Projects / Programmes source: ARIS

Astronomical properties of Maya architecture and urbanism

Research activity

Code Science Field Subfield
6.02.00  Humanities  Archaeology   

Code Science Field
H340  Humanities  Archaeology 

Code Science Field
6.01  Humanities  History and Archaeology 
Mesoamerica, archaeology, archaeoastronomy, architecture, orientations, calendar, agricultural cycle, religion
Evaluation (rules)
source: COBISS
Researchers (5)
no. Code Name and surname Research area Role Period No. of publicationsNo. of publications
1.  25640  PhD Žiga Kokalj  Geography  Researcher  2013 - 2014  381 
2.  28658  PhD Aleš Marsetič  Geodesy  Researcher  2013 - 2014  108 
3.  15112  PhD Krištof Oštir  Geodesy  Researcher  2011 - 2014  598 
4.  18930  PhD Ivan Šprajc  Archaeology  Head  2011 - 2014  500 
5.  09042  PhD Marija Mojca Terčelj  Ethnology  Researcher  2011 - 2014  260 
Organisations (2)
no. Code Research organisation City Registration number No. of publicationsNo. of publications
1.  0618  Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts  Ljubljana  5105498000  63,121 
2.  1822  University of Primorska, Faculty of Humanities  Koper  1810014001  9,983 
The project’s objective is to accomplish a systematic archaeoastronomical study of orientations in the architecture of the ancient Maya, whose civilization flourished in the southeastern part of the prehispanic cultural area labeled Mesoamerica and corresponding to the central and southern parts of modern Mexico and northern Central America. While archaeoastronomy, one of the recently established archaeological subdisciplines, is concerned with all those aspects of life that had some relation with the observation of celestial phenomena, architectural orientations and other alignments found in ancient cultural landscapes constitute its most characteristic data source. Alignment studies carried out so far in Mesoamerica have shown that civic and ceremonial buildings were oriented predominantly on astronomical grounds, mostly to sunrises and sunsets on particular dates, whose significance can be interpreted in terms of agricultural concerns. Since the available data on the orientations in the Maya area are deficient and not precise enough for reliable archaeoastronomical considerations, we intend to carry out field measurements at a large number of archaeological sites, to collect a statistically meaningful sample of alignment data, whose distribution patterns will disclose the degree of intentionality of orientations and their possible astronomical referents. To elucidate the use, meaning and social role of astronomically oriented buildings, we will examine the associated iconography and other archaeological evidence, as well as ethnographic data on the agriculturally important moments of the yearly cycle. This holistic and novel approach is expected to allow a significant breakthrough in the understanding of Maya civilization, revealing how, and to what extent, the relationship between astronomy and practical needs was reflected in architectural and urban planning, religion, ritual, and even in politically important acts and ideology of the ruling elites. Moreover, the results will illustrate the potential of our methodology for similar studies elsewhere, and may also prove useful in comparative research dealing with the role of astronomy and related concepts in the evolution of culture in general.
Significance for science
It is our opinion that the research resulted in important specific findings, but it also exemplifies the relevance of our archaeoastronomical approach, which so far has not been appplied, for clarifying various aspects of prehispanic societies in the Maya Lowlands. New or improved techniques and methods were employed in field measurements of orientations, in data reduction and determination of their astronomical correlates, and the data were statistically analyzed. The utility of this methodology in further studies is demonstrated with significant results, which shed light on a number of previously unsolved questions, and which are detailed above in Section 3. We have established that astronomy had an important role in Maya architectural and urban planning. The most frequent celestial targets of orientation were determined, and, by considering a variety of contextual evidence, we also disclosed the significance of particular orientation groups and their relations with practical needs and religious concepts. On the astronomical knowledge and other concepts derived from the observation of the sky among the Maya, there is ample evidence in hieroglyphic texts on stone monuments and codices, as well as in iconography and mythology; however, no explicit data are found in these sources on the principles of building orientation. Since only archaeoastronomical approach can, therefore, shed light on the significance of orientations, our results contribute substantially to the understanding of the concepts involved in architectural and urban planning. Obviously, these concepts combined practical needs and religious concepts and were, therefore, also in close relationship with political ideology of rulers, who were responsible, as men-gods, for maintaining the cosmic order and a proper sequence of cyclical natural changes, which allowed the survival of their subjects. It is highly likely that, in tune with the principles of magical thinking, the properly oriented buildings also served for these purposes and, together with rituals, guaranteed the legitimization of power, reinforced the existent social and political order, and justified the privileges of the ruling class. The research results also have broader implications. The dates most frequently recorded by solar orientations may prove to be a useful piece of information in the studies concerning details of agricultural scheduling in prehispanic times. These studies have become very important in recent years, considering that only a better knowledge of economic bases and environmental adaptations can result in an adequate understanding of the development and social complexity of the Maya. Regional and chronological variations in orientation patterns attest to the relations between particular regions and, in comparison with other Mesoamerican areas, also about wider processes of cultural interaction. Aside from the fact that the results of this research represent a substantial progress in understanding particular aspects of the Maya culture related to the observation of the sky, we also believe they exemplify the potential of our methodology, which is expected to be employed in further similar studies, both in Mesoamerica and elsewhere. Moreover, our findings should prove useful for comparative studies dealing with the role of astronomy and astronomically-derived concepts in cultural evolution, i.e. with problems relevant to general anthropological theory.
Significance for the country
It is noteworthy that the astronomical aspects of architectural and urban planning, in spite of the advances in archaeoastronomical studies in recent decades, continue to receive relatively little attention within the mainstream archaeology, not only in Mesoamerica but also elsewhere. Since the results of our project convincingly exemplify the significance of these aspects in a specific cultural-geographic area, they should also contribute to the awareness of the fact that, in any excavation and restoration work, the original elements allowing reliable determination of orientations should be recorded and preserved with much greater care and precision than has been common in current archaeological practice. Thereby, the conservation and protection of archaeological cultural heritage should also acquire different dimensions. The significance of such endeavors is attested by the initiative presented during the 34th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in 2009 in Brasilia, Brasil, emphasizing the need for including astronomical considerations in the world heritage protection policy (http://www.astronomy2009.org/news/pressreleases/detail/iya1005/). As a result, a special thematic study Heritage Sites of Astronomy and Archaeoastronomy in the Context of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention was elaborated (http://www.astronomy2009.org/static/archives/documents/pdf/astronomy_world_heritage_thematic_study.pdf). Since the results of the project expand and deepen the knowledge concerning various aspects of the Maya culture, it will be possible to include the novel insights not only in education processes but also in the popularization of knowledge on different levels, including tourist offer. In this context it should be noted that the project leader has been collaborating for several years with the academic travel agency Ars longa (http://www.arslonga.si/), on the basis of the official agreement on business cooperation between this company and the Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts (ZRC SAZU). Finally, it does not seem superfluous to add that the results of this project have been and will be published in renowned international scientific publications. Consequently, our efforts may be viewed as contributing to the recognition of Slovenian science on an international level.
Most important scientific results Annual report 2011, 2012, 2013, final report, complete report on dLib.si
Most important socioeconomically and culturally relevant results Annual report 2011, 2012, 2013, final report, complete report on dLib.si
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