Olmécs and Maya used compass for the orientation of their buildings?

Fuson (1969) and Carlson (1975) claim that Olmécs and Maya knew and used a (lodestone) compass for the orientation of pyramids, ceremonial and other important buildings.
Fuson’s hypothesis has been tested with the aid of the paleomagnetic declinations for time and areas of Olmécs/Maya with orientation data of buildings based on our measurements at various archaeological localities of México, Guatemala, and in Copán in Honduras by GPS and with a precise compass during 2003-2010.


After eliminating known astronomical and calendar orientation of some buildings, we have found that there is majority of structures with an orientation that clearly deviates from geographic north (pole of rotation of the Earth). When trying to explain this, we can rule out pure chance, local topography, aesthetic, meteorological or defence reasons. The structures might be oriented by means of a magnetic compass.

The use of the compass means that the „needle“ was directed towards the actual „magnetic pole“ (roughly speaking) at the time of construction of the respective pyramid. However, the magnetic pole, relative to the nearly ‘fixed’ geographic pole (the pole of rotation of the Earth), moves significantly over time; changes in its direction ~10 degrees per century, as observed from the given locality, are not exceptional.

By matching measurements of buildings´ orientation with modelled paleomagnetic history we found a fair correlation between the date of pyramid construction and their space orientation relative to the magnetic pole positions at the respective time of construction. Thus, the Fuson‘s hypothesis can explain the observed sites layout and building orientations in Mesoamerica (Klokočník et al., 2007) in majority cases.


The Fuson hypothesis about possible orientation of Olmécs, Maya and other ceremonial centers by (paleo)magnetic pole, using a magnetic compass cannot be simply rejected in the light of existing facts; it still provides an explanation for the “strange” alignments, where the other interpretation (as astronomical-calendaric) are not helpful. Our measurements and computations from 2003-2010 support this hypothesis for Mesoamerica.

More precise and more extensive information from geodesy (more reliable and detailed maps of the archaeological localities and satellite images with a higher resolution), from astronomy (the correlation between Mayan and our calendar), from archaeology (age of the structures, namely the absolute age for the buildings in Mesoamerica), and namely better paleomagnetic declinations (everywhere in the world) are needed to finally reject or accept that Olmécs/Maya actually used compass for planning site layouts. The preliminary answer is: yes, they used a magnetic compass for (among others) orientation of their buildings and ceremonial centers.

(Source: “Pyramids and Ceremonial Centers in Mesoamerica and China: Were They Oriented Using a Magnetic Compass?”, by Jaroslav Klokočník)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: T.M.

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