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«1 Astronomical Observations from the Temple of the Sun Alonso Mendez, Edwin L. Barnhart, Christopher Powell, and Carol Karasik ©2005 Alonso Mendez. ...»

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Astronomical Observations from

the Temple of the Sun

Alonso Mendez,

Edwin L. Barnhart, Christopher Powell, and Carol Karasik

©2005 Alonso Mendez. All Rights Reserved Worldwide

“ D a wn ”

Astronomical Observations From the Temple of the Sun

Alonso Mendez,

Edwin L. Barnhart, Christopher Powell, and Carol Karasik

During the solstices, equinox, zenith and nadir passages over the past four years, the

authors observed distinctive patterns of sunlight inside the Temple of the Sun at Palenque. This article describes the recorded phenomena in detail and presents new evidence on the astronomical orientation of the temple. The second section puts forth a possible methodology for the architectural layout and design of the Temple of the Sun. The geometric proportions and angles of the temple appear to correspond with the astronomical alignments of the temple. The final section discusses astronomical references in the text and in the iconography of the Tablet of the Sun.


Maya architecture is a repository for ancient astronomical knowledge. Investigating the celestial alignments of Maya architecture, archeoastronomers have identified dozens of structures that were oriented to the sun, stars, and planets rising and setting on the horizon Astronomical observations formed the basis of the Classic Maya calendar, which eventually integrated the cycles of the sun with the movements of the moon and five visible planets. The calendar supported a religious system that linked the heavens with seasonal cycles and the agricultural rituals associated with them (Milbrath 1999:1). Decipherments of carved inscriptions reveal that royal ceremonies and accessions also were timed to coincide with significant stations of the sun or with rare planetary conjunctions (Aveni 2001:163-214). The role of astronomy in agriculture, politics, and religion exemplifies the Maya penchant for interweaving nature, human society, and the divine. The night sky, with its infinite population of souls, gods, and monsters, presented a mirror image of the hidden underworld below. Alignments to celestial bodies expressed the bonds between earth and the many levels of the cosmos.

The ancient Maya exhibited their scientific and spiritual understanding of the cosmic realms through astronomical hierophanies (Aveni 2001:220-221). As defined by the religious historian Mircea Eliade (1958:11), a hierophany is the manifestation of the sacred in an object or event in the material world. Archaeoastronomers have adopted the term to describe phenomena of sunlight and shadow that play across architectural features during important stations of the sun.

If accompanied by public ceremonies, these dazzling displays must have generated awe and religious fervor among the populace, and confirmed the power of the divine ruler.

Such spectacles rely on the alignment of monumental buildings with the sun. In the Maya region the most renowned example takes place at Chich’en Itza during equinox when, in a dramatic play of light and shadow, the triangular pattern of a serpent appears on the balustrade of the pyramid, El Castillo. Other hierophanies depend on the position of the sun as seen from a meaningful vantage point. At Dzibilchaltun, the rising sun at equinox, when viewed from the main causeway, fully illuminates the central door of the Temple of the Seven Dolls (Chan Chi and Ayala 2003). Both Yucatecan sites demonstrate the precise interplay between monumental architecture and the sun during key stations of the year (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1 C. Powell Figure 2 F. Chan Chi Precedents for solar-oriented structures exist at Early Classic Maya sites. Known as “Group E” complexes, after the architectural complex identified as Group E at Waxaktun, numerous examples have been found throughout the Maya area (Aveni 2001; 288-292).

Characteristically, the Group E complex contains a single temple, used for sighting, that stands directly west of three buildings, each of which mark winter solstice, summer solstice, and equinox, the midpoint between those two solar extremes. Because Group E complexes were primarily used to record the known positions of the sun, rather than to obtain new astronomical information, they cannot be considered genuine observatories. Instead, the complexes served as stages for “ritual observation” that may have been the focus of public ceremonies (Krupp 1981:249).

Calendrical observations were closely tied to religious observances among the ancient cultures of the American Southwest. Pueblo sun priests still conduct solar observations prior to the solstices, which are crucial phases in the tribes’ agricultural and religious cycles. In fact, the main responsibility of the Pueblo sun watchers is to anticipate the exact days of the solar stations in order to set the dates for major rituals (Zeilik 1985:S3).

At Palenque, Aveni (1980:284; 2001:295) sees a subtle distinction between astronomically oriented structures designed for ritual purposes and structures that served a symbolic function—to manifest astronomical hierophanies. To date, archaeoastronomers (Carlson 1976; Aveni and Hartung 1978) have identified the celestial orientation of a number of buildings; namely, the alignment of the Temple of the Count to Sirius; the Temple of the Foliated Cross to Capella; and House A and the east side of the Palace to the moon at maximum elongation. Considering the solar alignments of major buildings at the site, Aveni and Hartung (1978) noted that Temple XIV is aligned with the winter solstice and that the west side of the Palace is aligned with the setting sun at zenith passage. John Carlson (1976) was the first to hypothesize that the Temple of the Sun is oriented to face the rising sun at winter solstice, a theory supported by other scholars (Aveni and Hartung 1978; Milbrath 1999; and Aveni 2001).

Following the discovery of these alignments, only a few researchers have witnessed hierophanies at the site.

Neil S. Anderson, Alfonso Morales, and Moises Morales (1981) documented a series of solar events that occurred in the Tower of the Palace. Standing inside the Tower, the three investigators noticed that at sunset on 30 April, the sun’s rays passed directly through the Tshaped window on the western façade and struck an interior wall of the viewing chamber. With the approach of summer, the image of the T-shaped window moved progressively to the east. On 22 June, the investigators saw the complete image of the T glowing on the wall. After the summer solstice, as the northerly position of the sun decreased, the projected image shifted until only a fraction appeared on the wall. By 12 August, a few days after zenith passage at Palenque, the sun’s rays were aligned perpendicularly with the west wall of the Tower; consequently the light entering the window did not project an image on the angled wall. For the three investigators, these observations demonstrated the existence of specially designed interior spaces, oriented with extreme precision, which made it possible for Maya astronomers and calendar keepers to monitor the sun at solstice and zenith passages.

At the sites of Monte Albán and Xochicalco, zenith passages were observed through zenith sighting tubes. At Palenque, where no zenith tubes have been found, the Tower evidently served this purpose and thus functioned as a working observatory. Anderson, Morales, and Morales suggest that observations made from the Tower allowed astronomers to divide the solar year into two periods: the 105-day agricultural cycle and the 260-day ritual cycle. In reality, the 105-day period, from zenith passage on 30 April to zenith passage on 12 August, only occurs at 15° latitude. At higher latitudes, this inter-zenith period was more symbolic than practical, an ideal cycle designed by the Maya hierarchy to fix the length of the relatively arbitrary growing season, from the first sprouting of corn to its maturity, as well as to commemorate the anniversary in the solar year of the date of Creation, 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u. As we have recently discovered, alignments to zenith passage may be seen in the relationship between the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Cross, where its importance is bound up with the recorded creation myth and dynastic history.

Three hierophanies, witnessed during the solstices, have been associated with rites of divine kingship. While standing in the Tower of the Palace, Linda Schele (in Carlson 1976:107) observed that the “dying” sun at winter solstice, setting over the ridge directly behind the Temple of the Inscriptions, appeared to enter the earth through the royal tomb of Janahb Pakal. Schele interpreted this solar event as an annual re-enactment of Janahb Pakal’s descent into the underworld, as depicted in the iconography on the sarcophagus lid (Figure 3).

Figure 3 A. Mendez

The second hierophany described by Schele (in Carlson 1976:107) also occurred during winter solstice. Seen from the Tower, the sun setting behind the Temple of the Inscriptions sent a shaft of light that slowly mounted the terraces of the Temple of the Cross, and as the base of the pyramid sank into shadow, a final beam of light entered the temple and illuminated God L, portrayed on the eastern doorjamb of the sanctuary. Schele speculated that this phenomenon symbolized the transfer of royal power from Janahb Pakal to his son and heir Kan B’ahlam II, an event that occurred under the aegis of God L.

Another dynamic relationship between the Temple of the Inscriptions and the Temple of the Cross has been described by Anderson and Morales (1981). At sunset during summer solstice, they noted that the light entering the western window of the anterior corridor of the Temple of the Inscriptions aligned with the eastern window directly across the corridor and then highlighted the upper platform of the Temple of the Cross, where a major stela once stood. The researchers suggest that Stela I, believed to be a portrait of Janahb Pakal or Kan B’ahlam, marked a solar observation point. Anderson and Morales’s report reveals not only the longitudinal orientation of the Temple of the Inscriptions to the summer solstice, but also its remarkable alignment to the Temple of the Cross. Their observation also reinforces Schele’s theory that the visual effects seen at summer solstice represented the transfer of royal power from Janahb Pakal to Kan B’ahlam.

Schele’s theory begins to address the metaphysical connection between astronomical phenomena and historical events recorded in the hieroglyphic inscriptions. In fact, her on-site observations helped confirm her readings of two great historical moments: the heir-designation ceremony of the young prince, Kan B’ahlam, held during summer solstice of A.D. 641 and the death and burial of his father, Janahb Pakal, some forty years later. As it turns out, Schele’s winter solstice observation requires some correction; the Tower where she was standing was not erected until the eighth century (Hartung 1980:76) and was therefore not the correct stage for watching the setting sun. House E of the Palace, where Pakal was crowned, is the proper vantage point for viewing the winter solstice sun sink behind the Temple of the Inscriptions where Pakal is buried (See Figure 3). The great pyramid was completed by Kan B’ahlam and dedicated on 9.

12. 16.12.19 10 Kawak 7 Pax, 23 December 688 (Stuart 2005 pers. comm.), two days after winter solstice. We still see the drama of birth, death, and royal succession written in light, for the last rays of the winter solstice sun illuminate the Temple of the Cross, built by Kan B’ahlam to commemorate his accession to the throne. Years after his father designated him as heir on the summer solstice, Kan B’ahlam continued to honor his father’s interest in solsticial alignments.

Father and son also shared an intense preoccupation with the planets. Aldana’s reading (2001:131-132) of the texts in the Temple of the Inscriptions suggests that Janahb Pakal’s fascination was largely oracular. Many scholars (Lounsbury 1989:253-254; Aveni and Hotaling 1996; Aldana 2004) have noted that Pakal’s katun-ending ceremonies were synchronized with multiple astronomical events, particularly the appearance of Venus at maximum elongation. As will be seen in the final section of this paper, the moon and major planets also played a role in the timing of rituals conducted by Kan B’ahlam. Moreover, sometime during his reign, astronomers perfected the 819-day calendar, which took into account the cycles of Saturn and Jupiter (Lounsbury 1978; Powell 1996; Aldana 2004). Given the numerous allusions to astronomical phenomena in the art and literature, considerable speculation has gone into equating the rulers and patron gods of Palenque with specific planets (Kelley 1980; Lounsbury 1985; Schlak 1996).

In sum, on-site observations comprise a small part of the multi-disciplinary inquiries into the astronomical knowledge buried in the inscriptions, art, and architecture of Palenque. Aside from studies made by Milbrath (1988), little recognition has been given to the role of the antizenith, or nadir, passages in the Maya calendar. Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn have received enormous attention, but the moon has been mysteriously slighted. Progress has been made in identifying the orientations of major buildings and their possible ritual and calendrical significance, but there has been little headway in discovering the overall cosmological scheme of the ceremonial center. Numerous observations from a significant vantage point are needed for a fuller appreciation of the alignments at Palenque. Our ongoing investigations show that the Cross Group, the Temple of the Inscriptions, and the Palace exhibit astronomical alignments that are fundamental to understanding their design, function, and interrelationships.


The Temple of the Sun is the westernmost building in the Cross Group, a complex of three temples erected on three hills rising above a small plaza (Baudez 1996:121-124) (Figure 4).

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