Today is a momentous day, of course. As the winter solstice, it marks the fourth anniversary of this blog. It also might be an important date in the Maya Long Count (although opinions differ). It’s not the end of the world, which should be apparent by now. In recognition of the Maya date and my general practice of blogging about archaeoastronomy on significant celestial events, I thought I’d write about a couple of papers focusing on a Mesoamerican symbol with apparent astronomic significance and a thought-provoking connection to the Southwest.
The first paper, published in 1978 in Science, was written by Anthony Aveni and two co-authors (one of whom appears to have been one of his students). Aveni is a prominent figure in archaeoastronomy, especially of Mesoamerica, and was one of the first researchers to do careful measurements of astronomical alignments at ancient sites. In this paper he and his co-authors discuss a symbol found at several Mesoamerican sites consisting of a cross concentric with one or more circles, with the arms of the cross usually extending beyond the circle(s). These symbols were usually made by pecking a series of dots into either a rock face or the floor of a room, and their alignments appear to have often been significant. They are most common at Teotihuacan, where they were generally oriented with the arms of the cross aligned with the city’s street grid. This orientation had led some earlier authors to interpret them as surveying marks used in laying out the streets. The authors of this paper consider that interpretation a possibility, but not necessarily the only one. There are other examples of these symbols in sites near Teotihuacan that have other orientations, some of which seem to align with prominent landmarks on the horizon that may have been used in astronomical observations.
Aveni et al. also make a big deal out of the number of dots from which these figures are made, which is quite consistent in many cases with the total often tantalizingly close to 260, the number of days in the pan-Mesoamerican ritual calendar. There may be something to this, but as is often the case with these numerological theories there’s a question of how close is close enough. (This also applies to alleged astronomical alignments.) They kind of throw a whole slew of interpretations at the numbers of dots in various parts of various examples; some of these may be meaningful, but it seems doubtful that all of them are at the same time.
A more interesting pattern is the geographical distribution of these apparently rare symbols. While they are most numerous in and around Teotihuacan, they are also present surprisingly far afield: as far south as the Maya cities of Uaxactun and as far north as the area of Alta Vista near the Tropic of Cancer. While widespread, these are all areas known to have been influenced by Teotihuacan during its period of greatest power, and the authors make the reasonable suggestion that the pecked cross symbol was associated with this influence. In trying to interpret its meaning, they note similarities to diagrams of Mesoamerican calendars (which are indeed intriguing), as well as the previously mentioned idea that they were orientational devices for surveying, and even the resemblance to descriptions of the holes pecked into house floors as boards for the game patolli in Conquest-era sources. It’s quite possible that they were all of these, of course, or that different examples had different functions. The main conclusion the authors come to is that they are associated strongly with Teotihuacan in some fashion.
An article in American Antiquity two years later made an effort to flesh out what that connection might have been. Written by the Mayanist Clemency Coggins, this article interprets the cross-in-circle motif in Mesoamerica as an example of a larger class of “four-part figures” that are associated primarily with the sun, especially with its daily cycle through the sky as well as its yearly cycle. Coggins notes various examples of Maya hieroglyphs and other symbols that have the form of quartered circles or crosses and pushes back against earlier interpretations of them as referring to the cardinal directions. Indeed, she argues that the Maya didn’t even really have a concept of “cardinal directions” comparable to the European one: instead, they had two directions that mattered, east and west, where the sun rises and sets, with accompanying symbolism. The areas in between sometimes had symbolism associated with them, but they usually functioned as stand-ins for “up” (north) and “down” (south), which were much more symbolically charged. Coggins sees the quartered circle as representing the daily movement of the sun and as properly interpreted vertically rather than horizontally. Thus, the four points stand for sunrise, zenith, sunset, and nadir, not east, north, west, and south. The position of the sun at zenith (directly overhead) was an important phenomenon for the Maya and probably other Mesoamericans; it only happens in the Tropics and is a foreign concept to societies in temperate zones.
Coggins interprets an early structure at Uaxactun, a pyramidal platform with four stairways, as a symbol of this four-part idea. She argues that its function was likely as a solar observatory, as the three small temples to the east line up with the positions of the sunrise on the solstices and equinoxes viewed from it. This same group of buildings is also noteworthy in that three stelae erected there commemorate the endings of twenty-year periods known as k’atuns, and two of them are the earliest known examples of stelae marking this sort of calendrical event. (Or at least they were at the time Coggins was writing; I don’t know if this is still the case, but if earlier k’atun-marking stelae have been found since then that would undermine her argument somewhat, as explained below.) The event we are (maybe) observing today is the ending of a much longer cycle known as a bak’tun, but is conceptually similar. Coggins distinguishes these “calendric” celebrations and monuments from “historic” ones tied to important events in the lives of kings. She argues that the latter were the focus of all previous monuments and indicate a focus on royal dynasties and the private rituals of the nobility in Maya political life, whereas the celebration of the end of a k’atun and the erection of a monument commemorating it is a more public, popular, universal sort of ritual less focused on the glory of particular lineages and kings.
But what does all this have to do with quartered circles? Well, Coggins notes that shortly after these two stelae were erected in Uaxactun (in AD 357), another stela at Uaxactun shows an individual with non-Maya costume and weapons more associated with central Mexico, which at this time would have been dominated by Teotihuacan. This stela also refers to the nearby city of Tikal, which is well known to have seen extensive central Mexican influence at this time, including a king named Curl Snout who was apparently at least partly Mexican himself. This is also the period when the pecked cross at Uaxactun discussed by Aveni et al. was likely made, and here we see some supporting evidence for their theory that the pecked crosses are associated with the expansion of Teotihuacano influence. The first k’atun ending stela at Tikal was erected by Curl Snout and marks the first k’atun ending of his reign (in AD 396). Coggins concludes from this association between Mexican influence and the celebration of k’atun endings that the latter practice was introduce as part of the former phenomenon.
She supports this idea in part with the clear evidence that the god Tlaloc was of considerable importance to these Mexicans in the Maya country, which is unsurprising since he was probably the most important god at Teotihuacan itself. Tlaloc is a god of rain, which was very important to agricultural people in the Valley of Mexico, which is high and relatively dry (at least compared to the lush Maya Lowlands). He was associated as well with the celebration of the solar year, the cycles of which are closely connected to seasonal changes in rainfall patterns among many agricultural societies. This may account for the prevalence of the pecked cross/quartered circle motif at Teotihuacan, if as Coggins implies it symbolized not just the solar day but the solar year as well. Apparently some of the Tlaloc images in Curl Snout’s tomb at Tikal had similar symbols on their headdresses, so the association between the god and the symbol seems well-supported regardless of its origin. Coggins interprets Curl Snout as having introduced a Tlaloc cult to Tikal, presumably from Tenochtitlan, which involved the celebration of the solar year and the sidelining of the old rituals of the established noble lineages that had previously been the focus of Maya official religion. This cult apparently also included the celebration of the twenty-year k’atuns, though Coggins never gives a good explanation for why this would have been the case.
Over time the Mexican kings apparently became assimilated to Maya culture, and Tlaloc was similarly conflated with the Maya rain god Chac, but the celebration of k’atuns continued and by Late Classic times it involved special complexes of paired pyramids with four stairways each, much like the early structure at Uaxactun but on a much grander scale. These were paired on the east and west sides of a plaza and apparently used primarily for the celebration of k’atun endings. The north and south sides often had smaller structures with celestial and underworld symbolism respectively, consistent with the idea that they represented zenith and nadir. All of this is best known from Tikal, but Coggins notes that there are some indications from other sites such as Uaxactun and Yaxha that similar processes of Mexican influence and a shift to k’atun celebration occurred similarly.
That’s the story Coggins tells, anyway. It’s an interesting one, and somewhat convincing at least in some of its broad strokes, but I can’t help thinking that Maya archaeology has come a long way since 1980, especially with a better ability to understand the writing system, and I wonder if Coggins’s historical interpretations, based on essentially art-historical methods, still hold up. In any case, the association between Teotihuacan, Tlaloc, and the quartered circle is the key thing I take away from this paper, and that probably holds up better than the political history. The association is important because there’s another place that is known for its quartered circles, one which is not mentioned at all in either of these papers. That’s probably because it’s very far away from both Teotihuacan and Tikal.
Three Rivers in southern New Mexico is one of the most spectacular petroglyph sites in the whole Southwest. It’s one of the most important locations for rock art of the Jornada Style, associated with the Jornada Mogollon culture that existed in south-central New Mexico and adjacent West Texas from about AD 1050 to 1400. Unlike the rock art of the Anasazi area further north, including Chaco, which was highly stylized and repetitive, Jornada Style rock art is astonishingly naturalistic and elaborate. It is full of lifelike human faces and masks, animals with fully realized eyes and teeth, and imagery that is often remarkably Mesoamerican. The examples of parallels to Mexican art are numerous and fairly obvious, and not very surprising given the Jornada’s southerly location and proximity to the very Mesoamerican-seeming center of Casas Grandes, which flourished during this same period. What’s more surprising is the similarity between the Jornada Style and the later Rio Grande Style further north, which contains many of the same symbols and stylistic conventions. This implies that the Jornada served as a conduit for Mesoamerican ideas to the later Pueblos. Polly and Curtis Schaafsma have argued, convincingly in my view, that the kachina cult that is so important among the modern Pueblos originated among the Jornada, citing the masks and other symbols in Jornada rock art as their main line of evidence.
Kachinas are rain spirits, and as Polly Schaafsma notes in her book on Southwestern rock art, the kachina cult bears many notable similarities to the Tlaloc cult in Mexico. And, indeed, one of the most common motifs in Jornada rock art is the goggle eyes that are among Tlaloc’s standard attributes further south. Other Mexican gods such as Quetzalcoatl appear to be present in the Jornada petroglyphs as well, and Tlaloc is surely not the only deity who was transmitted in altered form to the Pueblos, but given the importance of rain in the arid Southwest the appeal of a rain cult is obvious.
What about the quartered circle? As we saw from the first two papers, this symbol was certainly associated strongly with Teotihuacan, where Tlaloc was the most important god, and it was probably associated to at least some degree with Tlaloc himself, whose popularity in Mexico lasted much longer than Teotihuacan’s political power and cultural influence. And yet, the quartered circle is virtually absent from the Southwest. Simple crosses, often outlined, are common, but they are generally interpreted as stars and typically associated with the Feathered Serpent, which is probably a version of Quetzalcoatl. The cross and circle, however, is almost never seen in the Southwest, except in one place: Three Rivers.
Schaafsma says in her book that what she calls the “circle-dot motif” is actually the most common element at the site, citing an obscure unpublished manuscript. It’s not clear how she defines this motif, as there are many petroglyphs at Three Rivers that consist of circles surrounded by dots, with the inside of the circle sometimes blank, sometimes filled with a larger dot, sometimes filled with a series of concentric circles, but often filled with a cross. (The illustration in Schaafsma’s book for this motif shows one of the crosses.) These quartered circles, usually but not always surrounded by dots, are very prominent at the site. What’s striking about this is how unique they are to this one site, especially given the importance of similar symbols in Mesoamerica as documented by Aveni et al. and Coggins. Aveni et al. actually mention some similar symbols in the rock art of California and Nevada, but they seem to have been unaware of the Three Rivers examples. The dots are especially interesting, given that the Teotihuacan examples are made of dots. That isn’t the case here, but the dots are clearly important. They give a solar feel to many of the symbols, especially those with concentric circles, which ties in to Coggins’s interpretation of the symbol as reflecting the passage of the sun. And remember those Tlalocs with their goggle eyes, present at Three Rivers as well as at virtually every other Jornada Style site. They clearly show not only that Mesoamerican religious symbols could and did travel this far north, but that the specific god associated with the quartered circle elsewhere was among the most prominent examples.
So what’s the explanation here? I confess that I don’t have one except to suppose that this symbol was of particular importance to the people who made the petroglyphs at Three Rivers, probably primarily people who lived at the contemporaneous village site nearby. I think it’s quite likely that this was a symbol particularly associated with that community, or perhaps with a specific social group within it, and that it is ultimately connected in some way to the symbols further south. Note that some of the pecked crosses described by Aveni et al. were quite far north in Mexico, some near the Tropic of Cancer and one described in a nineteenth-century source as being near the US border (though its exact location is unknown). The latter in particular would probably more or less close the geographic gap between the others and Three Rivers, while the examples near the Tropic of Cancer may have been associated with the nearby site of Alta Vista, which was occupied at a time that would fill much of the temporal gap between Teotihuacan and Three Rivers as well. It’s certainly hard to come to firm conclusions about things like this, of course, and the fact that the quartered circle doesn’t appear to have spread from Three Rivers to any other Jornada Mogollon groups or to the later Pueblos is problematic. Still, it’s a fascinating little glimpse into the complexity of the past and the possibilities that emerge from careful study and an open mind.
Aveni, A., Hartung, H., & Buckingham, B. (1978). The Pecked Cross Symbol in Ancient Mesoamerica Science, 202 (4365), 267-286 DOI: 10.1126/science.202.4365.267
Coggins, C. (1980). The Shape of Time: Some Political Implications of a Four-Part Figure American Antiquity, 45 (4) DOI: 10.2307/280144