The Serpent Series: Precession in the Maya Dresden Codex
University of California, Davis, 2007 - 356 pages
The Postclassic Maya Dresden Codex contains extensive astronomical records in the form of calendrical and chronological intervals concerning multiple cycles of the sun, the moon, and several visible planets. Hermann Beyer (1943) first demonstrated that a sequence of unusually long intervals of time found within the Dresden Codex describe specific dates separated by intervals of over 30,000 years. Beyer first named this sequence the Serpent Series because its component numerals are written within the coils of undulating serpents. This dissertation project examines the Serpent Series in detail, beginning with a new interpretation of the initial repeated distance number on pages 61 and 69 of the Dresden Codex. This unique interval of more than 15,000 years is almost exactly a whole multiple of the sidereal year, returning the sun to precisely the same position against the background of stars, while the position in the tropical year shifts dramatically. Such an accurate calculation suggests that the Maya were observing and recording the precession of the equinoxes. Because it takes approximately seventy-one years for the annual sidereal position of the sun to shift by one day of precession, an accurate calculation of precession requires hundreds of years of recorded observations. The remainder of the dates in the Serpent Series strongly support this proposal, demonstrating not only repeating sidereal positions of the sun over tens of thousands of years, but also an extensive knowledge of lunar motion, eclipse cycles, and planetary cycles of Mars, Saturn, and Venus that are comparable to current measurements. Furthermore, the data contained within the Serpent Series can be used to reconstruct the means used by the Maya to calculate precession. Namely, Maya astronomers recorded their observations of the sidereal position of total lunar eclipses at fixed points within the tropical year. These observations can be compared to those of Hipparchus, who first recorded the precession of the equinoxes in ancient Greece. However, the values calculated for precession within the Serpent Series are far more accurate than those of their contemporaries, surpassed only by Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler in the late sixteenth century.
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