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Ancient Astronomy in Mexico

Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to travel to Mexico. I visited several sites with ancient ruins. One of them was Chichen Itza. The night we were at Chichen Itza, we witnessed a lunar eclipse over it – I have no pics, unfortunately!

Built sometime in the 7th century the pyramid at Chichen Itza in Mexico, called El Castillo, actually had astronomical purpose! In fact, it’s actually a solar calendar. Each of the four sides of the pyramid has 91 steps – and if you add those up, with the final step at the top of the temple platform, they total 365 – the number of days in their year. Each of the pyramid’s four sides has 91 steps which, when added together and including the temple platform on top as the final ‘step’, produces a total of 365 steps – the number of days in the solar calendar. There are other significant numbers from the Mayan calendar also built into El Castillo’s architecture.



Additionally, during spring and fall equinoxes, you can see a pattern made by the angle of the sun and the edge of the steps on the pyramid. The triangles of light along the side of the stairs link up with the snake head carvings at the base of the stairs, giving the illusion of a serpent, perhaps a diamond-back rattlesnake. Clearly the builders of the pyramid had an understanding of the movement of the Sun!

You can watch a video of it on YouTube (which I can’t embed) – and there are lots of wonderful pictures on Flickr, like this one:

Chichen Itza at Spring Equinox, originally uploaded by shawn_christie1970.

Here’s my photo of the snake head:

There is another astronomical structure – El Caracol, also known as the Observatory. The windows and doors in the Observatory are specifically aligned with the movements of the Sun, stars, and planets, particularly Venus. The fact that this dome was created in stone is an impressive feat, as are its specifically placed windows. If you want to know more about how El Caracol was used for astronomy, there is a paper about this in Science magazine. This Wikipedia article has more information on El Caracol and Venus.

Here are a few of my pictures of El Caracol.



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