If you enter the site of Chichén Itzá from the back entrance, by the hotels, the first glimpse you will have of the site’s impressive architecture is the Caracol, an unusual round building found in the southern part of the site. When you work your way around to the front side, you will discover that the building has a large rectangular platform at its base, with a smaller rectangular platform on top that supports a round two-story building that overlooks a large open plaza. J. Eric Thompson, a Maya archaeologist, left us a vivid description of the Caracol, saying that “it stands like a 2-decker wedding cake on the square carton in which it came.”
The name “Caracol” (snail) comes from the spiral staircase in the center of the building, that leads from the first floor to the second floor, where a small rectangular chamber with windows was located. Today, three windows still exist and help us understand why the building was created and what it was used for. Archaeologists date the final version of the Caracol to A.D. 900-1000.
The ancient Maya were very interested in the movement of the sun, the planets, and the stars. They planned their buildings to align with the angles created as the sun crossed the sky on certain days of the year – such as the zenith passage, when the sun is directly overhead – and with the points on the horizon where the sun and the planets, especially Venus, rose and set as they move through the sky over time. When archaeo-astronomers, people who study the astronomy of ancient peoples, examined the orientation of the different parts of the Caracol they discovered that each part of the building had alignments to astronomical events. For example, the lower platform faces the northernmost point where Venus sets, a point that is reached every eight years; while the upper platform faces the point where the sun sets on the day of the zenith passage on May 20. The Maya created sight lines using the corners of the doors and windows that point to the northern and southern extremes of Venus’s setting point on the horizon as well as identifying the position of the sun on the equinoxes.
The Maya were interested in marking the position of the sun and the planets on the horizon for both practical and ritual reasons. On the practical side, the rainy season begins shortly after the sun crosses the zenith in May, and it was important to know in advance so people could have their fields and their seeds ready when the rains arrived. And on the ritual side, the sun, the moon, and the planets were the physical manifestations of some of the Maya gods. Orienting the buildings to astronomical events associated with the planets helped to tie those buildings to the gods themselves.
by Julia Miller
Former Resident Archaeologist
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