Maya were expert sky-watchers, careful observers of the motions
of the celestial bodies. Proof of the Mayan fascination with astronomy
is literally carved in stone in the grand architecture at sites
such as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Uaxactun, Edzna, and
dozens more. At many of these sites, hieroglyphic carvings refer
to celestial bodies and cycles. Often, the buildings they adorn
have been built to align with significant cyclical astronomical
the shifting moon, or the rise of planets.
Chichén Itzá, two structures bear witness to Mayan
astronomy: El Castillo and El Caracol. Every year, tens of thousands
of visitors flock to Chichén Itzá to see “the
snake,” an apparition made of shadows that descends the stairs
at El Castillo during the solar equinoxes each spring and fall.
At El Caracol, dubbed “the observatory,” narrow shaftlike
windows frame important astronomical events. One such window marks
an appearance of Venus at a particular point on the horizon that
takes place—like clockwork—once every eight years.