Mexico's Maya marked the magic of March
Thursday, March 15, 2007

Wonderful events fill March night skies. If the ancient Maya priests were skywatching today, they would share our wonder.

A thousand years ago, at the mighty capital Chichen Itza, all would be in readiness for the spring equinox, arriving early evening March 20. The priest would prepare the huge temple-pyramid of Kukulkan for the arrival of the god himself.

All year long the enormous stairways have rested quietly. The heads of two rattlesnakes guard the north stair, facing the long ceremonial walkway to the sacred sacrificial well.

Just at sunset, the shadows formed by the setting sun will cast a diamond pattern along the balustrade of the stair, completing the serpent's body, head at ground level, and tail at the top of the pyramid.

This magical symbol, visible for just a few minutes, aligns the Maya calendar and signals that it soon will be time to clear the forest for cornfields.

At Uaxactun, in the jungles of Guatemala far to the south, the Maya priests of 1,800 years ago waked before dawn to climb the steps of their observatory pyramid-platform. There, by the central stairs, they waited for sunrise.

On March 21, the sunrise will appear behind the centermost of three pyramids to the east, on the spring equinox. Here, and at dozens of other similar observatories throughout the Maya region of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, the sun Kin will rise to mark the beginning of spring.

Throughout the Maya region, ancient skywatchers, peering up through pollution-free skies, watched sun, moon, stars and planets. This month, Venus shines brightly in the west after sunset.

The Maya carefully counted the 240 days when Venus was the evening star. They aligned the great palace at Uxmal to mark its first rising after disappearing behind the sun for 90 days.

Additional March magic was the lunar eclipse we saw on March 3. The Maya priests carefully counted the lunar months, assigning to them either 28 days or 29 days. By alternating for six months, the Maya had a close approximation to the length of the lunar month (about 29˝ days) and could forecast when an eclipse of the moon would appear.

How excited they must have been, after an eclipse, to believe that their priests had rekindled the light of the moon and normal life could begin again.

Virginia's science Standards of Learning cover astronomical events, such as these, in K-7, 1.6, 4.7, 6.8, and ES-4.

Walter Witschey is director of the Science Museum of Virginia.