Orion in the Mayan skies

By Phil Plait | January 25, 2011 6:37 am

Stéphane Guisard is an incredibly gifted astrophotographer, a man who strives to take the very best and most beautiful images of the sky that he possibly can. If his name is familiar, it might be because I linked to his amazing time-lapse video of the sky over Paranal, his all-sky picture from the same location, and most especially his stunning picture of the sky over Easter Island, which was so beautiful I picked it as my #3 photo for the Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2009.

He just sent me a note about a new set he’s created, and it’s every bit as lovely as the ones from Rapa Nui. These were taken in northern Guatemala, at the site of some ancient Mayan ruins. They show the stars above these Mayan temples, and, well, they’re just spectacular. Here is Orion over one of the temples:

Trust me here: click that to get the bigger version; you lose the majesty of the shot by looking at this smaller version I’ve posted here. You really need to see this in all its glory.

He has six other shots there too, and they are all quite beautiful. Years ago I was able to see some Mayan ruins up close, and they were tremendous. From what I’ve read the Mayans didn’t interpret the sky the way we did; they didn’t use maps or charts to study the sky, yet their temples align with various astronomical events in the heavens.

Over the years, I’ve seen some people belittle ancient cultures as being stupid — a ridiculous idea, since we know many had a sophisticated grip on observational astronomy, and to be brutally honest many ancient peoples probably understood the motions and cycles of the night sky better than the vast majority of people alive today.

On the other hand, we have to be careful not to ascribe too much knowledge to them, either, making them seem almost supernatural in their abilities. They were men and women, much like us. They observed the sky, they were tied to it via agriculture and, later, religion. If we know more now, it’s because we’ve learned so much over time. And, of course, we have the advantage of learning from them.

It made me both proud and sad to visit those ruins, proud of what we can achieve, and sad that it can be so ephemeral. On the other hand… those ruins are still around. A bit worse for wear, but they still stand after many centuries. I wonder what of our works will remain in the coming millennia?

And Stéphane’s photographs serve as a reminder that the stars seen by those Mayan people were the same ones I can see now when I walk out my front door. There’s more than one thread that connects us to the past.

"Ephemeral?" Hmmm. Maybe not.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

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