Advanced Engineering Discovered at the Maya Observatory at Chichen Itza
In 1526, the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and found most of the great Maya cities deeply eroded and unoccupied. Many generations removed from the master builders, engineers, and scientists who conceived and built the cities, the remaining Maya they encountered had degenerated into waring groups who practiced blood rituals and human sacrifice.
The great city of Chichen Itza was reduced to piles of stones, with the vestiges of buildings, pyramids and other structures left in ruin. The Maya elders who I’ve spoken with report that Chichen Itza was a teaching university and that different cultures throughout the Americas had access to a variety of sciences, agricultural studies and the healing arts for hundreds or thousands of years. We still do not know the true age of the Maya, but recent excavations by Dr. Richard Hansen, at the El Mirador basin in Guatemala, show agriculture in that region flourishing around 2,600 BC—over 5,000 years ago.
Highly Advanced Sciences
We now know that the Maya developed a number of highly advanced sciences, highlighted by their spectacular knowledge of astronomy; they were skilled engineers, and had a mathematics which could calculate dates billions of years in the past and far into the future. It’s estimated that when Friar Diego de Landa discovered texts in buildings and in use by the surviving people, he burned them, and destroyed libraries, technical manuals and the history of one of the most advanced cultures on our planet, leaving us wondering at the history of the Maya.
El Caracol at Chichen Itza (Laurent de Walick / CC BY 2.0 )
In 1913, Sylvanas Morley, an American archaeologist working with the Carnegie Institute, received permission by the Mexican government to excavate the main Acropolis at Chichen Itza. One of these buildings was the El Caracol, which he discovered was an astronomical observatory for charting the heavens.
[Top] El Caracol as it appeared just before major excavation was started (MALER, 1892), and [Bottom] El Caracol as it is today (Kelly Lenfest, 2016/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
As the excavation team began to reassemble the building, they encountered a number of advanced design features which could only have been incorporated after significant research and development and an understanding in correctly aligning the central observatory with the cosmos.
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Through careful reconstruction and observation, we’ve made great strides in learning how the Maya used the observatory to chart the movement of specific planets, the beginning and conclusion of seasons, and other astronomical events.
Observing Space and Time
The El Caracol observatory stands on a massive 75 by 57-meter (246 by 246-foot) platform, engineered to support the tower and counter balance any movements in the Earth. To date, no surface penetrating radar has been used to detect what lies inside the platform, but it appears that a drainage system was incorporated to keep water from accumulating on the surface. The terrace, which connects the observatory to the platform, measures 26 by 30 meters (85 by 98 feet), and contains engineering features that function in a surprisingly efficient manner as a viewing mechanism. Two flights of stairs lead to the highly complex cylindrical structure that sits on a round base 18 meters (59) in diameter and which is covered in Puuc-style friezes with projecting cornices.
Friezes at El Caracol (Wolfgang Sauber/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The tower, the main viewing area, stands 28 meters (92 feet) above ground level and is surrounded by two massive, curved slots. The west-facing slot drops down over eight meters (26 feet) into the base of the building, while the eastern-facing slot is only a few feet deep. We’ll return to these slots shortly, but it should be noted that each was designed to support a moveable viewing apparatus that anchored at the base.
Artist’s rendering of the movable façade provides an idea for how they were positioned within the massive slots. (Graphic by Mark Lamirande, of Lamirande Design
The construction of the Caracol tower contains a series of interesting technological and architectural innovations culminating in three concentric cylinders separated by ring vaulting. The outer cylinder has four doorways placed at the cardinal point of the compass. A circular “corridor” separates it from the middle cylinder which measures eight meters (26 feet) in diameter. The second circle has four doors in a quincunx (five points arranged in a cross) arrangement in relations to those on the exterior. Like the first, it has a vaulted ceiling and contains a solid central core of masonry in which a narrow spiral passage leads to the high chamber, with spyholes in the walls. The building was heavily damaged when it was discovered and only three surviving spyholes provide us enough information to understand the function of the observatory.