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STARGAZER for publication Oct. 20-25, 2008
Wednesday, October 22, 2008 • Posted October 22, 2008

Dr. John Fox, an anthropologist who lives in Waco, has studied the ancient Mayan civilization for more than 30 years. Last year he made me an offer I couldn’t resist.

The Mayas had a keen interest in the night sky, and while Dr. Fox and his colleagues have learned much about Mayan astronomy, he wants to dig deeper. Although an expert on the Mayas, his knowledge of astronomy is limited, so he approached me about working collaboratively with him. He didn’t have to ask but once.

Throughout the past year I have been doing crash reading in archaeoastronomy—the study of the astronomy of ancient cultures. At first, it was tempting to think of the ancients as simple-minded primitives—people less sophisticated than modern-day humans and only a notch or so beyond the proverbial cavemen.

But as anthropologist Anthony Aveni reminds us about the ancients: “Their brains were no less advanced than ours, their minds no less inquiring.” Thus while living hundreds and even thousands of years ago, the ancients were our intellectual equals—just as smart, just a curious, and seeking answers to the same profound questions of existence we are still asking.

If we seem smarter it’s due to our having benefit of humankind’s great accumulation of knowledge and our incredibly sophisticated technology. (What more might Galileo have discovered had he had my 8" telescope, or Pythagoras had he had my laptop computer?)

Back to the Mayas. While their Asian ancestors arrived in North America thousands of years ago, the Mayan civilization flourished from about 1000 BCE to the 1520s CE in what today is southern Mexico and Guatemala. What they came to know about the heavens was impressive. They knew more about the workings of the night sky than the average person today knows. As a reasonably sophisticated amateur astronomer, it is humbling to realize these ancients could have taught me many things about astronomy.

Their astronomical achievements were many. They independently discovered the 365-day year. They developed an advanced calendar, accurate to within one day in 500 years, and projected it forward and backward thousands of years. They created tables for predicting solar and lunar eclipses.

Venus had great significance to the Maya, so they knew it well. They understood its 584-day cycle from morning star to evening star and back to morning star, and discerned that its appearances follow a 2,920-day (8 year) cycle during which its night-to-night movement in the sky repeats five distinct and successive patterns (something I had not known).

Next year I hope to accompany Dr. Fox to Guatemala to visit several Mayan archaeological sites, paying special attention to the night sky as they might have seen it. We’ll see if together we can glean any new insights into Mayan astronomy, and if we do, you’ll read about them in future columns.

Naked-eye Planets

Evening: Venus is twilight’s “evening star” low in the west with Jupiter the brightest object in the southwest. Morning: Saturn rises two hours before sunrise and Mercury is at its highest above the rising Sun Oct. 22.

Time Change

Sunday, Nov. 2, 2 a.m., set your clocks back one hour (“fall back”) to Standard Time. And remember the old Stargazer adage: When set your clocks back, you can repeat that hour. Whatever you thought you did during the previous hour really didn’t happen, so you have an opportunity to get it right this time!

Stargazer appears every other week. Paul Derrick is an amateur astronomer who lives in Waco. Contact him at 918 N. 30th, Waco, 76707, (254) 753-6920 or paulderrickwaco@aol.com. See the Stargazer Web site at stargazerpaul.com.

Sky Calendar

  • 20 Mon. evening: The Orionid meteor shower peaks with the best viewing from dark until the Moon rises at midnight.
  • 21 Tue. The Moon is at 3rd quarter.
  • 25 Sat. morning: The crescent Moon is to the lower right of Saturn low in the east.
  • 26 Sun. evening: Venus is to the upper right of the star Antares low in the southwest.
  • 28 Tue.: The Moon is new.
  • 31 Fri. evening: The thin crescent Moon is to the upper left of the star Antares with Venus above low in the southwest 45 minutes after sunset; and Halloween, a traditional cross-quarter day celebrating the middle of fall.
  • Nov. 1 Sat. evening: The crescent Moon is to the upper left of Venus.
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