Ancient Maya Solar Observatories
Stages for community-wide ritual and celebration
By 500 B.C. there were numerous large architectural assemblages throughout the central lowlands of Guatemala and Mexico. At first, they appeared to function solely as line-of-site markers of the sun’s solstice and equinox turning points. Archaeologists named them E-Group complexes.
Although there was great diversity in these structures across time and place, what they had in common was a large rectangular, flat, paved plaza with a square four-sided pyramid aligned to the cardinal directions, situated west of a long narrow platform with small temples that ran north and south. The first to be investigated in the Maya area was Uaxactun Structure E-VII-sub. Above is how it looked when I visited there in 2000. Although it was severely weathered, early photographs showed that there were large deity masks and stairways on all four sides.
We can imagine—as I had when writing Jaguar Rising—a priest-ruler on top of the pyramid before dawn. Adorned with jade and wearing a tall headdress of blue-green quetzal feathers, he and his family, daykeepers and principle courtiers are all there, lit by a brazier, waiting to witness the rising of the Sun god at the corner of the easternmost temple, an opportunity to verify that both the sacred (tzolkin) and solar (haab) calendars were accurate and congruent, marking the seasons and times for particular rituals.
After years of investigation at many sites, the consensus is now that, while E-Groups may have originally been built to mark and celebrate the solstice and equinox, their more prolific purpose was to establish a large space with a bonifide sacred center, a theater stage, where kings could perform elaborate calendar rites and other ceremonies. One of these common to the E-Groups was to celebrate the k’atun (20-year) Period Ending, the day when the current god of that period set his “burden” down and the next god in line picked it up to carry it forward with his particular influences for the next twenty years. Cycles of 13 k’atuns—about 256 years—were also celebrated.
The west-situated pyramid that established the sacred center of an emerging polity or city did so by symbolizing the cosmos and the time cyclicals they held sacred.
- The four sides and stairways have the shape of a cross (+), the symbol for k’in, which is the Maya word for “day” and the glyph for “sun.”
- Aligned to the cardinal points, the pyramid “celebrates” the four directions. In particular, the east-west stairway references the journey of Ajaw K’in the “Lord Sun.” He is born in the east, reaches his highest holy place over the top of the pyramid, descends to his “dying place” in the west to dwell overnight in the Underworld—under the pyramid. In making this journey, Ajaw K’in creates the day. To insure that his journey continued, sacrifices were made on the last day of each period. And they ranged from one day to thousands of years.
- Cosmologically, it was believed that the celestial realm had several layers, or “steps” that Ajaw K’in had to ascend and then descend in his journey. We can imagine then, the king ascending the pyramid steps slowly and thoughtfully.
- As at Uaxactun, E-Group pyramids in other locations often displayed stucco reliefs, masks with cosmological themes. Those on E-VII-sub reference Ajaw K’in, the watery underworld and long-lipped gods representing the earth and sky. According to archaeologist David Freidel, they represent the sun cycle surmounted by Venus. And because the four-sided pyramids usually appear in the middle of open plazas they also represent the center of the universe and the centering point of the four world quarters.
Did E-Groups serve as seasonal observatories or as stages for ceremonial spectacles? More work needs to be done, but it appears that they served both functions. Perhaps even more— at different times and in different places.
E-groups were most widely constructed as Maya society was becoming increasingly stratified, an indication that the ritual they framed ensured both cosmic and political order. By expressing a fundamental cosmological concept on a monumental scale, and as settings for religious and political ritual, E-groups provided an experientially powerful and symbolically meaningful condensation of Maya reality.
James Aimers and Prudence Rice
Incident at an E-Group, Uaxactun, Guatemala
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (pp. 348-349)
We turned north and came to an enormous open and paved, gleaming red plaza where, in the center, gods flanking a pyramid’s steps looked in all four directions. On the eastern side of the pyramid, a stone monument faced a long platform that supported three shrines. Because the plaza itself was one of the holy places Hammerstone told us about, Fishbone pointed to where we could cross, while he, his brothers and Butterfly took a long way around. Judging from the men atop the pyramid wearing quetzal headdresses and dancing to drums, a ritual was in progress.
We met up with the slaves on the other side of the plaza. They were out of breath from running, so White Cord called for a rest. Fishbone took it as an opportunity to tell us why that particular plaza was holy ground. “After the founder built the first shrine in the sacred district,” he said, “he came here, cut a living branch and walked with it until it pointed down—to a little pool of black water. He marked it with stones and then walked east until the branch told him to stop.” Fishbone pointed about fifty strides away to a tall shaft of stone painted red. “That stone marks the eastern ahkantuun. There are three others—white to mark the north, black for west and yellow for south. With the ground so ordered, he made another circuit to mark the trees to be cut. By recognizing the ground as holy, he established it so for the eyes of his followers. They felled the trees to burn limestone and they hardened the ground with mortar between the markers.
When the new plaza was paved and painted red, the founder came again. In the center—where the pool had reflected the canopy—they drilled new fire. And there he offered his blood and the blood of a young woman so the place would forever bring new life. He named it Plaza of Black Water Sky. Nine tunob later his son erected a building over that center, a shrine, and he named it Three Sky Place. Inside he planted a bundle containing the bones of his Father and the female offering. So it was established—the caah of Uaxactun. The shrine has been built over many times since. The bundle that gives life to it is still there.”
Fishbone answered some of our questions and told how the current ruler built the shrine we were seeing, Raised Up Sky—the place where the maize god raised the sky off the water to reveal the land. “Very hot,” Fishbone said. He pointed to three more shrines across the plaza by about two hundred paces. “Now, every solstice, Our Bounty marks the journey of Lord K’in by sighting his face over there.”
White Cord was eager to move on. We all were. The women especially wanted to get settled while there was still some light—and we didn’t know how much farther we would have to go.
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