A.M.

5:46 P.M.

5:06 A.M.

5:40 P.M.



5:23 A.M.

5:47 P.M.

4:44 A.M.

5:14 P.M.

9º44' (D)


5:21 A.M.

5:48 P.M.

4:33 A.M.

5:02 P.M.

11º49' (B)


5:19 A.M.

5:48 P.M.

4:18 A.M.

4:44 P.M.



5:16 A.M.

5:49 P.M.

4:00 A.M.

4:22 P.M.


*B -- Limit of invisibility according to the Codex Borgia.

  D -- Limit of invisibility according to the Dresden Codex.


            Despite their difficulties in defining the phases of Venus with any precision, the Mesoamerican skywatchers could not have failed to havebeen intrigued by the striking reinforcement which the planet's cycle provided to their numerological and calendrical systems. They seem to have been relatively quick to realize that five revolutions of Venus around the sun (5 x 584 days = 2920) equaled eight similar revolutions by the Earth (8 x 365 days = 2920). Thus, on the eve of every eighth of their "Vague Years" -- the name which astronomers have given to the 365-day interval used throughout Mesoamerica -- Venus could be expected to appear in virtually the same place in the sky that it had eight years earlier. For a people seeking order in nature, this realization of such a completed cycle must have been reassuring indeed, especially with respect to a celestial body whose cosmic importance was so great and whose behavior otherwise seemed so erratic.

            Before leaving this point, however, it should be emphasized how important it is to "get the horse before the cart" in our thinking on this matter. Some researchers, most recently Maupomé (1986), have argued that the Mesoamerican calendars are based on the phases of Venus. If true, this would mean that one of the most difficult of all celestial cycles was worked out first, and into this the interlocked 365-day "Vague Year" and 260-day sacred almanac were then fitted. (An explanation of how the latter interval came into being is not even attempted.) Such an explanation defies common sense, for only after a meaningful interval of time like a "Vague Year" has been defined will it even be possible to recognize that eight such intervals correspond to five of the longer and less precise cycles of Venus. In other words, you begin with a "yardstick" of known units to determine the length of something unknown, and not the other way around.

            (To be sure, there were other numerological "twists" to the Venusian cycle which must have excited the priests equally or more so than the correspondence of five Venusian years with eight "Vague Years." If a Venusian year is divided by eight it yields an interval of 73 days, which is the same result which one obtains when dividing a "Vague Year" by five. Eight plus five yields the sacred number of 13, and this multiplied by the other key numeral, 20, corresponds to the length of their sacred almanac, or "Calendar Round" [260 days]. Seventy-three Calendar Rounds in turn equal 18,980 days, which equate with 52 "Vague Years" -- the length of the Maya "century," and the interval between "the binding of the years" as practiced by the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of the Mexican plateau. And although 52 is not evenly divisible by 8, a double "century" of 104 years is, meaning that 146 Calendar Rounds equate not only to 104 "Vague Years" but to 65 Venusian cycles as well.)

            However, the fact that the details of Venus's movements were not defined by the Maya until the early seventh century -- to wit, the base date of the Dresden Codex, which is 1 Ahau 18 Kayab = February 6, A.D. 623 -- reveals how elusive the solution of this riddle must have been, even for a people with such a sophisticated mathematical system as the Long Count. Even so, as Michael Closs observes (1977, 97), they chose a nonastronomical base for their count, suggesting to him that the Maya sought to correlate the movements of Venus to its supposed "birthday" on 1 Ahau, in order to facilitate their computations using the Long Count. On the other hand, for those peoples living on the Mexican plateau who were not the cultural beneficiaries of the Long Count, the answer seems to have come even later still, judging from the fact that the Codex Borgia dates to Aztec times.

            To be sure, in both instances the Venusian cycle could only have been worked out by long and patient counting. Having the Long Count against which to tally such a lengthy series of observations would surely have helped the Maya to expedite record keeping and insure its overall accuracy, but it would not have been essential to the process itself. Indeed, the major purpose of the "Venus table" in the Dresden Codex seems to have been to assist the Maya priests in making periodic corrections to their calculations, for in any 104-year period the planet got 5.2 days out of phase with the table (Kelley, 1977, 58). (For a detailed discussion of how the Maya shifted the base of their calculations to keep Venus "on track," see Closs, 1977, 89-99.)

            Of critical importance, however, was finding a well-defined starting point from which the cycle could be calibrated. (The difficulty of using the planet's disappearances we have already discussed.) But what, after all, is fixed about a "star" that shows up in the eastern sky before dawn for nearly eight months, disappears for about two and a half to three months, then reappears in the western sky shortly before sunset for something over eight months, and disappears again for between 8 and 12 days? Indeed, as Aveni has shown, the Maya appear to have incorporated lunar observations into the Dresden Codex in an effort to pin down the movements of Venus, assuming somewhat naively that the motions of one celestial body probably controlled or influenced those of another (Aveni, photocopy preprint, n.d., 11). Kelley, on the other hand, makes the reverse argument, stating that there are indications that Venus's movements were "somehow used in predicting eclipses" (1977, 70). As Thompson has pointed out, "Both phenomena [solar eclipses and the heliacal risings of the planet Venus] were greatly feared by the Maya" (1972, 111).

            In any event, if the times of Venus 's appearance and disappearance were so difficult to pin down, might one have found it easier to fix its places of appearance and disappearance instead? Surely in a society accustomed to horizon-based astronomy like that of Mesoamerica, the movements of Venus might have been more convincingly calibrated against some static feature in the landscape than against some nebulous temporal formula. Certainly such a model was already in place for most Mesoamericans with respect to the movements of the sun -- save for the Maya in the featureless expanses of the Yucatán -- so why not, by extension, apply the same "principle" to Venus? Indeed, as we have seen, it was the Maya, alone of all the Mesoamerican cultures, who managed to pin down the eclipse cycle of the moon. What they lacked in horizon landmarks they more than made up for with the Long Count and the construction of their own survey markers in the landscape (as we have seen with their construction of "La Vieja" at Edzná). That is why Horst Hartung's discovery of the alignment between Uxmal and the pyramid of Nohpat out in the featureless plain of northern Yucatán is so important: It marks the extreme southerly rising point of the planet Venus (Hartung, 1971). (We shall return to the subject of the horizon observation of Venus later on.)

            If the Maya's efforts to accurately predict eclipses were crowned by success so late in their history (i.e., A.D. 763), then their struggle to define the phases of Venus appears to have come even later still. Indeed, Floyd Lounsbury (1983) argues that the Maya "Venus table" was historically set in motion on the Long Count date of 1 Ahau 18 Kayab, which equates to November 20, A.D. 934. On that morning, a heliacal rising of Venus occurred which Lounsbury has called "a unique event in historical time," because it came exactly three Great Cycles (146 x 260 days) after the base date of the Dresden Codex. Lounsbury believes that the Maya astronomers did not recognize the need to shift bases (i.e., correct their calculations) until a full Great Cycle had elapsed. Ironically, attaining such precision at such a late date must have been small consolation indeed for a society whose very foundations were already crumbling beneath them.

(Return to Table of Contents)    (Continue to Chapter 9)