Mayan Observatory

July 17, 2020

Fig.1-The Observatory Complex

Fig.2-The Observatory Dome up close

July  2020 Viewer's ChoicePhotographer: Rick Stankiewicz 
Summary Author: Rick Stankiewicz 

I was unaware until visiting Chichen Itza, that the Mayans built observatories. It’s thought that a particular building at Chichen Itza was used for astronomical observations (top photo). Given its more or less cylindrical shape, like a tiered wedding cake, it’s referred to as the Observatory. The construction is of cut stone so there’s no dome for this building, but it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine one, as the collapsing upper structure gives that illusion.

Due to the spiral nature of an internal set of stairs that lead to the upper levels, the Observatory is also referred to as the Conch/Snail or El Carocol in Spanish. The construction of this building is thought to be from the Postclassic Period, around AD 906. No one is allowed to climb around this structure, like most buildings in the city it’s roped off.

The Mayans were great mathematicians and observers of the sky. They developed a calendar and marked the changing of the seasons and the movement of the planets, especially Venus. They were aware of Venus’ 584-day cycle and that five of these cycles equaled eight solar years. Venus had tremendous importance for the Maya; this bright planet was considered the Sun’s twin and a war god. Mayan leaders used the position of Venus to plan appropriate times for raids and battles. To further prove their knowledge of celestial motion, some of their buildings were built to coincide with their physical observations.

The alignment of at least three upper story windows, or slit-like openings, of the Observatory, relate to the setting of the Sun around the equinoxes and also the planet Venus. Of the 29 known astronomical events that were noteworthy to the Mayans (equinoxes, solstices, eclipses, etc.), 20 sightlines for these events are visible from what’s left of the Observatory today (bottom photo). Photos taken on April 6, 2011.