Sacred Geometry of Art and Architecture
For decades, archaeologists have tried unsuccessfully to identify a Maya "unit of measure."
Then, in the early 1990's, archaeologist and MEC staff member Christopher Powell presented a
new theory on Maya geometry.
While doing ethnographic research in Central America, Powell found that modern Maya shamans
use standard geometric proportions when measuring the dimensions for new houses. Later,
Powell discovered that many of the buildings and art panels at Palenque exhibit these same
geometric proportions, which are based on a set of rectangles whose diagonals are calculated
as the square roots of 2, 3, 4, and 5. Along with these planar proportions, the Maya employed
the Golden Mean.
Like modern shamans, the priests of ancient times were probably the keepers of these sacred
proportions, which they had originally observed in the shapes of nature. According to Powell,
the flowers and shells depicted so often in Maya religious art represented perfect examples
of nature's geometry. Within the petals of flowers the Maya found natural triangles, squares,
pentagons, and octagons. Within seashells and the human form they found the golden mean
proportion of 1:1.618. Adding to Powell's original thesis, we are now discovering affinities
between the geometric designs of the temples and their alignments to the sun and moon!
MEC will continue investigating the geometry of Palenque's art and architecture and
expand this study to other sites in Chiapas. Again, our surveying experience will come
into play. Existing drawings of Maya architecture rarely reach the level of precision
needed to discern the kinds of geometric subtleties the Maya employed. The Center's staff
will be making measurements at sites throughout Chiapas to create a corpus of drawings suitable
for mathematical analysis.