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Cosmology, Calendars, and Horizon-Based Astronomy in Ancient Mesoamerica

Cosmology, Calendars, and Horizon-Based Astronomy in Ancient Mesoamerica

Anne S. Dowd
Susan Milbrath
Foreword by E. C. Krupp
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 440
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  • Book Info
    Cosmology, Calendars, and Horizon-Based Astronomy in Ancient Mesoamerica
    Book Description:

    Cosmology, Calendars, and Horizon-Based Astronomy in Ancient Mesoamericais an interdisciplinary tour de force that establishes the critical role astronomy played in the religious and civic lives of the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica. Providing extraordinary examples of how Precolumbian peoples merged ideas about the cosmos with those concerning calendar and astronomy, the volume showcases the value of detailed examinations of astronomical data for understanding ancient cultures.The volume is divided into three sections: investigations into Mesoamerican horizon-based astronomy, the cosmological principles expressed in Mesoamerican religious imagery and rituals related to astronomy, and the aspects of Mesoamerican calendars related to archaeoastronomy. It also provides cutting-edge research on diverse topics such as records of calendar and horizon-based astronomical observation (like the Dresden and Borgia codices), iconography of burial assemblages, architectural alignment studies, urban planning, and counting or measuring devices.Contributors-who are among the most respected in their fields- explore new dimensions in Mesoamerican timekeeping and skywatching in the Olmec, Maya, Teotihuacano, Zapotec, and Aztec cultures. It will be of great interest to students and scholars of anthropology, archaeology, art history, and astronomy.

    eISBN: 978-1-60732-379-2
    Subjects: Sociology, Archaeology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xix-xx)
  5. Foreword: Astronomy, Anthropology, and Anthony Aveni
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
    E. C. Krupp

    About two katuns ago, astronomer Anthony F. Aveni collaborated with architect Horst Hartung and organized in 1973, in Mexico City, the first formal, scientific meeting dedicated to ancient and prehistoric astronomy. Most of the presentations spotlighted the American Southwest and Mesoamerica, and Aveni (1975) subsequently edited a selection of the papers intoArchaeoastronomy in Pre-Columbian America. At that time, archaeoastronomy was dominated by the study of astronomical alignments in monumental architecture, but the Mexico City session added iconography, hieroglyphic texts, ethnography, cosmology, calendars, and artifacts to the discussion. Before 1973, archaeoastronomical initiatives primarily targeted what the ancients knew about the...

  6. Preface
    (pp. xxv-xxviii)
    A. S. Dowd and S. Milbrath
  7. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxix-xxxii)
  8. Part I. Introduction

    • 1 An Interdisciplinary Approach to Cosmology, Calendars, and Horizon-Based Astronomy
      (pp. 3-16)
      Susan Milbrath and Anne S. Dowd

      This volume highlights the latest research on the role Anne S. Dowd of astronomy in ancient Mesoamerica, an area spanning Mexico south to Honduras that is of special interest in the field of archaeoastronomy. Our field has come to be known more broadly as cultural astronomy because archaeology, ethnohistory, and ethnography are all important aspects of analysis. Anthony F. Aveni’s work has played a seminal role in this interdisciplinary field, and chapters published here cover many themes in his broad-ranging research. Chapters focusing on Mesoamerican horizon-based astronomy in the opening section of this book precede those that investigate the cosmological...

  9. Part II. Horizon-Based Astronomy

    • 2 Pyramids Marking Time: Anthony F. Aveni’s Contribution to the Study of Astronomical Alignments in Mesoamerican Architecture
      (pp. 19-36)
      Ivan Šprajc

      Mesoamerican archaeoastronomy, including the antecedents of this discipline, has quite a long history. We could start by mentioning Ernst Förstemann’s analysis of the Dresden Codex Venus Table and continue with many other attempts to solve the questions concerning Prehispanic astronomically-related cultural manifestations, including the calendrical system, the knowledge and use of various cycles observed in the sky, celestial lore, and architectural orientations. In recent decades Anthony Aveni’s work on different aspects of Mesoamerican astronomy has been crucial: he provided a synthesis, still the best one, of what is currently known about multiple manifestations of Mesoamerican astronomical knowledge and related concept...

    • 3 Maya Architectural Hierophanies
      (pp. 37-76)
      Anne S. Dowd

      Ancient people used architectural space to track the movement of heavenly astronomical bodies and, in the process, create hierophanies. In particular, where and when is visual information dramatized by the hierophantic play of light and shadow on Maya buildings? A famous example can be seen at the Castillo pyramid at Chichén Itzá, where the sun illuminates a north serpent balustrade on March 20–21, the spring equinox, and on September 21–22, the fall equinox. The building may have been built to commemorate the close of the tenth baktun, 7 Ahaw 18 Sip, on March 13, A.D. 830 in our...

    • 4 Mountain of Sustenance: Site Organization at Dainzú-Macuilxóchitl and Mesoamerican Concepts of Space and Time
      (pp. 77-98)
      Ronald K. Faulseit

      The Codex Vienna relates a specific region within the Mixteca Alta of Oaxaca, Mexico, to Prehispanic cosmogony (Boone 2000, 89–100). A cosmogony is a belief system associated with the creation and organization of the universe; “it explains how supernaturals and humans came into being and how the gods and primordial ancestors created and ordered the land” (Boone 2000, 96). For many Mesoamerican communities the universe begins in the center of their town (López Austin 1988; Vogt 1969), and a large portion of the Vienna is devoted to the establishment of the physical world surrounding the town of Apoala (Furst...

  10. Part III. Cosmological Principles

    • 5 The North Celestial Pole in Ancient Mesoamerica
      (pp. 101-138)
      Clemency Coggins

      The North Celestial Pole was a powerful cultural metaphor in southern Mesoamerica, identifiable from Middle Preclassic (1000–400 B.C.) times. Its endurance provides a valuable demonstration of the principle of disjunction (Kubler 1977). This applies to symbolic forms and images of great longevity; it posits that the meaning of forms change through the centuries if the form itself is constant; conversely, a long-lived image or concept, usually religious, will have a differentformfrom the early one, if the original meaning has survived. In this study of the meaning and persistence of North Celestial Pole symbolism in ancient Mesoamerica, I...

    • 6 A Seasonal Calendar in the Codex Borgia
      (pp. 139-162)
      Susan Milbrath

      The Codex Borgia records a unique narrative from Central Mexico that has been studied by scholars for more than 100 years. At the turn of the last century, Eduard Seler ([1904–1909] 1963) wrote an extensive commentary on the Codex Borgia that continued to have an impact well into the late twentieth century after it appeared in a Spanish translation. He correctly identified Venus as the most important actor in the narrative on Borgia pages 29–46 (Milbrath 2007), but some recent studies have questioned his interpretation of the imagery as a Venus narrative, proposing instead that the eighteen-page sequence...

    • 7 Iconography and Metaphorical Expressions Pertaining to Eclipses: A Perspective from Postclassic and Colonial Maya Manuscripts
      (pp. 163-196)
      Gabrielle Vail

      As Anthony Aveni (2001, 219) points out in his bookSkywatchers, archaeoastronomical studies “are meaningless unless those who pursue such investigations take the trouble to articulate the relationship between the data they collect and theories of culture.” It is with this consideration in mind that I pursue questions of what eclipses signified for Maya cultures and why Maya astronomers and daykeepers were so assiduous in tracking their possible occurrence through the development of the eclipse table in the Dresden Codex, as well as the Lunar Series in Classic period (A.D. 200–900) monumental texts and calculations such as those recently...

    • 8 The Maya Deluge Myth and Dresden Codex Page 74: Not the End but the Eternal Regeneration of the World
      (pp. 197-226)
      John B. Carlson

      Legends of the destruction of the world by flood or a great celestial deluge (here in the sense of a devastating downpour or unceasing torrential rains) are almost universal in human mythology. The wonderful compilation assembled and edited by Alan Dundes (1988) contains many useful essays. Indeed, cataclysmic floods and deluges are not uncommon on geological timescales, and Dorothy Vitaliano (1973, chap. 7) presents a well-researched summary of accounts from around the globe recorded in text and oral tradition. The stories that we are most familiar with in the Western world, which would include the Americas beginning soon after European...

  11. Part IV. Calendar Records

    • 9 The Ancient Maya Moon: Calendar and Character
      (pp. 229-248)
      Flora Simmons Clancy

      Today and anciently, the Maya Moon is accused of being erratic and erotic. She is a young woman; she is an old woman; she becomes masculine when she is full. She is visible, and then invisible. She is the patron of midwives, weavers, and suicides. She rules the night as the Sun rules the day but she insists on showing up during his day. The Sun, however, can never share her nighttime realm and so believes she is unfaithful to him. They are an odd couple. When they argue, they literally eat each other up.

      In this chapter I discuss...

    • 10 Pecked Circles and Divining Boards: Calculating Instruments in Ancient Mesoamerica
      (pp. 249-264)
      David A. Freidel and Michelle Rich

      Anthony Aveni (1999; Aveni, Hartung, and Buckingham 1978) has made a cogent case explaining the famous pecked circles at Teotihuacán in Mexico and a contemporary example from Structure A-5 at Uaxactún in Petén, Guatemala, as functions of their astronomical and calendar notational features. In an important further investigation of such features at Teotihuacán, Aveni (2005) studied a variety of pecked designs on the floor along the south side of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán, following up studies by Rubén Morante López (1993, 1996, 1997a, 1997b). These pecked and incised designs illustrate a wide array of square as well...

    • 11 The “Las Bocas Mosaic” and Mesoamerican Astro-Calendrics: “Calculator” or Hoax?
      (pp. 265-284)
      Prudence M. Rice

      A singular artifact sometimes known as the “Las Bocas ‘Mirror’” was purportedly excavated from a burial at the small “Olmec” (Middle Formative, 1000–400 B.C.) village site of Las Bocas in western Puebla, Mexico (figure 11.1). In the only published analysis of this pyrite mosaic plaque, Alexander Marshack (1977, 373) concluded that it “represents the symbolic [thirteen-month] lunar year, perhaps a particular lunar year in a solstitial or equinoctial and artificial year conjunction” and suggested a date of about 1000 B.C., based in part on its presumed origin from the Olmec site of Las Bocas. David Grove (personal communication, May...

    • 12 Some Alternative Eclipse Periodicities in Maya Codices
      (pp. 285-300)
      Victoria R. Bricker and Harvey M. Bricker

      InSkywatchers of Ancient MexicoandSkywatchers, Anthony Aveni’s (1980, 80; 2001, 78) classic works on New World archaeoastronomy, one finds a table listing 25 eclipse cycles, varying in length from about 3 years to 76 years. They are all integral multiples of the lunar synodic month (the period of 29.53059 days between successive new moons, for example) or integral and half-integral multiples of the draconic month (the period of 27.2122 days “between successive passages of the moon by a givennodeof its orbit” [Aveni 2001, 97]). A concern with eclipses is a feature of three of the Precolumbian...

    • 13 Modeling Indigenous Mesoamerican Eclipse Theory
      (pp. 301-350)
      John Justeson

      This study develops a framework by which Precolumbian Mesoamericans, of any cultural tradition, could have successfully characterized or understood the timing of eclipses in terms of specifically Mesoamerican timekeeping constructs and practices, and thereby anticipated them. It is predicated upon the generally shared assumption that it was thedaykeepers¹—Mesoamerican calendar specialists—who were responsible for anticipating the timing of celestial events. Daykeepers’ representations of these events in surviving Precolumbian screenfolds are characteristically framed in terms of the pan-Mesoamerican divinatory (or “sacred”) calendar of 260 days.²

      By exploring calendrical patterns in the timing of eclipses visible in Mesoamerica, issues are...

  12. Part V. Conclusion

    • 14 Maya Books and Buildings at Baktun’s End
      (pp. 353-362)
      Anthony F. Aveni

      The title of this chapter reflects the two-part nature of my invited conference overview. First, I will focus on the chapters that deal with the theme of cyclicity and how the study of textual materials reveals the way the Maya understood that temporal concept. Second, I will talk about the chapters that set directions for alignment studies in the archaeological record.

      Chapter 12 by the Brickers is among four in the collection that deal with eclipses and eclipse warning tables. It demonstrates that the “commensuration principle” in Maya calendrics is alive and well. The guiding template in the building process...

  13. List of Contributors
    (pp. 363-370)
  14. Index
    (pp. 371-380)