The Mayans: Ancient Astronomers
By Cathy Stevens
Ancient civilizations attached much importance to sun, moon and star watching. The motion of these celestial bodies was used to determine both agricultural and religious events. These observations provided practical information for planting and harvesting crops and preparation for seasonal changes. The astronomy also indicated when rituals would be practiced, and war should be fought.
Mayan civilization had a very sophisticated understanding of celestial motion. The Sun, Moon, and Venus were particularly important to their cosmology. The Mayans attached a great deal of importance to the Zenial passage when the sun would be directly overhead. Since most Mayan cities lie south of 23 degrees North, the sun would be directly overhead twice a year near to the solstices. The Mayans also worshipped the Milky Way and had a sophisticated understanding of the ecliptic. The Mayans, like all ancient civilizations, had a geocentric view of the universe. The Earth was the fixed location from which to watch the moving objects in the sky.
Their astronomical observations were included in a complex calendar. The ritual calendar was composed of 260 days. 260 days is the length of time Venus appears as a morning star and then 50 days later as an evening star. Venus was closely watched by the Mayans and was central to their mythologies of death and resurrection. The vague calendar contained 365 days, comparable to our year and ran concurrently with the 260 day calendar. In addition, the Mayan calendar had a lunar component. The lunar count alternated between 29 and 30 days, thus coming close to the lunar synodic period of 29.5 days. The Mayans made accurate predictions of eclipses.
The methodology of these ancient astronomers predates the scientific methods developed by Galileo and Newton. However, the methods used by the Mayans, Babylonians and others laid the foundation for modern astronomy. The ancient astronomers used naked eye observations, recorded systematic data over time and used the observed patterns to make accurate predictions. These practices are part of modern astronomy today.
Today's astronomy rests on the observations and practices of these ancient cultures. By making observations using simple tools, students will not only replicate some of the Mayan observations, they will also get a deeper understanding of the natural cycles they are part of.
Students should know that the Sun is the center of solar system and that the Earth and other 8 planets revolve around the Sun.
Students should know latitude and longitude measurements.
Students should know the location of the equator, North Pole, South Pole and Tropics.
Students should know the difference between revolution and rotation.
Big Idea/Theme/Essential Questions:
1. How do the Sun, Moon and Earth move in relationship to one another?
2. How do we identify the patterns of movement of the Sun, Moon and Earth?
3. How does the motion of the Sun and Moon relate to events on Earth?
4. How did ancient civilizations use knowledge of these movements to build their civilizations and cultures?
Reflect on the differences between modern astronomy and ancient astronomy.
Model direct observations of the motion of the sun and moon in a similar fashion to Mayan astronomers.
Draw conclusions about the sun and moons motion and position in relationship to Earth based on their observations.
Model the ecliptic and analyze the position of the Sun and Earth relative to the constellations.
Connect Mayan astronomy to their architecture, myths, calendar and agriculture.
Length of Lesson: 5 periods
Opening Activity: Literacy Strategy
Graphic Organizer- T Chart
Students make a T-chart listing the differences between ancient civilizations and modern civilization, including differences in how we do astronomy. Students use science and social studies books to assist them. Possible answers
After brainstorming, explain to students that they will be studying the heavens in similar ways as the ancient Mayans. Share some of the information from the introduction to explain the significance of astronomy to the Mayans.(see attachment).
Cross-curricular Connection Activity:
The Mayan View of Earth: The Mayans viewed the Earth as flat and four cornered, with one corner in each cardinal direction. Each direction had a color: red for east, white for north, black for west, yellow for south and green for the center. The sky was supported by four trees, one in each corner and one at the center. The trees were all different colors. The Earth was on the back of a giant crocodile resting in a pool of water lilies. The crocodile's counterpart in the sky was a double-headed serpent. This is probably because the Mayan word for sky was close to the Mayan word for snake. Heaven had 13 layers. Each layer was associated with a different god. The underworld had nine layers, each associated with a Lord of the Night. The underworld was a cold and unhappy place. Most Mayans went to the underworld after their death (from http://www.astronomy.pomona.edu/archeo/index.html)
The Way Mayans Viewed the Earth image
Have students fill out the chart while teachers discuss how Mayans viewed the earth.
Activity 1: Tracking the Suns Movement
Many different civilizations used a simple tool, a stick oriented perpendicular to the ground, to record and observe the Suns progress by observing the shadow of the stick. This shadow casting stick is called a gnomon. Because the Mayans and other ancient civilizations only used their eyes to observe the Sun and other objects, they relied on fixed locations to give them information about the changes in motion and to find patterns
Part A (In class)
For each student
Elmers glue or small amount of modeling clay
flashlights (one per team)
light sockets with bulbs (one per team if possible)
1. Fold a corner of the index card on the diagonal and cut off the hanging edge to make a square.
2. Draw the two intersecting diagonals to find the center and tape, glue or use clay to attach the toothpick perpendicular to the cards surface.
3. Use a flashlight to shine a light on the toothpick from different directions and angles. Observe changes in the shadow cast.
4. Make sketches and notes about what you observed.
5. Using the light bulb and socket, orient your toothpick card on a flat surface. Make a mark on the side facing the bulb. Now move the card around the bulb, keeping the correct orientation. Carefully record changes in the shadow.
6. Tilt the index card at about a 20 degree angle, pointing the toothpick towards the bulb; again move the card around the bulb. Carefully record your observations.
Reflections and Summary:
Have students individually respond to the following writing prompt:
Explain what happened in your model. How did this activity model the relationship of the Sun and Earth? What part of the model was the Sun? the Earth? What conclusions can you come to about the Sun/Earth relationship from this model?
After students write their reflections, have them share in their teams and then conduct a whole class discussion.
(Additional activities and explanations of the use of sundials and gnomons can be found at Me and My Shadow: Making the Earth Sun Connection http://www.wsanford.com/~wsanford/exo/sundials/shadows.html)
Part B: (outside, minimum of two days)
Materials and Preparation:
Meter sticks or dowels anywhere from 18 cm. to one meter, either empty gallon water or milk containers with sand or gravel in them or for small sticks, empty soup cans with plaster of Paris to set sticks in. If you use plaster of Paris, make it the day before so that the dowels are set. The stick should be as close to perpendicular to the ground as possible or alternatively, each group of students has a straw attached with some modeling clay to the center of a square of cardboard. Make sure the cardboard or tag board piece is big enough so that the shadows end will be on it.
a) Observing the actual movement of the Sun, by observing its shadow
This activity can be done whole class with one meter stick, or students can work in teams with meter stick gnomons or using the straw gnomons. The recording can be done directly on the asphalt with chalk or paint, if permitted to do so. Alternately, you can put big pieces of butcher paper under the gnomon. If students are working in teams with the cardboard, they can record right on the cardboard.
Make sure and trace the position of the gnomon on the asphalt so that you can place it in the correct location and orientation on subsequent days of observation. If students are using the straws they should mark the cardboard, using a compass, to indicate north.
Position the gnomon in an open, sunny location. Every five minutes have students mark the top of the shadow. They can also record the time. Each period could do this in the same spot and by the end of the day you would have a days worth of records. SAFETY NOTE: Caution students never to look directly at the Sun.
After the shadows are recorded, have students observe the pattern and make some observations about what this tells us about the Suns apparent motion. Reinforce the idea that the Earth is actually moving, not the Sun although the Mayans, like all ancient peoples, thought the Earth stood still.
Remove the gnomon and use the center of its position as the center of a circle. Use string to draw a circle that will go through the shadows. Find the shortest shadow and note the time. The shadow at solar noon should be the shortest. If it is winter, this shadow is pointing north. If it is summer, the shadow is pointing south. Label this point on the shadow north and draw a straight line from it through the center of the circle to the opposite side of the circle and label that point South. To mark East and West, connect the end points of equal length shadows.
1. Why is the shortest shadow at noon?
2. Why is it pointing north?
3. Why do the long shadows start in the West and end in the East, if the Sun rises in the East?
4. What does this motion tell us about the rotation of the Earth on its axis?
5. How would the Mayans use this information to help them grow crops, lay out their fields, orient their temples and houses?
Students should record all observations, reflections, conclusions and questions in their journals.
Note: The observations using the gnomon can be repeated weekly. Students can note changes in the position of the shadow and length of the shadow at different times of the day as the year progresses. These types of observations over a years time were used to chart seasonal changes, predict solstices, and make calendars.
For more activities on developing the compass rose and finding the azimuth of the Suns location see Astronomy with a Stick at http://www.nsta.org/320/.
Activity 2: The Analemma
The Analemma is the figure 8 path that the Sun traces on the Earths surface as the Earth revolves around the Sun. The most Northern point of the curve corresponds to the Summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the most Southern point corresponds to the Winter solstice. The Mayans had a very sophisticated understanding of the path of the Sun throughout the year. They built temples at a distance from their observatories to serve as false horizons above the forest so they could observe the Suns position on the horizon daily. In addition, most Mayan cities were South of the 23 1/3 degrees North latitude. Therefore, the sun would pass directly overhead twice a year near the solstices. This event is called the Zenial passage and can only be observed in the tropics. These days were associated by the Mayans with a special god, called the Diving God. At the temple, Chichen Itza, the spring and summer equinoxes cause a sun serpent to rise up the side of the stairway called El Castillo. Temples in Guatemala are built to align with the sun during the summer solstice, the equinox and the winter solstice.
Small foam balls (approximately 2 inches in diameter)
colored sticky dots
a bare light bulb in a light socket
an extension cord
a copy of the analemma for each student
cardboard or tag board the same size as the analemma
colored push pins or alternately colored pencils
Part A: Modeling Earths Rotation Around the Sun
1. Give each student a foam ball and have them place it on the top of a pencil. Ask students to hold the ball vertically and draw an approximate equator. Have the students mark or put a colored dot at the location of the North Pole. Have them place another dot at approximately the location of Los Angeles (34 degrees north of the equator).
2. Place the light bulb and socket in the middle of the room, high enough so that the light will reflect on the foam balls when the students are standing. Have students form a wide circle around the bulb. Indicate a location in the room that will serve as the North Star. This can be a sign that you have posted or use the classroom clock or flag. Have the students tilt their Earth modules so that the North Pole is pointing to the North Star. Emphasize that students have to keep their Earth modules in that orientation.
3. Turn off the lights and have students walk slowly around the light bulb. They are to observe the position of the brightest light on the Earth as they move. The observations might be easier if they actually look at the ball that is opposite them in the circle. What do they notice about the light as the Earth revolves around the Sun? In what location is it the brightest above the equator? Below the equator?
Have students write about the model in their journal, what were we observing.
1. Why was the Earth pointed towards the North Star?
2. When the journey around the Sun was there summer in the Northern Hemisphere? Winter?
3. Discuss the seasons and the apparent path of the Sun. Was the Sun or Earth moving?
4. On Earths surface what appears to be moving?
1. Give students the Analemma. If using pushpins, have them glue it onto cardboard or tag board.
2. Explain that this represents the apparent path of the Sun over Earths surface. Have students identify the equator and the greatest latitudes North and South.
3. Discuss Los Angeles location and have students figure out when our days would be the longest based on the analemma. Identify that date, June 21, as the summer solstice. Have students locate the autumn solstice. Have students mark these dates with a push pin or a colored pencil. Find the equinoxes by locating the time when the Sun is directly over the equator. How many hours of daylight are there on the equinox?
4. With a pin or colored pencil, mark the approximate location of todays date. Then have students mark their birthday. Will the daylight hours be longer or shorter than today on their birthday. Continue to let students find significant dates such as various holidays, parents birthdays, etc. and analyze where they fall on the analemma and the amount of daylight.
5. Relate various locations on the analemma with the seasons in our local. What season is it when the sun is below the equator? Above the equator?
6. Finally, if a Mayan village was located at 20 degrees North latitude. What two days would the sun be directly overhead? How would the Mayan astronomers know that the Sun was directly overhead? Share with students the significance of these days in Mayan culture and astronomy.
Have students reflect on their observations and the Suns apparent motion. Ask them to contrast our modern understanding that the Earth revolves around the Sun which is relatively fixed in its position to the Mayan understanding that the Earth is fixed and the Sun is moving. Have students reflect on the importance of knowing the patterns of the Suns movement to the Mayans in particular to agriculture and preparing for seasonal change.
Additional information about the analemma, including an interactive site can be found at
Activity 4: Moon Watching
The Mayans had a lunar component to their calendar. They made very accurate observation and records of the moon and predicted eclipses. Their predictions are recorded in the Dresden Codex.
Foam balls (use the same ones as used for activity 3)
a light socket and bulb
Part A: Long term moon watching
Students will get many benefits from directly observing the moon every night or day for a month. After the initial introduction, it is a homework assignment. Choose a day to begin this assignment about a month before teaching the unit. Choose a day when the Moon is visible during the day (check the newspaper or watch the moon yourself). (SAFETY NOTE: Caution students never to look directly at the Sun.)
Show students how to locate the moon. Explain that the moon is visible at different times of the day. Their assignment is to locate the moon and to sketch its appearance. Since the Moons position moves, they have to note its appearance relative to a location on Earth. Show students how to select a fixed point such as a tree or building. Have them use their fists to measure how many fists above that point the Moon is. Make their first recording.
Students are then assigned to record the position of the Moon and its shape every day or night for a month. The drawing should always include their fixed point and the Moons relationship to it. Note: The times of the Moons rising and setting are printed in the newspaper, along with the phase that the Moon is in. You may want to tell students where to get this information or you may not want them to know until they have done some observations on their own. Alternately, you can post the times for the students without the accompanying picture.
Part B: Moon watching in the classroom
1. First review the terms revolution and rotation with a short simulation. Have a student stand in front of the room facing the back wall. Have them turn, rotate, counterclockwise. The student will face the back wall, then the left wall, then the front wall, then the right wall. Define this movement as a rotation. Then have two students come to the front. One is the Earth and the other the Moon. In this simulation the Earth stays stationary and the Moon moves. The Earth faces the back of the room. The Moon stands behind the Earth also facing the back of the room. The Moon moves around the Earth. This motion is revolution. Now repeat, the movement, but this time the second student faces the Earth and always stays facing the Earth. In the second simulation, the Moon revolves and rotates once just like the actual Moons motion about Earth.
2. If students have done the month long observations of the moon, have them create a class chart of the position and shape of the moon. Discuss their observations thoroughly before doing the simulation. Hand out the foam balls, place the light in the middle of the room and have the students face the light holding their Moons toward the light. Tell students that the balls now represent the Moon and their heads are the Earth. Students should hold the ball in front of them facing the light. Can they see the light face of the ball? Now have them slowly move the ball around their head in a counterclockwise motion. They should note when they can see a lit section of the ball and what it looks like. Have them complete the revolution several times slowly and help them identify the Moon phases. What is the position of the Earth, Moon and Sun when there is a full moon? When there is a new moon? When there is a quarter moon? Where does the light of the moon come from?
Have students enter their observations in their journals along with pictures and diagrams. Discuss how this information would be useful to ancient civilizations.
1. What would be beneficial about being able to predict eclipses?
2. Why were Moon phases important to the Mayans? Extension: Have students draw a rabbit on the moon as the Meso-Americans did.
Many views of the Moon, Earth and Sun can be found at
(This activity is adapted from the GEMS guide, Earth, Moon and Stars by Cary I. Sneider.)
Activity 5: Tracing the Ecliptic
Earth revolves around the Sun along a two dimensional path called the ecliptic. Therefore, the Sun appears in front of a fixed order of constellations in the night sky. These constellations were identified and named by the Babylonians and later by the Greeks. The Babylonians called these 12 constellations the Zodiac. The Mayans also identified the ecliptic and it was pictured as a double-headed serpent. The Mayans identified their own patterns and names with the stars in these constellations. They have a scorpion and to the Mayans, what the Greeks called Gemini they identified as a pig. They also have ecliptic constellations identified as a jaguar, a serpent, a bat, a turtle and shark or sea monster.
A large area for the simulation
Names of the Zodiac constellations or pictures of the constellations on posters
Sun and Earth posters.
1. Share the information about the ecliptic and its importance to the Mayans.
2. Move to an open area to do the simulation.
3. Choose one student to be the Sun and one to be the Earth. Choose twelve students to form the Zodiac. Each student will hold one of the signs. Have the 12 students form a large circle with the Sun in the center. The student playing Earth should move in a counterclockwise movement and should begin with Pisces behind the Sun. The student playing Earth revolves around the Sun and states what constellations s/he sees partially covered by the Sun. Have students change roles and do the simulation a few times.
Students should record their observations. Make sure they record what was moving. 1. Did the constellations move?
2. Did the Sun move? Discuss the relative size of the Sun to the stars in the constellations. The ancient Mayans thought the Earth stood still. Therefore what appeared to be moving to them?
3. The Babylonians used the Zodiac to predict human events. What could be the importance of the ecliptic constellations to the Mayans?
Have students research their Zodiac constellation and make a poster explanation the constellation and its significance historically.
This activity was adapted from Project ASTRO Resource Notebook from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.
More information on the ecliptic can be found at Zodiac Constellations: Explanations of the Greek legends, pictures of the constellations.
Astrology: Contains star maps of the zodiac constellations in the night sky
The constellations of the Zodiac are along the orange dotted line. Note the order.The Analemma Curve
Web Sites and Other Resources:
Me and My Shadow: Making the Earth Sun Connection
The Analemma: Advanced explanation, including videos and math equations that calculate real sun location as opposed to mean sun location based on tilt of the earths axis. Also links to a downloadable analemma that students can manipulate to find suns location on various dates.
Cyber sleuth Kids: Ancient Civilizations: Student friendly web site with good information about Mayan civilization
Zodiac Constellations: Explanations of the Greek legends, pictures of the constellations.
Astrology: Contains star maps of the zodiac constellations in the night sky
Mesoamerica: Pictures and articles
Archaeoastronomy: Relates Earths movement around the sun to solstice, equinox, etc.
Ancient Astronomy Web Site with interactive map
Archaeoastronomy Index: Excellent articles by teachers on history of ancient civilizations astronomy as well as related lessons
Mayan Culture: Good brief descriptions of the importance of various astronomical observations for Mayan cosmology.
Course: History/Social Studies
Science Standards5. Describe the Meso-American achievements in astronomy and mathematics, including the development of the calendar and the Meso-American knowledge of seasonal changes to the civilization's agricultural system
4e. The structure and composition of the universe can be learned from studying stars and galaxies and their evolution. As a basis for understanding this concept, students will know the appearance, general composition, relative position and size, and the motion of objects in the solar system, include planets, planetary satellites, comets, and asteroids