School of Archaeology and Ancient History

Lecture 6: The rise of American archaeoastronomy and the "green" v. "brown" methodological divide

Photograph of the pyramid of the sun at Teotihuacan, Mexico Copyright © Clive Ruggles, University of Leicester.


To give you an understanding of the context within which American archaeoastronomy emerged in the 1970s, and in particular its theoretical and methodological starting points and how they differed from "megalithic astronomy" in Britain. To identify some of the fundamental issues at the heart of the "green" v. "brown" methodological debate of the 1980s.

After a general introduction to Maya astronomy and the Mesoamerican calendar, Mesoamerican archaeoastronomy is introduced through the search for observing instruments: the caracol at Chichen Itza and zenith tubes at Monte Alban and Xochicalco. We shall then discuss two case studies which highlight key methodological issues: the Venus alignment of the Governor's Palace at Uxmal; and the function and meaning of the pecked-cross circles at Teotihuacan.

Further information and supporting materials

On the general archaeological background to Mesoamerica there are several books in the library, such as The Archaeology of Mesoamerica, ed. Warwick Bray and Linda Manzanilla, British Museum Press, London, 1999.

Maya astronomy and the Mesoamerican calendar

On the Maya generally, see Michael Coe's The Maya. The 4th edn. was published in 1987. The last chapter covers Maya cosmology, numbers, astronomy and calendrics. For a classic account of Maya astronomy see Thomson in The Place of Astronomy in the Ancient World, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A276 (1974), 83-99. There is also an excellent introduction entitled "Maya astronomy: what we know and how we know it", by Barbara Tedlock, in Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture, 14(1), 39-58.

For a detailed and accessible account of Mesoamerican calendrics see chapter 4 of Anthony Aveni's Skywatchers (University of Texas Press, 2001). See also chapter 6 of Aveni's Empires of Time (Basic Books, 1991).

Background astronomy

On the motions of Venus see Skywatchers pp 80-84.

Between the tropics, the sun's path passes directly overhead twice during the year. For a table showing the dates of zenith passage at different latitudes see Skywatchers, p. 67.

Archaeoastronomy at Chichen Itza, popular and more serious

On the equinox shadow effect at El Castillo, see the paper by John Carlson in Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture, 14(1), 136-52. On the Caracol at Chichen Itza as a possible observatory, see Skywatchers, pp. 272-9.

Photos of El Castillo
Photos of The Caracol

Zenith tubes at Monte Alban and Xochicalco

On the zenith tubes at Monte Alban and Xochicalco see Anthony Aveni and Horst Hartung, "The observation of the sun at the time of passage through the zenith in Mesoamerica", Archaeoastronomy no. 3 (JHA 12, 1981), S51-70. See also Skywatchers pp. 265-70.

Photos of Monte Alban and its zenith tube
Xochicalco and its zenith tube

The Venus alignment at the Governer's Palace, Uxmal

For a full account see Skywatchers, pp. 283-8. For a different view on the Venus alignment, which is disputed by Aveni, see Sprajc's paper (ch 24) in Archaeoastronomy in the 1990s. A paper by Harvey and Victoria Bricker, "Astronomical References in the Throne Inscription of the Palace of the Governor at Uxmal", Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 6 (1996), 191-229, shows very well indeed how an integrated, cross-disciplinary approach, involving a reinterpretation of the hieroglyphic "Throne inscription" above the central doorway of the Governor's Palace at at Uxmal (part of which depicts Mayan zodiacal constellations), together with archaeological and archaeoastronomical evidence, really can advance our understanding of the Mayan celestial imagery, encapsulated both in its inscriptions and its architectural alignment. The paper is accompanied by comments from other scholars and a response by the authors.

Photos of Uxmal and the Venus alignment at the Governor's Palace

Teotihuacan and the cross-circles

On the idea that pecked cross-circles might have been used as survey markers at Teotihuacan, see Chiu and Morrison, "Astronomical origin of the offset street grid at Teotihuacan", Archaeoastronomy no. 2 (JHA 11)(1980), S55-64. For a critique, see Ruggles and Saunders, "The interpretation of the pecked cross symbols at Teotihuacan..", Archaeoastronomy, no, 7 (JHA 15)(1984), S101-110. This is followed by a rejoinder by Aveni. For further methodological discussion see Aveni's paper (ch 20) in Records in Stone. For the broader context see Skywatchers, pp. 222-35.

Photos of Teotihuacan and some of the cross-circles

Click here to return to the Timetable and Lecture List

Click here to return to Clive Ruggles's home page.

[University Home][School of Archaeology and Ancient History Home][Index A-Z][Search][Help]

Last updated: 06 March 2002 18:52
Prof C.L.N. Ruggles
The views expressed in this document are those of the document owner.
If you are an authorised user you may edit this document through your Web browser.