Thursday, February 09, 2012

Chichen Itza, Mexico: The Observatory

Yesterday, I told you a bit about the Chichen Itza site, and all about El Castillo, The Great Ballcourt, The Wall of Skulls, The High Priests' Temple, and touched on some Mayan mythology. But today it's all about one of the most interesting (and coolest) structures at Chichen Itza - The Observatory also known as El Caracol, which means "The Snail". It gets its name from the stone spiral staircase inside.

"This structure is a circular astronomical observatory built on a large square platform. The spiral staircase inside the building leads to the top observatory chamber designed with windows for astronomical observations. (We were also told there's carvings on the walls and roof showing the constellations, but unfortunately, this site is no longer open to the public) From those windows, Mayan astronomers noted the positions of the Sun, the Moon’s greatest northern and southern declinations, and the passages of Venus. They used the shadows inside the room cast from the angle of the Sun hitting the doorway, for example, to tell when the solstices would occur.

The Maya regarded everything as closely related to their notion of time. For them, the need to record and to determine certain events in time, as well as the need to foresee the regular occurrence of astronomical, religious and social events, resulted in the invention of one of the most accurate calendars in history. The Maya calendar is considered the most complex, intricate and accurate among ancient calendars. Some claim that the calculations of the congruence of the 260-day and the 365-day Maya cycles are almost exactly equal to the actual measured solar year in the tropics, with only a 19-minute margin of error.

A "clock" can be anything we can use to measure time. The Maya used light and shadow cast in edifices, zenotes, and other bodies to track time. At the tropical latitudes of the Mayan cities, for example, the sun passes directly over head twice per year. Very accurate timing could be achieved by determining just when this happened - sort of like setting your watch. The Maya sought to understand the repetitive cycles of motions of the moon and planets, and thus to be able to predict when these bodies would be in certain places on the sky in the future. The planet Venus was very important and the tabulation of the appearances of Venus was used to predict the future.

For the Maya, the sky, their calendars, and mythology were integrated into a single system of belief. The patterns of the stars in the Milky Way or constellations, were directly related to their vision of Creation. The Maya called the Milky Way galaxy World Tree, which was represented by a tall tree, the Ceiba, reaching up to where all life came from.

The Maya also referred to the Milky Way as the Wakah Chan, which means “White Boned Serpent.” They believed to be connected to the cosmos. In fact, Kuxan Suum is a Mayan concept that means literally the “path in the sky to the center of the universe.”

There is also evidence to suggest the Maya were the only pre-telescopic civilization to demonstrate knowledge of the Orion Nebula. What supports this theory is a Mayan legend related to the Orion constellation they called Xibalba. They referred to the nebula as smoke from burning copal incense. Scholars believe this is significant, and it gives credence to the idea that the Maya detected a diffuse area of the sky before the telescope was invented.

There is no astronomy without mathematics. And the Maya astronomy was no exception. Mayan mathematics is the most sophisticated mathematical system ever developed in the Pre-Columbian Americas. The ancient Mayas discovered two fundamental ideas in mathematics: place notation and zero. That the Mayas understood the concept and value of zero is extraordinary and astonishing, for at that time most of the world’s civilizations had no concept of zero." (Source)

Isn't that so incredible? The trip to Chichen Itza will be one that I will never forget, and if you ever get the chance, trust me and jump at it.

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