Ancient History & Civilisation

10. Ancient Cosmologies: Understanding Ancient Skywatchers, Mayas, and their Worldviews

Stanisław Iwaniszewski, Ph.D.

Posgrado en Arqueología, Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia, c. Periférico Sur y Zapote s/n, Col. Isidro Fabela, Del. Tlalpan, C.P. 14, México D.F., Mexico


Ancient and pre-modern worldviews of the cosmos originated in practical lifeworld structures and experiences and therefore cannot be analyzed in the same manner as modern cosmologies are. Being embedded in everyday activities, worldview categories received ontological statuses, in contrast to socially and culturally disembedded cosmologies relying on specific epistemological frameworks. Uaxactunian Group E astronomical alignments are discussed to show that both approaches, the ontological and epistemological ones are equally important within the cultural astronomical paradigm.


Since the beginning of humankind, the fascination with the celestial vault has been regarded as an important element in human life, their future, and history. Regularities in the perceived motions of celestial objects provided the necessary context upon which specific cultural patterns were created to regulate human activities. The correlation of terrestrial and celestial events and processes allowed peoples around the world to move both in space and time and to plan and make predictions with accuracy. Skywatching was associated with calendar making and homogenous time reckoning, freeing humankind from the regime of irregular and unpredictable fluctuations of different environmental cycles, such as when to plant or harvest and the migratory patterns of animals. In addition, the order either perceived in the sky or imposed by the rotating heavens, gave the structure to the ways with which peoples perceived their realm as a structurally ordered entity, so they conceptually organized the universe in the form of cosmographies, worldviews, and cosmologies.


Generations of stargazers and skywatchers carefully tracked the motions of celestial objects in order to understand how to conduct the affairs of human life on earth. From the starry sky, and from naked eye observations, they gained practical knowledge of their natural environment transforming physical surroundings into meaningful lifeworlds, or “familiar worlds of everyday life” (Schutz and Luckmann 2003, pp. 25-29). The celestial phenomena perceived in the sky were rendered as meaningful and socially relevant and like all other components of human lifeworld, were understood or interpreted within the specific conceptual framework based on taken-for-granted or common-sense categories (Habermas 2006, pp. 161-215). Lifeworld structures enabled human societies to interact more effectively with their environment and to shape their worldviews, or “culturally organized systems of knowledge” (Kearney 1975, pp. 247-248).

The notion of lifeworld evokes the description of an environment in terms of meaningful patterns that are relevant within the context of some activity. Viewed from this perspective, activities such as skywatching and stargazing should to be articulated within all other human activities performed in order to perceive, explain and/or interpret the world around it. Phenomenological notions of “being-in-the-world” proposed by Ingold (2000, pp. 5, 185-187) imply that celestial lore, like other types of cultural knowledge, is acquired, altered, represented and shared in the process of dwelling-in-the-world. Since acting in the environment is the peoples’ way of knowing it (Ingold 2000, pp. 40-60), then the different worldview categories should be embodied in their practical engagement with the world, in their practical actions, functional uses, symbolic representations, and the collective and shared acting in-the-world. It may be expected that the celestial lore was instrumental in creating people’s structural relationship to their lifeworld (and after world), and was embodied in their daily activities, and ritual practices, in the negotiation of social roles and in symbolic representations and classifications of the world and the rules which governed the heavens. Celestial patterns were explained in terms of the same conceptual categories as those relating to the human body and its functions, to the house and its elements, to the village and its parts, etc. (such as the notions of male, female, right, left, top, bottom, light, darkness, and the like). Ancient celestial lore often relied on existential (ontological, embedded, local) rather than logic (epistemological, universal) meanings, though this was not always the case in all ancient societies.

In contrast to modern cosmologies, ancient conventional worldviews were not always abstract and formalized bodies of specialized knowledge subjected to systematical examination and testing supported by reason and logic; though there are notable exception (e.g. ancient India, Egypt, Babylon). Furthermore, because of not being separated from everyday activities, ancient worldviews were not always able to transcend specific cultural and social barriers. Rather, they were often embedded in lifeworld structures, in people’s social frameworks and practical actions.

When it comes to the ancient conventional celestial lore, a good deal of the interpretation of the motions perceived in the sky was made in terms of taken-for-granted and familiar categories. Prehistoric and non Western peoples often conceived their lifeworld as an extension of their own bodies, so when they observed the sky, the perceived patterns were often explained in terms of metaphors, analogies and symbols derived from the conceptual systems grounded in the familiar events, processes and objects that were present in everyday life. It must be recognized, of course, that many ancient cosmologists guarded their wisdom, and often communicated that knowledge through metaphors; and not uncommonly these simplified concepts were communicated to the people in terms they could most easily understand and apply to their own lives and that of their rulers.

Relationships between significant parts of their lifeworld were often represented in mythical narratives, and emphasized and transmitted through cyclic rituals and recurrent practices, leading to the idea of converting patterns perceived in the sky into effective tools for understanding the world.

This needs to be emphasized because some astronomers, in their eagerness to describe the ancient roots of their discipline sometimes define astronomy as the oldest of all sciences (Pannekoek 1961, p. 13; Moore 1996: p. 9). Needless to say, historians of science usually define the observations made either by prehistoric skywatchers or by ancient astronomer-priests as insufficiently scientific at most (Dicks 1970, pp. 27-40; Neugebauer 1975, pp.1-2; Pedersen 1993, pp. 5-6). however, these claims are also based on the evidence available, and not that which may have been destroyed, lost, or purposefully disguised so that this knowledge was shared only among the ancient scientific elite.

Naturally, the differences between ancient skywatching and modern astronomy may be studied from different standpoints, but the enormous intellectual gap that emerged in 16th – 17th centuries in Europe, separated these two domains of human knowledge forever. The modern astronomy that was born of the Copernican Revolution and Galilean geometrical space was not a natural continuation of ancient pre-telescopic astronomy, as is often supposed, but involved a systematic repudiation and almost a total abandonment of an earlier celestial lore. The rise of modern astronomy, symbolized by the declaration of the International Year of Astronomy, constituted a revolutionary change in peoples’ approach to understanding the world; for the first time scientific explanation had little to do with commonsense or taken-for-granted statements (Husserl 2006[1940]).

This last fact has a tremendous impact on cultural astronomical studies. It is misleading to think of the practices of sunwatching or stargazing in terms of fixed bodies of knowledge consisting of systematic observations in the same way as today we think of modern science. Furthermore, the attitudes like presentism or whiggism that enable some astronomers to claim or deny that ancient skywatchers were behaving like modern astronomers, tend to ignore the social and cultural context within which they acted. Celestial lore is a culture-dependant phenomenon, so the knowledge of context is absolutely critical to modern interpretations as it puts limits to the extent of scientific analysis. It is important to distinguish between scientific inquiry that satisfies human need for explaining or interpreting the world in rational and logic terms from the human spirit of inquiry, a kind of human intellectual response to the need of living a life within the meaningful and understandable lifeworld. In attempts to avoid any interpretative pitfalls resulting from the ethnocentric attitudes, celestial lore and astronomical observations should be should be elicited within the context they functioned.


The so-called Group E architectural complex from Uaxactun, Guatemala, has often been described as one of the oldest Mesoamerican astronomical observatories. The complex consists of the three west-facing small temples (called E-1, E-2, and E-3, respectively) built atop the elongated terraced artificial platform (E-16), a radial stepped pyramid (E-7) occupying the western side of the Group, and a ceremonial plaza extended between them. Group E was located in the easternmost extreme of Uaxactun and separated by built-in water reservoirs, called aguadas, from other upland architectural assemblages, known as A, B and D Groups. Its architectural features were continuously modified during the Late Formative and Early Classic Periods (roughly 300 BCE – 550 CE). Even though the construction activity at Group E seemed to have been interrupted after the Early Classic Period, the place was used for ceremonial purposes during the rest of the Classic Period, till c.a. 889 CE when the whole site was abandoned following the fate of other Central Petén Maya city-states.

The spatial relationship between the pyramid and the east elongated platform constitutes one of the most known and earliest examples of astronomically defined alignments. As Aveni and Hartung (1989) showed, the platform which is approximately East-West aligned, extends in such a manner that its southern and northern corners, as seen from a staircase atop the pyramid, match the positions of the sun at solstices. Furthermore, any observer located in this place could have observed that the upper level of the platform had been elevated to the height of the more distant skyline. It seems therefore that the builders of Group E deliberately transferred solstitial points from a skyline behind to the artificial horizon line in front. During the Early Classic (250 – 550 CE) three temples were placed atop the platform in positions to fit the places where the sunrise was observed at solstices and equinoxes. This, of course, obstructed direct sights towards the sun, making the whole arrangement astronomically non-functional.


Figure 1. Group E astronomical alignments. Symbols: SSSR – Summer Solstice Sunrise, ESR – Equinox Sunrise, WSSR – Winter Solstice Sunrise. The photo made from the eastern stairway, above the first body, about 3.5 meters above the ground level. Photo: Stanisław Iwaniszewski.

Group E structures were built on a small natural promontory surrounded by bajos (namely the Bajo de Juventud, see Puleston 1983, fig. 1), or low-lying seasonally flooded swamps. The pyramid E-7 was built at the place highest elevation and the plaza was artificially leveled (Ricketson and Ricketson 1937, pp. 44-45). The place offered unrestricted views to the north-east, east and south-east. Today, no distant landscape features can be seen beyond the immediate setting, but the map (Puleston 1983, fig. 1) shows that the skyline features are located between 4.5 and 7.5 km eastward, and if there was limited tree cover in the way, they would have been visible from Group E. It may be speculated that during the dry season, from January through May, when bajos partially dried out, visibility conditions were improved.

Astronomically significant events might have been discovered at this spot in the distant past and a series of rounded platforms (Structures E, F and G) erected during the Middle Formative Period (600- 300 BCE) could have been connected to this fact (Ricketson and Ricketson 1937, pp. 109-13, 134, 136-137; Rosal et al. 1993, p. 72). Archaeoastronomical interpretations of Group E alignments can be traced back to the phase 2 of Late Formative (300 - 100 BCE) when the earliest versions of pyramid E-7sub-1 and of East Platform E-16-1 were erected. In providing a clear material barrier between the plaza and the bajos, the elongated and high platform (h = 4 m) also served to replace the natural horizon with the built one. The data provided by Aveni and Hartung (1989, pp. 444-445, Table 35.1) imply that top of the platform was high enough to coincide with the skyline extending over thebajos, as seen from the top of E-7sub-1 (h = 3.5 m). The bajos behind the platform remained invisible. This was only a very crude approximation intended to mark the passage of the sun along the eastern and now artificial horizon; the total length of the platform, as reported by Rosal et al. (1993, p. 73) yields 62 meters and is not long enough to be projected onto the annual path of the sun along the eastern horizon, as seen from the spot onto E-7sub1. The only access to the top of the pyramid was through a stairway placed on its eastern side.

About two hundred years later, during the Late Formative phase 5 (100 – BCE – 100 CE) both structures were again modified. The top of E-7sub2 was raised to 8.07 m, while the platform E-16-2 to some 4.52 m only, making the whole arrangement astronomically non-functional. Any observer located atop the pyramid would have seen the sunrise much above the top of the platform, along the skyline features created by the hills on the other side of bajos. In addition the platform E-16-2 was topped by a small temple impeding direct views towards the equinoxes. However, approximate astronomical alignments with solstitial extremes were still available for an observer located on the first platform of E-7sub2 (h=3.5 m).

Visual conditions discussed by Aveni and Hartung (1989) together with the archaeological reconstruction of the construction sequence of Group E (Rosal et al. 1993) imply that astronomical alignments between the pyramid E-7 and the East Platform E-16 were functional between Late Formative phases 2 and 5, covering a span of some 150-200 years.

The phase 5 modifications of the pyramid E-7sub2 totally altered its form and shape. Four stairways were added at four sides, transforming the structure into a radial or four-directional pyramid. However, the central stairway remained attached on its eastern side, since it was the only one leading to the fifth and highest platform where a temple was erected (Ricketson and Ricketson 193, p. 33 Plate 30; Rosal et al. 1993, p. 73). The structure received huge plastered masks displayed on all four sides and flanking the stairs. They were disposed in three levels, however the masks placed on the third and highest level were only attached to the balustrade of the stairs leading up to the temple, on the eastern side. According to current research (Schele and Mathews 1998, pp. 39, 331; Schele and Kappelman 2001, pp. 41-42), the masks were used to transform the pyramid into the image of Snake Mountain, the mythical place where the gods travelled to pick up maize for the first human beings. The masks attached to the bottom body of the structure depict snake heads, in reference to Snake Mountain, the masks in the middle level maize-mountain monsters in reference to Sustenance Mountain and the masks on the eastern façade depict the Principal Bird Deity or Itzam-Ye mythical bird.


Figure 2. Radial Pyramid E-7sub2 Iconographic Program. Photo: Stanisław Iwaniszewski, sculpture drawings according to Ricketson and Ricketson (1937).

All this suggests that the sculptural program associated with E-7sub 2 referred to the origins of the social and cosmic order. Metaphorically, the structure represented a mythical place of origin, called Snake Mountain, carefully positioned in order to be placed in the center of the world. Considered as a nawal of Itzamna, Itzam Ye, or the long beaked bird, was associated with acts of sorcery and shamanic trance (Schele and Mathews 1998 pp. 46-47), while the figure of Itzamna was connected to divination, esoteric lore and writing. This provides meaningful contexts for the kinds of ceremonies performed.

The extension and shape of the plaza between the pyramid and the platform together with its unobstructed entrances suggests that it was intended as a public space. Scholars have already emphasized that this part of Group E was intended to enable ceremonies with a participation of a large group of commoners (e.g. Chase 1985, p. 37). Archaeological research in Group E provided enough evidence (e.g. burials and caches) to suggest that the plaza was associated with the performance of rituals related to the cult of ancestors. At the same time this complex was clearly associated with the observations of the sun´s annual movements, implying that rituals were performed at astronomically defined temporal cycles (Coggins 1980), possibly being related with important agricultural dates (Cohodas 1985, pp. 57-58). By assuming that potentially important and meaningful ritual loci could have also existed in contemporary Groups A and D, the suppression of the natural horizon at Group E and its replacement with a new architectural feature (Platform E-16-1) may be indicative of the efforts of getting separate families or family groups together within the framework of a single and coherent worldview. It should be emphasized that during the time when the complex was astronomically functional (300 – 100 BCE), the first rulers of Uaxactun built their residence in the southern part of Group E (Rosal et al. 1993; Valdés and Hansen 1995, pp. 199-200), suggesting that the efforts to create a shared identity were made under the supervision of the elite in power.

Some minutes after a (winter solstice, summer solstice) sunrise, the rising sun dispersed the mists over the bajos and shone directly onto the pyramid masks illuminating the ritual performers, while a large number of commoners remained in shadow cast by a 4 meters high platform. It may be speculated that commoners stayed in shadow observing how iconographic symbols related to shared mythological narratives located in the center of their Universe, together with elite members engaged in public rituals, became illuminated by the rays of the rising sun. Therefore, the purpose of Group E arrangements was to produce an effect of the ruling elite members as individuals standing at the center of the world, mediating between the supernatural world and the humans.

Group E arrangement provides a means to produce the shared worldview pattern and the new context appropriate for the creation of meaningful and controlled communal rituals. With the suppression of local skylines associated with the histories of particular groups or families, both the elites and commoners were able to develop collective representations of time and space attached to the solstitial directions created by Group E alignments. In due course, with the emergence of a local ruling family, a new program of directional symbolism was created to legitimize its political aspirations.


Figure 3a. Group E interpretations. Group E as an astronomical observatory. Drawing by P. Dunham from Aveni, A.F. (2001) – Skywatchers, The University of Texas Press, Austin, Figure 109.


Figure 3b Group E as a ceremonial plaza. Drawing by T. Proskouriakoff from Proskouriakoff, T. (1946) - An Album of Maya Architecture, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 558, Washington, D.C., p. 5

In contrast to modern observatories, ancient and non-Western skywatching locations functioned as places. In anthropology (Augé 2004, pp. 49-79) a place is the particular location which constitutes a physical means and conditions for practices of a particular discourse. Drawing on his proposal, a sky/sun/moonwatching place may be defined as the location created by the virtue of observing the celestial vault, in a way in which a fraction of the sky (eastern, western horizon, solstices, equinoxes, heliacal risings of a single object) becomes meaningful within some social activity (basic subsistence activities, rituals, divination, time-keeping, political or military events, etc.). It provides an observer with a limited perspective on the sky, a perspective which is partial, concrete, and local.

To conclude, it is observed that when the object of inquiry is lifted out of the context in which it functions and analyzed in terms of modern astronomy, Group E is typically described as an (astronomical) observatory. The same Group E remaining embedded in its proper time-space, is seen as a type of monumental architecture that served as a big arena for rituals attracting dispersed and competing families to promote shared values and worldviews and to legitimate political aspirations of a ruling elite. It was part of the process leading to the emergence of royal families in the Classic Period. The role of Cultural Astronomy is to have a balanced view of both interpretations at the same time.


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