Caracol at Chichen Itza

An extraordinary feature of Mesoamerican astronomy, given the complexity and sophistication evident from the ethnohistory and written sources such as the Dresden Codex, is the apparent lack of any observatories or observing instruments apart from the cross-sticks depicted in various codices, widely interpreted as a naked-eye sighting device. One of the very few serious candidates for a building used as an observatory is the Caracol at Chichen Itza.

Chichen Itza is one of the most famous Maya cities. Like Uxmal, it flourished around c.e. 800, but its influence appears to have persisted while many other cities were abandoned and fell into ruin. During the Postclassic period (c.e. 900-1300), before Chichen Itza itself fell into ruin, its sphere of influence became greatly extended and the constructions forming its ceremonial center became bigger and more impressive than ever. Even so, the Caracol stands out as exceptional. The reason is not so much its size as its shape: it is round, while every other visible construction here is straight-sided. As such the Caracol is almost unique, and certainly uniquely preserved. The round tower was ascended by a curved staircase running inside its double outer walls, leading to a small upper chamber with windows on various sides—or so it is supposed, since less than half of it now survives.

The openings are little more than niches, which means that they provide restrictive sighting devices. They do look out just above the horizon, which has led numerous researchers to measure alignments and speculate on their precise function. This anomalous and unaesthetic building seems an ideal candidate for an observatory where Maya priests observed the heavens to regulate the calendar.

To the person seeking statistical verification that the tower was used for astronomical observations, the results are disappointing. There are no consistent alignments on the sun, moon, or planets. And while stellar observations might have been important, there are too many possibilities—too many bright stars—to place much credence on any apparent stellar alignments that have been found. Further progress must consider the cultural context. Given the close association of various nearby structures at Chichen Itza with the planet Venus, the claim that two of the three surviving windows were ideally placed for observing the furthest northerly and southerly settings of this planet deserves closer scrutiny. But in view of the total lack of cultural evidence attesting to its use as an observatory, the strong possibility remains that the Caracol had nothing to do with astronomical observations at all.

See also:

Dresden Codex; Kukulcan; Venus in Mesoamerica.

References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F. Stairways to the Stars: Skywatching in Three Great Ancient Cultures, 135-138. New York: Wiley, 1997.

-. Skywatchers, 272-283. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Krupp, Edwin C., ed. In Search of Ancient Astronomies, 190-199. New York: Doubleday, 1977.

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