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Cave of the Astronomers at Xochicalco

Arnold Lebeuf

Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 749
New Measurements at Xochicalco . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 752
The Practical Use of the Chimney at Xochicalco . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 757
Cross-References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 757
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 757

The chimney built in the roof of the artificial large cave at Xochicalco, known as
“Cave of the astronomers”, has been interpreted as a solar zenithal observation
tube. Nevertheless, different elements and especially the latitude of the site itself
led the author to present a lunar hypothesis. Precise measurements of the impact
of light inside the cave show the degree of precision that can be obtained in this
camera obscura.

There was in the lands of Cuernavaca, in a certain cave, two persons, husband and wife,
counted among the gods, the man was called Oxomoco and she was Cipactonal, and they
were discussing together about it [the calendar]. Then it seemed to the woman it would be
good to take advice of her nephew Quetzalcoalt (Geronimo de Mendieta Lib II. Cap. XIV).

The archaeological site of Xochicalco is situated at 18 480 North and 99 180 West,
in the state of Morelos, Mexico, about 15 km Southwest of Cuernavaca. One of the

A. Lebeuf
Institute for the History of Religions, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland

C.L.N. Ruggles (ed.), Handbook of Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy, 749

DOI 10.1007/978-1-4614-6141-8_58,
# Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015
750 A. Lebeuf

most remarkable elements of architecture of that site is the chimney built of dry
stones in the ceiling of an artificial cave known as “The cave of the astronomers”. The
diameter of the chimney is roughly of 35/40 cm, and the distance from
the upper opening to the ground in the cave is of 870 cm. This chimney is not
perfectly vertical but slightly inclined toward the North. In the first mentions of
archaeological reports, it had been named an “air vent” but was soon interpreted
astronomically. (Togno 1892, names this cave “the cave of the sun” (“gruta del Sol”),
which is very interesting because, although the chimney was then obstructed, this is
the first mention that it could have any sort of relation to the observation of celestial
objects and astronomy. Unfortunately we do not know from where he took this name.)
The different authors who have studied and measured the chimney at Xochicalco
agreed more or less together to interpret it as an instrument for the observation of
the Sun, either to set the exact length of the tropical year or to divide this tropical
year into two parts, of respectively 260 days for the penetration of sunlight inside
the cave, and 105 days when the Sun’s rays do not reach the ground inside the cave
(Nuttal 1928; Malmström 1973; Anderson 1981; Aveni and Hartung 1981; Broda
1986, 1993; Iwaniszewski 1991; Morante López 1993). I shall not discuss these
hypotheses here but see Lebeuf (1995, 2003).
The proposal of an observation of the zenithal passage of the sun seems
reasonable enough, considering the traditions frequently associated with the solar
zenithal passages throughout the Mesoamerican subtropical area (Coggins 1982;
Aveni et al. 1982; A. Villa Rojas, in M. Leon Portilla 1986, p. 136). Nevertheless, at
Xochicalco, the appearance of a large spot of light at those moments of the year
does not constitute a very convincing example of the great care for exactitude
usually attributed to the builders by these authors. And we cannot find at
Xochicalco any peculiar meaning or specific necessity in the solar calendar for
these two dates of May 14/15 and July 28/29.
But Xochicalco still constitutes an important cosmic axis if we consider the
Moon and not the Sun. The latitude of Xochicalco is +18 480 1500 , which corre-
sponds almost exactly to the declination of the Moon at the minor northern lunistice
(18 190 with maximal inclination and 18 370 with minimal inclination in the
middle of the seventh century).
That is to say that the cave of the astronomers at Xochicalco is situated under
the zenithal passage of the moon at one of its four absolute limits in declination, the
northern minor standstill limit. This means that every month, the moon will reach
the zenith of Xochicalco at least once when it crosses the meridian and, during the
winter months, it cast its light vertically through the chimney and inside the cave.
The very precise location of this site built over the terraces of a cut-out mountain
leads one to think that it was chosen precisely and deliberately for this specificity of
its latitude. In fact, only when the moonlight does not reach the zenith, or hardly
reaches the zenith, are we informed that the moon has reached the precise northern
minor lunistice with maximum inclination of the orbit (Fig. 56.1).
This limiting situation only occurs at the minor standstill; the moon will gener-
ally progress further to the North each month, reaching as far as þ28.5 around the
56 Cave of the Astronomers at Xochicalco 751

Fig. 56.1 The upper line represents the zenith at the latitude of Xochicalco in the seventh
century; circles A and B show the positions of the Moon at the northern minor standstill limit
with minimum and maximum inclination of the orbit of the moon to the ecliptic

major standstill. However, moonlight can only enter into the cave until it reaches
the declination of the mean northern lunistice which is also roughly the declination
of the Sun at Summer solstice (þ23.5 ). Thus, the chimney and the cave can be used
as a camera obscura for the measurement of the distance of the moon to the zenith
at the time of the monthly lunistice during half of its draconitic (lunar node) cycle of
18.61 years (Figs. 56.2 and 56.3).
The declination of the lunistice allows us to deduce the corresponding ecliptic
longitudes of the nodes, which is the basic information needed to predict eclipses.
So the cave of the astronomers at Xochicalco might well be a lunar observatory for
the prediction of eclipses. Other testimonies to an interest in the moon and eclipses
on this site support the idea that this coincidence of the latitude of Xochicalco with
the declination of the northern minor lunistice is deliberate.
• First, the frieze around the upper part of Temple of the Feathered Serpent is
decorated with crossed circles usually interpreted as representations of eclipses
(Pina Chan 1989; Noguera 1946, in Morante López 1993, VII:50; see Fig. 56.4).
• Second, there is a stela containing a representation of a crescent moon, rare in
Mesoamerica (Fig. 56.5).
• Third, there is a half-Moon graffito at the defensive narrow entrance to the cave
of the astronomers at Xochicalco (Fig. 56.6).
Relationships between the Moon and the underworld, caves or wells have
frequently been found in Mesoamerican cultures. Léon-Portilla (1986) writes of
the Maya glyph meaning “a well”: “Chen (the well) is known with a variation of the
glyph for the moon”. The Moon hides inside a well, in a cave (see Milbrath 1993;
752 A. Lebeuf

Fig. 56.2 Schematic plan of

the cave of the astronomers at

1995, pp. 69–73, esp. p. 71). “Of the creation of the Moon, they say that when that
one threw himself in the brazier and came out a Sun, the other jumped into a cave
and became Moon” (Mendieta, Lib.II, Cap.IV). Finally, the translation
of a fragment of the eclipse table on page 55 of the Dresden Codex gives: “Eclipse
of the Sun, eclipse of the Moon, . . .bad luck for the humans, bad luck for the earth,
bad luck for the wells, bad luck for the heaven, bad luck for the wells” (Grube,
2012, p. 136).
The use of wells and caves or cameras obscuras to observe lunar movements is
also known in Old World sources (Lebeuf 1990, 2011; see also ▶ Chap. 123, “The
Nuraghic Well of Santa Cristina, Paulilatino, Oristano, Sardinia”). All this legiti-
mates the analysis of the cave of the astronomers at Xochicalco as a possible lunar

New Measurements at Xochicalco

We cannot be convinced that the rather roughly constructed stone chimney could
have served for very precise observations in its present state. In times of its use, the
chimney would have needed to be covered with a plaque and a small orifice; this
would have been the only way to use it for precise observations by the projection of
56 Cave of the Astronomers at Xochicalco 753

Fig. 56.3 The curve represents the declination of the northern lunistice during half of the
draconic cycle of 18.61 years. It shows the direct relation of the position of the moon at the
lunistice to the ecliptic longitude of the node. For example, when the highest monthly declination
of the moon is þ18 370 (declination of the minor northern lunistice with minimum inclination),
this means that the ascending node of the lunar orbit is at (or near) 180 ecliptic longitude. The
tube at Xochicalco permits the measurement of the ecliptic longitude of the node from 100 to
180 , and symmetrically from 180 to 260 . The remainder of the cycle can be extrapolated
because the regression of the node along the ecliptic is regular

a narrow beam of moonlight. We know from one of the earliest descriptions of the
tube that it was formerly covered (Togno 1903), supposedly with a flat stone plaque,
but we lack any further details to know if this plaque was pierced or not, which is
very unfortunate (Fig. 56.7). (During my first fieldwork at Xochicalco I found, at
a short distance from the upper opening of the chimney of the cave, in a heap of
stones of the temazcal (steam bath), a well worked flat stone with a circular opening
6.5 cm in diameter. This diameter was used for the measurements in 1995, as it
754 A. Lebeuf

Fig. 56.4 Glyph of eclipse

on the upper frieze of the
temple of the feathered

Fig. 56.5 Crescent Moon,

stela at Xochicalco

gives the best result for casting a precise spot of light on the floor at a distance of
870 cm, considering the diameter of the solar or lunar discs.)
New measurements were taken by first placing a piece of a cardboard with
a circular opening 6.5 cm in diameter on the upper opening of the chimney and
marking on the floor of the cave the point of impact of a plumbline hanging from the
center of this upper orifice. Then, the west-to-east passage of moonlight on the floor
56 Cave of the Astronomers at Xochicalco 755

Fig. 56.6 Half Moon at the

narrow defensive entrance to
the cave of the astronomers,

of the cave was observed five times, and marked as a line on the floor. The
perpendicular distance to the point of the plumbline was measured. The ratio
between these measurements and the vertical distance from the upper opening to
the floor in the cave produces the angle between the lunar declination and the
zenith. Table 56.1 presents the results of these observations and calculations
compared to the results of modern astronomical calculation.
This table shows that the difference does not reach 2 arc minutes, so that the
uncertainty of the measurements by direct observation of the moonlight inside the
cave is much less than the perturbation in the Moon’s orbit (18 arc minutes) and
thus gives us the possibility of observing and measuring it.
We are no longer dealing here with a ritual or ceremonial arrangement but with
a real instrument for making precise measurements. As the results of the first
experiment had been positive, it was necessary to take other measurements at
Xochicalco. Next, therefore, I placed the upper orifice in such a way that the
plumbline would fall as near as possible to the northernmost part of the chimney
(tangential to the most protruding stone inside the northern part of the conduit), and
marked again the impact on the ground inside the cave (point B, Fig. 56.2). Then,
keeping the same upper point of attachment (in A), I pulled the line southward on
the floor of the cave until it was tangential to the southern edge of the lower part of
756 A. Lebeuf

Fig. 56.7 The stone

construction inside the

Table 56.1 Table of the measurements taken at Xochicalco compared to the results of modern
Angle to the Declination Declination
Distance in zenith of obtained by direct obtained from
cm. on the Xochicalco observation inside modern
Date floor (18 480 2000 ) the cave calculations Difference
27 Nov 1993 12.5 South +490 2300 19 370 4300 19 360 1300 +10 3000
02 Dec 1993 0.0 0.0 18 480 2000 18 460 2600 +10 5400
08 Feb 1995 4.0 South +150 4800 19 040 0800 19 050 5300 10 4500
10 Feb 1995 10.7 South +420 1700 19 300 3700 19 280 5000 + 10 4700
11 Feb 1995 9.0 North 350 3400 18 120 4600 18 140 3500 10 4900

the chimney and marked the position on the ground (point C). The distance between
these two points (B and C) is 78 cm which corresponds to an angle of 5 70 . This is
exactly the mean of the maximum and minimum values of the inclination of the
lunar orbit to the ecliptic (4 590 and 5 170 ). This means that the diagonal from the
upper northern part to the southern lower part of the chimney marks exactly the
declination of the Sun at the summer solstice or, equally well and better, the mean
northern lunistice.
56 Cave of the Astronomers at Xochicalco 757

The Practical Use of the Chimney at Xochicalco

Every month, the moon reaches its northernmost limit. When this limit is situated
between 18 190 and 23 370 , its light enters the chimney and touches the ground
inside the cave. It is then possible to mark the center of the spotlight when it passes
the meridian, for example, by depositing a pebble for the three consecutive nights
including the moment of the lunistice proper. These observations allow us to verify
the position of the northern lunistice. The positions of the nodes on the ecliptic and
two dates correspond to each of the positions from B to C when the Sun passes
them. Every full moon within 15 days of these dates will be eclipsed, and
every New Moon within 15 days of these dates will eclipse the Sun. The question
of the visibility of eclipses is easily solved for lunar eclipses but is much more
complicated for Sun eclipses and will not be addressed here.
This extremely simple system does not necessarily call for modern European
astronomical concepts but can be purely empirical and any units of measurement
can be used, as they are evidently purely conventional.


▶ Basic Concepts of Positional Astronomy

▶ Lunar Alignments - Identification and Analysis
▶ Nuraghic Well of Santa Cristina, Paulilatino, Oristano, Sardinia

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