November 5, 2012
Humanities Building Rm. 100
John B. Carlson, Ph.D.
Director, The Center for Archaeoastronomy
University of Maryland
Every year, around the time of the equinoxes (21 March and 21 September), thousands of people from every part of the globe come to the Maya archaeological site of Chichén Itzá in northern Yucatan, to witness a striking visual effect projected before sunset onto the north balustrade of the “Castillo” or “Pyramid of Kukulcan,” the Feathered Serpent. But, is there compelling evidence that the ancient Maya architects of the Castillo designed and oriented it intentionally to create this moving visual manifestation, now viewed by the masses as the descending “Serpent of Light and Shadow”? First proposed by Jean-Jacques Rivard in 1970 in his pioneering Maya archaeoastronomy study entitled “A Hierophany at Chichen Itza,” his ideas have well withstood the test of time based on subsequent research and new data. His interdisciplinary hypotheses of an astronomically-timed architectonic “manifestation of the sacred” were prescient, and his night-time photographs of “star trails,” analyzed in collaboration with astronomer Charles Smiley, were among the first to establish the orientation of a Maya temple with astronomical questions in mind. In its day, ancient Chichén Itzá was a great Mesoamerican pilgrimage center, and it has once again become a sacred as well as secular shrine of veneration for religious devotees, tourists and the local people on holiday. Whatever our ultimate judgment of the evidence, the equinoctial sunset “Descent of the Feathered Serpent” at Chichén Itzá is, without a doubt, a fascinating example of the role of astronomy in both an ancient civilization as well as now in contemporary world popular culture.