Chasing The Heavens: Ancient Observatories of the Yucatán Maya

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The Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal, a Maya observatory, under a starry sky which includes the constellation of Orion, to the left. (Image: © Jonathon Perrin)

Chasing The Heavens: Ancient Observatories of the Yucatán Maya

Centuries ago, Maya astronomer-priests charted the heavens from huge stone observatories. From above the jungles of the Yucatán in modern-day Mexico, they carefully recorded the motions of the gods above: the sun, moon, stars and planets, and planned out their lives accordingly; when to sow, harvest, sacrifice, and make war – these were all decided by the heavens.

El Caracol, the Observatory- at Chichén Itzá. The building as a whole is aligned to the northerly extremes where Venus rises. (Image: © Jonathon Perrin)

El Caracol, the Observatory- at Chichén Itzá. The building as a whole is aligned to the northerly extremes where Venus rises. (Image: © Jonathon Perrin)

Covered in jungle and crumbling blocks, a ruined mound – that is how the ancient circular building known as El Caracol in the Maya city of Chichén Itzá, was first described by early explorers almost two centuries ago. Even then it was called an observatory, but only because its hemispherical-shaped ruinous state resembled contemporary European-style optical observatories. The irony is that this strange stone edifice actually did at one time function as an observatory for the ancient Maya astronomer-priests who ruled in Chichén Itzá. It did not however look like modern rounded observatories but was actually cylindrical with a flat roof, and was originally described as unattractive by early Europeans.


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