Aztecs and Astronomy

Lecture transcript

Dr. Gerhard Wiesenfeldt, 5 June 2014

Adrienne: Good evening everyone, and welcome to this evening's lecture, which is co‑hosted by the University of Melbourne, and Museum Victoria. It's part of the Aztec's exhibition, which features over 200 cultural treasures from Mexico's major museums. Before we begin tonight, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land in which we gather this evening, and these are the people of the Kulin Nation, and we pay tribute to their elders, past and present.

In this series of specialist lectures showcasing at Melbourne Museum, and also at the University of Melbourne until the end of July, both institutions have combined their expertise and experience to provide a background to the Aztecs. Tonight's lecture I'm very excited about, and obviously you all are, too, is "Aztecs and Astronomy." It will be presented by two guest lecturers.

We have Dr. Tanya Hill and Dr. Gerhard Wiesenfeldt. I'll give you a brief introduction to each of the speakers.

Dr. Tanya Hill is the Senior Curator of Astronomy at the Melbourne Planetarium here at Museum Victoria. She has developed more than a dozen planetarium shows, including "Black Holes: Journey into the Unknown," which was inspired by her own PhD research.

She was drawn to astronomy in high school when a dusty telescope was pulled out of the cupboard to see the return of Halley's Comet.

Tanya has a passion for sharing astronomy with audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

Dr. Gerhard Wiesenfeldt is a lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne where he has been teaching on the history of astronomy since 2007. He has studied physics, philosophy, and the history of science at the Hamburg University. He holds a Master of Science in Physics and a PhD in the History of Science.

His main research interest is in early modern experimental science and philosophy. But he has also published on illustrations of scientific instruments and also in science fiction movies. At the moment, he's teaching a course on Astronomy in World History and the University of Melbourne.

Please join me in firstly welcoming Dr. Tanya Hill to the stage.

Dr. Tanya Hill: Thanks, everyone. I also appreciate this opportunity to give a short introduction before we all wait for Gerhard's wonderful talk on Aztec astronomy and its importance to Aztec society.

One of the things that I love, personally, about astronomy is the fact that we all live under the same stars. In fact, the same stars we see at night are the same ones that shone down on every single person that has ever lived on Earth.

These days, I suppose, we can't help but be aware that we're globally connected. Information bounces around the world at a fantastic rate. The things we buy, the food we eat ‑ they're often sourced or produced across many different countries. Music, sport, entertainment, they all remind us that we are citizens of the world.

But if you think about it, right from the start, long before international trade and long before the Internet, humanity's always been connected or linked by the night sky. The sky's been a constant source of wonder and has also driven our passions to explore what does it all mean, beyond our day‑to‑day existence.

No one owns the sky, which I happen to think makes astronomers quite an interesting bunch. I'm often struck by how much sharing and collaboration goes on between astronomers. Even rivals are often best described as more friendly competitors. You have different groups often working side by side, even using the same telescopes, to all help further understand and help us know the universe that we all live in.

Now, we know astronomy today, we still make use of astronomy traditions from the long past. The constellations, for instance, that we use to map out the night sky, well, they come to us mainly from ancient Greece. Many of the names of the bright stars, such as Betelgeuse, Orion, Rigel, Pleiades, they're all named from Arabic roots.

Our Southern sky is a little bit more modern, with constellations reflecting the discovery of Southern stars by Dutch explorers, Keyser and de Houtman, who explored the southern skies in the 16th century. More constellations were added in the 18th century by French astronomer de La Caille, who was working out of his observatory in South Africa.

But of course, the Southern sky, viewed from here in Australia, also has a rich, diverse and ongoing cultural heritage. Because for thousands of years, indigenous Australians have looked to the sky. For some, it's an important part, an aspect of their identity.

Now, there's no one indigenous astronomy story. We really need to picture Australia almost the same way that we now think of Europe, where there were hundreds of different languages and traditions, all sitting side by side across this country.

At the Melbourne Planetarium, we've explored the night sky of the Boorong people. They are part of the Wergaia speaking nations from Northwest Victoria, around the region of Swan Hill in Lake Tyrrell.

The Boorong prided themselves on their astronomical knowledge, and in fact tyrrell means space or sky. Their stories reflect knowledge of the night sky and they also allow us to understand a little bit more about Boorong culture. For the night sky held stories of right conduct and also law.

But there was also a strong connection between what was going on in the sky and what was happening in the land. Particularly with seasonal changes in the stars reflected in seasonal activities of plants and animals. Constellations might appear when their representative animal was active here on Earth. Or they could indicate the right time to hunt for certain foods.

That connection to the night sky is something we've lost in today's world, especially, I think, because we're now on the go 24/7, rather than following the rhythm of the stars. I thought about, this might be something that we could all think about tomorrow morning when our alarm clock rings, and it's still pitch dark outside, as we have in these winter mornings.

But in fact, that's actually part of how it all started, with ancient civilizations using the cycles of the Sun, the Moon, the planets and the stars to first map out the passage of time. The development of astronomy, mathematics, even numbers themselves dates back to early attempts of trying to keep track of time. Many civilizations came up with quite intricate and detailed calendar systems to do precisely that.

Tonight, we're going to be taken through one of those calendars as we hear about the astronomy of the Aztec civilization. As we explore one civilization's response to the stars, I invite you to remember that the night sky is our shared humanity. It's connecting us to places and people that are long forgotten. For no matter where you were born, or what culture you were born into, people have always looked to the stars and wondered.

I'd now like to invite Dr. Wiesenfeldt to come up to the stage and present a lecture on Aztec astronomy. Thank you.

Dr. Gerhard Wiesenfeldt: Good evening, everybody. As you might gather from the introduction, I'm not an expert on Aztec culture, or on any traditional American culture, for that matter. I'm an historian of early modern science who has ended up teaching history of astronomy in different cultures.

Tanya has just given you an overview of what you can learn about astronomy in different civilizations. In this way, this talk is an application of this approach to a specific culture of the Aztecs.

As a historian of science who has looked at many different ways of thinking about the night sky and astronomical and cosmological thinking, I will take this broad perspective to Aztec astronomy. What can we learn about Aztec culture by studying their astronomy and by astronomy, I mean, their astronomical practices as well as their cosmological ideas.

In the second part of this lecture, I will then take this a bit further by looking at the role of the Aztec astronomy has played during the late 18th century in the formation of a Mexican identity that was independent from the European mother country, in particular the role that those who had studied Aztec astronomy took in this.

As Tanya has indicated, one of the focuses of this lecture will be the role of the calendars and the role of time keeping. Historians of astronomy love to do this because calendars and time keeping in a sense are universals.

In history of human society, there is hardly any civilization that has not used the stars for calendrical purposes. People have found a few in the tropics who live under cloudy skies most of the year and have developed other calendars. For the rest, it is one straightforward application.

However, there are different layers here. I mean, there is the straightforward way of interpreting a calendar based on celestial positions as something that is reliable, given that celestial positions are very reliable compared to frequent changes down on Earth.

More importantly almost, stars are impossible to be manipulated by human beings. If you want to trust your authorities, or if the authorities want to gain your trust, to have an outside reference that they clearly would not have manipulated is something that looks pretty straightforward.

However, as you will see in the case of the Aztecs, it is not that straightforward. Indeed, calendars and timekeeping, on a very basic level, are central to each society because they create a form of social order that binds humans, everybody, to a common standard.

Whether it's about the nature of holidays for religious ritual or whether it's about work relations, how many hours do we have to work, which of course is very dependent on how long an hour actually is.

In this way we find many civilizations in which we have the emergence of a caste of priesthood, which is combining religious ritual with an authority of calendars and time, and therefore requiring astronomical knowledge and particular observational skill, as well as religious practice.

Here we see the classic example, here from the Aztecs, the Aztec Sun Stone and the Sundial. Both were found as remains of the Aztec Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan in very different times. The Sun Stone was discovered in 1790. The Sundial was only discovered in 2012, although they came from the same source.

But we found the same structure, basically, not throughout the world, but in very different civilizations. Whether we look at ancient Babylonian priesthood, whether we look at India, or whether, of course, we look at medieval monasteries.

However, it is not just a practical thing here, or technical knowledge about the stars. There are also deep philosophical issues about our existence and the existence of the world around us.

I'm going to start here with what is probably the most fundamental part, that is, timekeeping. When you want to keep time, or course you have to have an idea what time actually is.

That's a question that Augustine of Hippo, the widely held, the first major philosopher. He wrote on the philosophy of time.

He answered with a question that, whenever somebody would ask him what time is, he would not know. Only if nobody asked him, he would know what time is, and therefore a very complex question.

It can, and usually is, and I will do so for the purpose of this lecture, be boiled down to two concepts that we all live with, the concept of cyclical and linear time.

Cyclical time, in which events occur in regular periods, over and over again. Say, from day, to night, to day, to night, and so on.

We have the seasons. If we live by the sea, we have the tides.

We have no way of changing this order. Time cannot be reversed in this sense, but it returns to a previous state, which is from Greek origins seen by the image of the serpent that bites its own tail, the Ouroboros.

On the other hand, we have the idea of linear time, that past, present, future seem to be in a directly following order. An order we cannot change either, which has a clear direction.

If we follow this arrow of time we get to the questions of, "Yes, what does it mean?" "Does this arrow have beginning or an end?" "Is there creation?" Whereas, the Ouroboros is quite clearly eternal, it never changes.

If you look through these two concepts you find that it is something of a fundamental puzzle of human experience, which had led many civilizations to juggle with both concepts. You find that in very different parts.

Of course when you say, "Maybe for us it's clearly a linear concept that's predominate." Probably yes, but if you look at the way our time practices are, the transition from the original sundial model to what you could call the "modern age" model of the digital watch, that has only occurred about 40 or 50 years ago, and it's still not complete.

Because the sundial is clearly the cyclical one, if we have an analog watch, "If it's wound up continuously it goes forever and forever." Whereas this digital watch, of course, just keeps on tracking time, and adds numbers on numbers.

In the same way if you look at, say, modern astronomy, the discussion between the Big Bang theory, which is the era of time, and the Steady State theory that the universe would be expanding and contracting, going to previous stages, that had been an open question until about 20 or 30 years ago. I don't even want to go into modern physics, which has even more problems with these.

You find these ideas conflate, and you find that the cyclical versus linear time debate, you find that in ancient India. You find it in indigenous Australian thought. You find it, of course in Christian thought, from creation of the world, to Judgment Day, and then the Holy Week that is repeated over and over again.

Here is something about an interplay between linear and cyclical time that we can look at. Now, of course, take a look here at how that is working out for the Aztecs.

The most prominent case clearly is the Aztec's Sun Stone, or sometimes called the Calendar Stone, which has in a sense become the icon of Aztec culture, per se. If you look at the Wikipedia pages on Aztecs, they have a series where this is the main icon.

It has even gone into pop culture. I don't know, have any of you been present at Elvis Priestley's last concert? If you had, he was doing that in a jumpsuit showing you the Aztec Sun Stone.

Indeed, some hardcore Elvis fans said, "The Sun God, or the Sun King would return in 2012." Given that Elvis was with "Sun Records," they believe there is something on this.

I don't give too much credibility in that. There is actually some basis for looking at that way in 2012.

Just on the terminology I noticed there is a crucial difference. If you're a historian of Aztecs you call this the Calendar Stone. If you're a historian of science you call it the Sun Stone.

I don't want to go too much into that. The problem is that for historians of astronomy all human artifacts seem to be a bit of a calendar anyway.

It's more important on what the calendar is based. This seems to be based on the sun, which effectively it is not, but we'll see how this is panning out.

Definitely it's not just one of the icons of Aztec culture. It's also one of the icons of Mexican heritage.

It's probably as hard to get out of Mexico as it would be to get the Magna Carta out of Britain, or the Declaration of Independence out of the USA. Therefore, unfortunately, it's not in this exhibition.

It's probably even harder to get out because it's not only valuable in all sorts of senses, but it's also pretty heavy. It's about three and a half metres in diameter and almost a metre thick. It weighs 24 tons, something that gives you, already, some hints about the advanced state of Aztec technology, which obviously had the possibilities to move such weights.

How is this calendar functioning? If it's a Calendar Stone, what is functioning there?

The classic case of calendars throughout the world, you have the big two options ‑ the solar‑based calendar on the apparent movement of the Sun around the Earth and the lunar calendar based on the movement of the Moon. The Jewish or the Muslim calendars are clearly lunar calendars. Both solar and lunar calendars have advantages and disadvantages in maintaining them and aligning them with everyday life.

What we ended up is this combined lunisolar calendar that we have inherited from the Babylonians. The Aztecs were quite different. Their calendar had two different counts. The xiuhpohualli, roughly translated as the "year count," it's a cycle of 365 days based on the solar calendar, which in itself is divided into 18 periods of 20 days, we might call them "month," if you want to.

Their names are, to a large extent, based on seasonal names, or what kind of harvest comes in, or the rainy season, or some rituals. After these 360 days, there follows a period of 5 days, the nemontemi, which is extra bit of the year that is usually seen as rather unfavorable days where things can happen that are not quite happy to me.

The other count is the tonalpohualli. It's a count on a cycle of 260 days, based on rituals. There has been lots of speculation where this count is coming from. There's no straightforward reason why it is them. We only know that nearly every Mesoamerican civilization has this count. This in itself divided into 20 periods of 13 days.

If you have these two counts, you can get into cycles because we say, "At one point, these counts will come together again." That will happen after 52 years. We have a period maybe for us it would be the century, for Aztecs was this 52‑year long cycle when xiuhpohualli and tonalpohualli would again be coinciding.

It's quite interesting. The lunar calendar is entirely absent from Mesoamerican religious life. What is also absent here, unlike many other Mesoamerican civilizations, most prominently the Mayan, is the absence of a Venus calendar.

One of the rather fascinating things that the brightest celestial body after the Sun and Moon, the planet Venus, played a major role in Central American astronomy and the relation between deities and planetary movements. The 584‑day cycle of the planet Venus was also coming into the Mayan calendar, which then resulted into when these three calendars coincide again.

Then we can start a new cycle, this is the long count, every 394 years and 3 months. That was happening in December 2012, which had led to the hype about the end of the world, which indeed was nothing that the Mayans had projected, unlike, as you will see, the Aztecs.

How do they count the days? Basically, going back to the Sun Stone here, you have an outer ring of 20 images. These 20 images, for the tonalpohualli, would be the names of the day, starting here with the Cipactli, the alligator, the wind, the house, the lizard, so on, coming up and ending up here again with the flint knife, the rain, the flower.

This cycle of 20 days in the year count, the month, would be straightforward from here to here. The other one, the tonalpohualli, goes through 20 cycles starting with, if you want to call it, the month or the week of the alligator, which lasts 14 days, followed by the Acatl, the reed, then going to the sixth, the Miquiztli, the death, and, after that, should be 14, the flower, the Xochitl.

We have days after days progressing with a certain name. The certain name is, of course, associated with certain ideas not just about nature. It's about gods. It's about what is going to be happening or potentially happen. This one comes up fully.

As the Codex Fejervary-Mayer, we can see that count in a quite complex way. You have here the alligator starting up, then you have 13 days to the jaguar, 13 days to the deer, 13 days out there to the flower, 13 days to death, 13 days to reed, death, rain, and so on. You go throughout the year in this count.

Of course, you see it's not just that you go just counting the days. You have clear alignments with other things. You have, for the first obvious thing, north, south, east, west. You also have different plants, you have different animals, different deities, different forms of food, and different parts of the body, all aligned with each particular day. A very complex cycle.

You can see, compared to our very simple calendar, this is a rather complex thing giving you much more, of course. Any historian of European calendars would tell you that the calendar in Europe used to be much more complex than it is there. One of the reasons why this calendar is so complex can be seen.

What you see here is the Sun God. It's supposed to be the Sun Stone. It's not just one Sun God. It's five. You see here the Sun of Jaguar, followed by the Sun of Wind, the Sun of the Fire Rain, and the Sun of Water. In the middle, there is the current Sun God, the fifth sun.

What happened in the first sun? The Sun of Jaguar was named after the day when the cycle was terminated, which, obviously, was the day of the Jaguar, the Ocelotl. Here, the inhabitants of the Earth, the first attempts at the creation of the human race, were destroyed by the gods.

The gods were so dissatisfied with them because they were giants who lived in caves and were supposed to plow the land and do proper farming. They didn't do that, so what the gods did then, on the day of the Jaguar, they sent around the jaguars to eat up all the men.

The second one, the Sun of the Wind, came up. In these times, the gods were happier with the human beings. But still, they were not doing what they were supposed to do, so they sent around the giant wind that would blow the humans off the Earth. However, some humans could survive because they were converging into apes, getting strong hands to keep themselves in the storm.

The Sun of the Fire Rain, the third sun. What was happening that the gods were sending the fire rain? Fire rain, if you think, "OK. This is entirely mythological. Mexico volcanic eruptions." What happened, again ‑ large parts of humanity were killed. The ones that survived were the ones that were transformed into birds, could fly up and save themselves.

The fourth, Sun of Water, floods, torrential rain. What happened is that some humans, again, survived as fish. The Aztecs now live in the age of the fifth sun, the Tonatiuh, which is literally the movement of the sun. Movement here is an euphemism for earthquake. We live in an age where we expect the destruction of the Earth. Destruction that will destroy human race as it exists.

It will probably convert humans. You might want to ponder what kind of creatures would survive an earthquake, since we already have the birds. There is some incentive to reflect a bit on that because, in itself, having this cosmology in which we have an idea of the creation, and destruction, and recreation of the Earth is not that unusual.

Indian cosmology has that. However, in the Indian cosmology this would happen every 4.32 billion years. Maybe too rare to be a really frightening thought, especially since astronomers would assure you that we would at least have slightly more than four million years until the next time when the current day in the life of the god Brahma would end, which is seen as the time when the earth would be destroyed to be recreated when Brahma awakes again.

However, for the Aztecs, their destruction of the current world would be something that could potentially happen at the end of every cycle, at the end of every 52‑year cycle, which makes you to think, "This is not a particular happy culture." ‑ particular given that the earlier destructions had, clearly, something to do with the gods being dissatisfied by the humans.

What you want to do here is know the stars are no longer that reliable. You need to take some action. The Aztec chronicles gave you the story of how the current Sun God came to existence. There was a tension, a fight between the gods about what to do with the humans. It ended when, after the god hurled himself into the fire, the other gods looked about, but they were unable to guess where it would appear.

Some thought he would appear from the north. They stood, they looked to the north, towards noon. Others felt that he might emerge from anywhere, for all above them there was splendor of dawn. Other looked to the east, convinced that from there he would rise and from the east he did.

When it appeared, it was flaming red. It folded from side to side. No one was able to look at it. Its light was brilliant and blinding. We have the Sun God as a god who is on our side, who once was on our side. What we don't what to do is to make this god angry. We have to look out. We have to look specifically, "Is everything in order?"

One thing that would happen is then, when we come to the end of the 52‑year cycle, we would get into a rather nervous tension, "What will happen here?" This was, sometimes, when things were drawing to a close, what was called "the dawn of the new fire." Will the new sun come out?

It is a place where, first of all, all old fires were put out everywhere in the county. Each home would be completely cleaned of anything old. Then we look whether the new age would start. The new age was seen when the Texcoco passed over the meridian at midnight, above the place called the Hill of the Star and the Tianquiztli, the constellation we know as the Pleiades.

I don't want to go too much into the Pleiades. It's something that freaks out historians of astronomy because you have virtually the same stories about them in indigenous people from Australia, Maya, Greece to North America. However, for the Aztecs, the Tianquiztli was simply the marketplace. You think this is a weird thing to name a constellation.

The marketplace shows you something that they thought about a relation between what they were doing and what was happening up there. We have the priests looking out whether the Pleiades would appear at midnight at the proper place, and they would, and, "Yes, we have another 52 years of humanity left, at least."

The problem is how do we make sure that it stays that way? By pleasing the Sun God. Here, the stone comes into its actual function, which is, in a sense, not too much a calendar function. It's more a sacrificial. The chronicles were late.

Also, on top of the pyramid were circular stones, very large, upon which they slew victims in order to pay honor to their gods. The blood of those who died reached the base and did flow off. They took the victim up the pyramid temple before the devil. The priests first went holding him by his hands and he was not...As the arranger of victims, this one laid and four men each pulled on his arms, his legs.

All ready, at the hand of the fire priest, they had a flint knife with which he was to slash open the breast of the ceremonial bathed one. Then, when he had laid upon his breast, at once seized his heart from him. He, whose breast he had laid on, laid quite alive. When the fire priest has taken his heart from him, he raised it into the dedication of the Sun.

It's a rather brutal enterprise for our minds. It is something that is related to different parts of astronomical knowledge. You have to do it at the right time, into the right direction, with the right constellation. It relates astronomical reckoning and even city design.

One of the things that historians of Aztec astronomy get quite excited about is the way...If you see and if you have been to the exhibition, you would clearly know this ‑ the very clear alignment of cities that had a function as the center of the Earth, as where above things would happen, in particular the Templo Mayor. In different ways, we see a clear alignment.

The thing is, and this is a bit of a warning, if you let historians of astronomy and astronomers loose on these kinds of things, they find all kinds of alignments. Here you will see a map of the Aztec world. Here Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, a few mountains. You see all kinds of alignments towards particular stars and the sun, of course, at the time of the summer solstice, something that gives you an idea how they planned their old cities to please the gods by aligning them to the starts.

The problem is that is something that is usually hotly contested between astronomers and archaeologists because archaeologists say, "This is just speculative because if you give an astronomer a different direction, you find an alignment to any major star, because there are simply so many of them." I'll leave you with that.

Instead, I'll want to talk about final part, about the later history. The Sun Stone, I mentioned that, was discovered on the 17th of December, 1790 during renovations at the Mexico City Cathedral, which, of course, had been built exactly at the place where the Aztec Templo Mayor had been before. It was not but the Sun Stone that was found. Also, a second statue, the statue of Coatlicue, 2.7 metres high, so also quite impressive, was got there.

After the Sun was found, some guy came in the debate, that is called Antonio de León y Gama, a person we know a bit about. It is a person that had a very unremarkable life. In a sense, he was known as a Spanish American born in Mexico City. As son of a lawyer, went into the legal business and became effectively an administrator, not a senior one at all, in the colonial administration in Mexico.

However, here he came into a very different position where he took his work in astronomy to a way that would completely change his view of the world and, also, the position of Mexico in the world. He had been one of the classic Enlightenment figures, you would think, in the way that he cared about the sciences. Newton was his big hero.

He did a bit of astronomy for himself and was, arguably, one of the two major Mexican astronomers. At that point, he tried to get recognition from the Europeans. He corresponded with Joseph de Lalande, the major French astronomer, who duly noted the observations and otherwise ignored de León y Gama.

He was a bit not entirely desperate to get some recognition. But when the Sun Stone was found, he immediately recognized that there something astronomical in there, and saw a task, and went through very classic astronomical problem some of you might actually have found in my presentation.

What's going on here? We have a 52‑year cycle of 365 days. What about leap years? We would miss 13 days. 13 days in a ritual, that's highly important. 13 days is noticeable. If you go through two cycles, 26 days, everybody back in the days when people were still looking at stars would have been able to tell you, "No. This is out of sync. This is not the right date."

What happened to the 13 days? Classic science 101. We tried to found out. Not quite as easy as it sounds, but, somehow, the Aztecs must have adjusted for these 13 days. One way to do this is to try to synchronize the Aztec calendar to the modern Gregorian calendar.

One way to do, and probably the way that astronomers like to prefer, is to look at solar and lunar eclipses. When have they been recorded in Aztec calendars? When have they been recorded by others? Indeed, the eclipse records were well known in Mesoamerican cultures. The calculation of eclipse dates had been well known in Central America centuries before the Aztecs appeared at the scene.

What de León y Gama did was he went through all these records and, sometimes, very obscure places and tried to find something to recreate the calendar to find out. His interpretation, at the end, was saying, "OK. Probably at the end of the 52 years, they just had a 13‑day extra cycle that would make it all right," something that is still in the debate these days. Indeed, the riddle of the Aztec calendar has not been quite solved.

However, before de León y Gama, there is something more interesting in this. Some question is what did he learn through this work? First of all, he learned lots of things about Aztec astronomy, much more than he ever thought was possible in Aztec astronomy. He learned about all these alignments, all this astronomical knowledge.

In his book, "Historical and Chronological Description of the Two Stones Found in the Plaza Principal de Mexico," he stated boldly that he thought Aztec astronomical culture was on par with ancient Greek culture ‑ of course, this thought didn't go too well with the Europeans ‑ even worse, that Aztec knowledge had become part of the Mexican heritage.

But the worst thing for Europeans, he said, "Unfortunately, Europeans, you just don't get it. You have to be a Creolo, one of these kind of outcasts that had gone over to the colonies, to go into then the itineration to understand Aztec culture." There was European literature on Aztec culture that he consulted that he found entirely useless.

He asserted it to more say, "Hey, Europeans, why would you get to positions where you say, "These Egyptian hieroglyphs are worthy of our attention, sign of a great culture, great civilization, and this one is just childish scribble?" His argument was, "The only way that you can come to such a foolish conclusion is that you don't understand the Aztecs."

It's not that the Aztecs were too childish. It's that, unfortunately, the Aztecs were too complex in their thinking for Europeans to understand. At that point, he went from the Sun Stone to the Coatlicue, the statue of the God that many Europeans described as utterly ugly and lacking in any proper taste.

De León y Gama had a fun time pointing out, "Yes, the problem here is that you've just all been trained in this kind of Greek aesthetics. Your proper statue looks this kind of very easy three dimensional one. The Coatlicue has many dimensions, many more than the Greek ones. You need to catch on to understand this."

What has happened here is that for Antonio de León y Gama Mexico united European and Aztec traditions. The Spanish Americas were those no longer a lesser Spain, but a different, possibly even better, world than Europe.

For all the criticism that he received locally, and he did receive quite a lot of criticism, this last point, that Mexico was different not worse than Spain, was shared in Mexico in way ‑ that has led the current Mexican historian Jose Canizares-Esguerra to call it the beginning of the Enlightenment in Mexico, technically, that was asking the very simple question, "Whose Enlightenment was it anyway?"

I will leave the moral for that story for your consideration. Otherwise, thank you very much for your attention.

Adrienne: I'd like you to put your hands together for our two very special guests tonight for a wonderful presentation. Dr. Tanya Hill, Dr. Gerhard Wiesenfeldt, thank you very much.

Speaker information

Dr. Gerhard Wiesenfeldt is a lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne.

In this lecture Dr. Gerhard Wiesenfeldt explored Aztec astronomy and the links between this and the Aztec calendars. He focused on Antonio de Leon y Gama, a late 18th century Spanish American astronomer, who became involved in the excavations of the Aztec Sun Stone (or Calendar Stone) and the Coatlicue statue in 1790.

Join the mailing list and get the latest from our Museums direct to your inbox.

Share your thoughts to WIN

We'd love to hear about your experience with our website. Our survey takes less than 10 minutes and entries go in a draw to win a $100 gift voucher at our online store!