El Caracol Observatory at Chichen Itza (Wright Reading/CC BY-NC 2.0) and Composite 3D laser scan image of El Caracol from above

Advanced Engineering Discovered at the Maya Observatory at Chichen Itza

(Read the article on one page)

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)

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)

[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.

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)

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. (Via author)

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.

Comments

Hi Cliff, informative read. Optics and position of the sun and celestial bodies go much further back in history than most think. For example, the Minoans (2500-1500 bce) had rock crystal lenses and their fiasco patterns suggest they had a calendar for the great year, that unifies movement of moon, sun and venus, the palaces have markings for high and low points of the sun, the thrown chair gives direct line of sight to the sun via a water pool to mark the great year. There may be other parallels, but it is becoming obvious that the ancients knew a lot more than the history books tell.

Excellent Post. I share your hope that more codices will be found. Maybe some natives continue to hide them from the “invaders”. I also agree with Nick D. that the ancients knew much more than traditional historians give them credit for. It is websites like this that bring such findings to light and don’t allow the “traditionalists” to hide the artefacts that do not conform with their traditional history.

"Wood Wheels"?? Mayans did possess vast knowledge of the stars but alas, no wheels.

The Mayans had wheeled toys.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

The old packhorse bridge in Carrbridge, Scotland
The oldest surviving packhorse bridge in the Scottish Highlands, the "coffin bridge" at Carrbridge in Inverness remains one of the most significant. Built in 1717, this packhorse bridge is located near the city of Inverness, capital of the Highlands, and was erected in an arch from "tooled rubble…springing from natural rock abutment".

Myths & Legends

Was the Heretic Pharaoh Akhenaton in Fact the Father of Modern Monotheism?
This passage may read like a passage from the Old Testament of the Bible; but, this is a quote from the Hymn of Aten, a work by Pharaoh Amenhotep IV better known as Akhenaton. This so-called heretic king was the only known Pharaoh in Egyptian history who believed in a monotheistic doctrine when most of the ancient world adhered to polytheism.

Human Origins

Was the Heretic Pharaoh Akhenaton in Fact the Father of Modern Monotheism?
This passage may read like a passage from the Old Testament of the Bible; but, this is a quote from the Hymn of Aten, a work by Pharaoh Amenhotep IV better known as Akhenaton. This so-called heretic king was the only known Pharaoh in Egyptian history who believed in a monotheistic doctrine when most of the ancient world adhered to polytheism.

Ancient Technology

New Revelations When 3,000-Year-Old Prosthetic Toe is Examined with Cutting Edge Technology
Egyptologists from the University of Basel have discovered details of production techniques and usage of one of the oldest prosthetic devices in history after re-examining it with the help of other experts. The find is nearly 3,000 years old and was discovered in a female burial from the necropolis of Sheikh ´Abd el-Qurna close to Luxor, Egypt.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article