Maya Build Astronomical Observatory at Palenque Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The multistoried observatory tower in this prominent Mayan ruin is testimony to the activity of this civilization’s scientific elite, who developed an impressive body of astronomical and mathematical knowledge.

Summary of Event

The Maya were an advanced Mesoamerican culture noted for their achievements, skills, and knowledge in areas such as architecture, engineering, artistic design, mathematics, and astronomy, and for their elaborate hieroglyphic writing system with phonetic elements. [kw]Maya Build Astronomical Observatory at Palenque (7th-early 8th centuries) [kw]Astronomical Observatory at Palenque, Maya Build (7th-early 8th centuries) [kw]Palenque, Maya Build Astronomical Observatory at (7th-early 8th centuries) [kw]Observatory at Palenque, Maya Build Astronomical (7th-early 8th centuries) Maya civilization Astronomy;Maya Central America;7th-early 8th cent.: Maya Build Astronomical Observatory at Palenque[0210] Cultural and intellectual history;7th-early 8th cent.: Maya Build Astronomical Observatory at Palenque[0210] Science and technology;7th-early 8th cent.: Maya Build Astronomical Observatory at Palenque[0210] Pacal

Located on the western fringe of the Maya area, Palenque Palenque is now one of the more popular archaeological sites associated with that great ancient American civilization. Palenque’s ruins, stretching for about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) east to west, lie in the humid, lush green foothills of the southern Sierra Madre range, bordering plains stretching down to the Gulf coast. The haunting beauty of Palenque’s partially restored and surprisingly well-preserved ruins is enhanced by the backdrop of a highland tropical forest from which steaming mists rise and by its spectacular dawns and dusks.

The site’s history as a permanent center spans the period from around 100 b.c.e. to the early ninth century c.e. Palenque expanded in size during the Early Classic period (c. 300-600) and flourished as a major Maya center in the Epiclassic or Late Classic period (c. 600-950), which witnessed the construction of its now famous ruins. At its peak, Palenque held political sway over much of present-day Chiapas and the neighboring state of Tabasco.

Palenque’s harmoniously proportioned buildings and monuments represent the work of some of the Maya’s most talented architects and sculptors. A few of Palenque’s significant monuments are the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Palace with its famous tower, the Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Sun, and Temple of the Foliated Cross. Architecuter;Palenque Some of these structures are associated with the long reign of King (or Lord) Pacal Pacal (Jaguar Shield), one of the center’s most influential rulers. Pacal, born in 603, ruled sixty-eight years, between 615 and 683, and died at age eighty. The Temple of the Inscriptions Temple of the Inscriptions is an attractive pyramid containing Pacal’s magnificent tomb, and it includes an elaborate sarcophagus. The burial chamber near the base is reached by a long hidden internal stairway leading from the top platform.

Another very important structure partially linked with Pacal’s reign is the Palace with its famed tower. This elaborate complex of buildings, galleries, and courtyards dominates the site’s central area and rests on a platform about 300 feet (91.5 meters) long and 240 feet (73 meters) wide, accessible by two stairways leading up from a courtyard. Nearly all these structures were built in stages under several rulers over a period extending from around 600 to 720.

The most prominent and central feature of the Palace complex is its four-story tower, unique in Maya architecture. Inside the tower is a stairway leading from the second story to the top. The three upper rectangular levels contain four large doorlike openings for external viewing in each cardinal direction. Many experts believe that the tower, which commands a good long-distance view of the surrounding region, including nearby plains that descend northward toward the Gulf coast, probably performed the dual function of watchtower and astronomical observatory.

Mayan scientific and religious leaders dedicated much time to observing the night skies and identifying the most prominent stars, the planets, the sun and moon, major constellations, and the Milky Way. The recurring cyclical movements of these celestial objects were carefully recorded with mathematical formulas. In this manner, a body of celestial knowledge was constantly expanded to the point where the Mayan intellectual elite could gauge the orbits of major heavenly bodies with astounding accuracy and successfully predict solar and lunar eclipses. The elite’s monopoly on this type of knowledge legitimized their power over the masses of farmers and ordinary believers whose labor constructed the great Maya centers. This responsibility for keeping track of solstices, equinoxes, and other significant solar or lunar occurrences also allowed the ruling class to direct major activities, such as determining the optimal times for planting, cultivating, harvesting, performing various necessary rituals, and conducting military campaigns.

The Maya believed that celestial bodies were linked with deities who influenced natural phenomena and human destiny. Mayan astronomy and cosmology were integrated with religious beliefs and, therefore, were often used for astrological purposes. This outlook contributed to an obsession on the part of the intellectual elite with the concept of time, chronology, and recurring celestial patterns. To measure time accurately and to predict future possible cataclysmic developments, the class of priestly astronomers utilized higher mathematics to conduct time probes that could determine cyclical alignments of celestial bodies at given periods in the distant past and project them into the future. Religion;Maya

Ruins at Palenque.

(Digital Stock)

The Maya developed a solar calendar Calendar, Maya solar whose eighteen months each contained twenty days. Five so-called unlucky days were attached at the end and additional corrections were made periodically so that the calendar conformed closely with the actual solar year of approximately 365.25 days. Linked with this accurate solar calendar was a more important ritual or sacred calendar of 260 days that guided and influenced human activity. Each day was assigned a name and number and connected with a particular deity shown bearing time (the burden of the day) on his back. After the passage of 260 days, the two calendars would no longer mesh until completing a 52-year cycle, an event that indicated the possibility of a traumatic event, such as the destruction of the world.

The Maya had a dot-bar numbering system based on divisions of twenty to record statistical material and dates. Dates could be determined using a system called the long count. The year equivalent to 3114 b.c.e. in what is now the Western world’s calendar system was used as a reference point. Contemporary events were then dated by subtracting a sum obtained from adding and multiplying Mayan numerical symbols arranged in rows from the number representing this starting point in time.

In Mayan cities and ceremonial centers, the alignment and placement of buildings as well as features of monuments were symbolic representations of the Mayan worldview. In the case of Palenque, its Palace tower was located so that it could also have served as a vantage point from which the ruler and his top officials observed the arrival of the winter solstice. At sunset on each December 22, these royal dignitaries could observe a glowing orb (the sun) seemingly “drop” into the Temple of the Inscriptions containing Pacal’s tomb.





Also, many modern scholars of Mayan civilization believe that Mayan art, such as that found at Palenque, often represented a map of the sky and that local rituals were timed in accord with this pictorial symbolism. The imagery adorning Pacal’s elaborately decorated sarcophagus may be interpreted as a picture of the sky on August 31, 683, the very night he died. Moreover, the symbolism depicting the ruler’s death conforms closely with the Maya creation myth. Pacal is shown entering the Road to Xibalba by passing through the jaws of a monster and falling down the Milky Way into the Great Hole in the south. In accord with the creation myth, he will lose his struggle with the lords of death in the underworld, and his son will then need to ensure his resurrection and continue the royal line through a ritual ball game.


Although Palenque was a large Maya ceremonial site, it is rather small in comparison with great Classic period urban centers such as Tikal. Although its multistoried Palace observatory tower is a unique architectural structure, observatories are also found at other centers. Palenque’s importance is enhanced, however, by the well-preserved state of its abundant records in stone and stucco bas-reliefs. Advances in deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics have allowed archaeologists to learn much from these texts in stone about the names, dates, and accomplishments of Palenque’s rulers, the political and diplomatic highlights of the site’s past, and valuable cultural information about its sacred rituals, calendar, and mythology. Scholars probably know more about the history of Palenque and its rulers than any other Mesoamerican center. Recorded information at the site includes a complete listing of a nearly four-hundred-year-old dynasty of seventeen kings with data on dates of birth, dates of ascension to the throne, and death dates. The last recorded ruler took office on November 7, 799, and may have been connected with Palenque’s downfall, which probably occurred within the next two or three decades.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andrews, George F. Maya Cities: Placemaking and Urbanization. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975. An informative overview of the major Mayan ceremonial and urban centers and the rationale behind their layout and organization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aveni, Anthony F., ed. The Sky in Mayan Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Anthology of scholarly articles on Mayan astronomical practices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aveni, Anthony F.. Skywatchers. Rev. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001. A comprehensive, pioneering overview of Mesoamerican astronomical practices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ferguson, William M., and John Q. Royce. Maya Ruins of Mexico in Color. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979. Descriptive guide to Palenque and other major Mayan archaeological sites.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freidel, David, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker. Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. New York: W. Morrow, 1993. Includes some new findings and information on the celestial content of Mayan inscriptions and iconography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Milbrath, Susan. Star Gods of the Maya: Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. Treatise on Mesoamerican calendrical and astronomical knowledge.

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