A Mayan Mystery

Wayne Campbell

A Mayan Mystery - 11 minute Video 

More images and information.

This article first appeared in the Astronomy forum of CompuServe and was published in the Fall 1995 issue of Observatory Techniques.

I've posted this account of a trip to the Yucatan with the hope that someone may help to shed some light on an archeological mystery that arose while we were touring the Mayan ruins at Tulum in the winter of 1991. Tulum is an easily accessible site frequently visited by tourists from Cancun or Cozumel. It is estimated that Tulum was founded between 700 and 1000 AD and may have lasted until after the Spanish arrived in 1518.

During our tour, we looked at a number of large impressive structures, the most interesting though, was a small (3 X 5 meters) stone building, set on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The low door faced North and had a large stone lintel over the top of it. Inside was one small room with a raised stone "altar" against the south wall, above the altar was a hole through the thick stone wall that sighted on the horizon. Our tour guide suggested that this opening was a small vent through which the fumes from ritual Rattlesnake barbecues escaped. I'm not sure if there is any evidence to support the theory that the Mayans barbecued Rattlesnakes but I was quite certain that the small, horizontal opening through that thick wall was not a chimney. Perhaps it had some astronomical significance, did the sun shine through that opening at sunrise on summer solstice?

 Going outside I peered back through this opening to find it pointed directly at the stone lintel over the entrance. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I could make out a subtle symbol directly in line with this "sight" hole. Back inside I photographed the symbol, and took some notes about this little structure. (The literature on Tulum calls this little building an OFFERTORY (?) or Oratory, on most maps of Tulum it is numbered as Temple #45.)

This sight hole (if that is what it is) was not sighting the sun. I estimate that it viewed the horizon (over water) at 190 degrees, almost due south. As I remember the walls were .5 meters thick and the sight opening was aproximately 10 cm X 15 cm.

 I theorize that this symbol is related to an astronomical event or phenomenon. Does this symbol represent a constellation? Does it represent a deity waiting to see a star in that opening? Did a Mayan priest use this building to determine the time to plant corn? I have used astronomy software (SKYGLOBE) to look at the night sky from that part of the world at that time. One of the dominant constellations in that part of the southern horizon is CRUX. The -0.5 magnitude star Canopus (RA 6h 23m, DEC -52deg 41m) also appears in the South.



I would enjoy hearing from anyone who can shed some light on this "mystery". If you are planning a trip to Cancun and can fit a side trip to Tulum into your plans, please take along a compass and tape measure and send me some solid data on directions and sizes. At most Mayan sites in Mexico you are required to buy a permit to take photos, I view this fee as a contribution to the upkeep of these important areas. If you know of any good literature on the Mayans I would appreciate hearing about it, particularly anyone who has asked the Mayans (millions of whom still live in the area) what they know of their history.

Wayne Campbell
If you have an opinion about this symbol and it's meaning please let us know at: hila@webhart.net