Mayan Civilisation was the longest lasting and most impressive of all Mesoamerican civilisations. A lot of elements of this civilisation influenced other Mesoamerican cultures and there were many common elements. Pre-Columbian Mayans made impressive advancements in the domain of Mayan astronomy using their indigenously developed writing and number system. Astronomy had religious significance for the Mayans and it was not performed out of any scientific purpose. Nonetheless, they closely monitored the motion of various celestial objects and prepared detailed eclipse tables to assist them in predicting the future of those objects for their religious ceremonies and festivals.
Mayan Civilisations made impressive advancements in their knowledge of the world and the universe during the Classic Period between 250AD and 900AD. It was during this period that the Mayans built many observatories all over the Mesoamerican region. These observatories were supervised and managed by the priests since Mayan astronomy was a sort of religious discipline. After the Classic Period and the collapse of the Mayan civilisation in 900AD, not much progress was done in the domain of Mayan astronomy and much of the collected data was lost over the successive centuries.
Mayan astronomy was very important in Mayan society because of its religious significance. It was used to depict the order in the universe and the relation between the gods and the terrestrial world. Celestial objects and their movements were associated with the passage of time and prediction of future events. Mayan astronomy was performed by Mayan priests and they were highly respected individuals, enjoying social status on par with the Mayan nobility. Mayans also associated certain celestial objects with deities and the movements of constellations and stars, which according to Mayan beliefs, influenced the course of human life on earth.
One of the most magnificent outcomes of Mayan astronomy was the Mayan calendar system. This was an elaborately created calendar system which had multiple sub-systems. The calendar system was developed by Aztec priest astronomers and predicted very accurate dates. It consisted of two separate calendars which coincided after every 52 years. One of these was the sacred calendar known has The Tzolk’in having 260 days while the other one was the solar calendar known as The Haab having 365 days. The solar calendar was divided into 18 months of 20 days each along with a separate period of 5 days. Use of 20 days in month was because of the vigesimal numeric system of the Mayans which used 20 as its base.
The practice of Mayan astronomy was considered a very important domain of knowledge and the high-priest who performed it was called ilhuica tlamatilizmatini, meaning “wise man who studies heaven”. Since the study of the behaviour of the heavenly objects allowed these priests to predict the future, they had a lot of respect in society. A lot of representations in Mayan art show priests observing the sky and determining the time of night. These priests needed to have a very impressive knowledge of the sky and the movement of the celestial objects because with the varying length of the day with each season, predictions became more difficult.
Related to Mayan astronomy, there was an entire philosophy of Mayan cosmology which explained the position of the world in the universe and the significance of various celestial objects and phenomena. According to the Mayan cosmology, the earth is a large wheel surrounded by the divine water which is an ocean that extends to the horizon. Earth is located at the layer one of the upper world which has multiple layers. The second layer is occupied by the moon and clouds. In the third layer, the deity known as Citlallicue lives while the sun is in the fourth layer. Altogether, there are 13 layers of the upper and nine layers of the underworld in Mayan cosmology.
Mayan astronomy was heavily influenced and determined by Mayan mathematics. They had developed a very sophisticated numerical system which used base-5 system within the base-20 system. Additionally, they also used 0 as the placeholder to simplify the calculations. The numbers were represented by a series of bars and dots while 0 was presented by the glyph of a conch shell. This Mayan number system was crucial in the development of Mayan astronomy and their calendar system as well as the formulation of the eclipse tables.
Mayan astronomy was performed in specially constructed observatories, some of which are still present. These structures were especially aligned with the movement of the celestial objects and had cylindrical structures used to observe the heavens. For instance, one of the latest observatories used for Mayan astronomy is located at the Mayan site of Chichen Itza and is known as El Caracol. This observatory was built during the Late Classic Period, in 906AD. It seems to be aligned with the movement of Venus, a planet very significant for the Mayans and considered sun’s twin and the war god.
Due to the supreme importance of heavenly objects and Mayan astronomy, the temples, grand buildings, and pyramids constructed by the Mayans were also often aligned according to the movements of the celestial objects. One of the most important examples of this special orientation of the buildings and temples is the Building J at Monte Alban. This was built in 275BC and has an arrow shape. According to archaeologists, five brightest stars in the sky at the time would have aligned approximately at the tip of the arrow. Similarly, there were temples whose proportions and orientations were dependent on the movement of sun and other celestial objects.
Mayan astronomy was one of the most important domains of Mayan knowledge and had religious significance for them. Due to its religious importance, it was conducted by the high-priests who enjoyed a very important status in society. Abundant use of the Mayan number system was done for Mayan astronomy, particularly for the formation of the Mayan calendar and the eclipse tables. Mayans constructed observatories to study the night skies and also took care of astronomical proportions in their buildings and temples.