buried mirror: latest reflections

mesoamerica and the maya world

Category: chichen itza

New Cache of Objects Discovered beneath Chichen Itza

El Castillo, Chichen Itza
El Castillo, Chichen Itza, from the Thousand Columns

National Geographic is one of many sources reporting on an exciting new discovery of ritual objects in a cave beneath the Maya site of Chichen Itza in the northern Yucatan. The objects were found in a cave system called Balamku (Jaguar God). Caves had special importance for the Maya, who considered them passages to the underworld. Among the reasons for this is the geology of the Yucatan, with its limestone cenotes and extensive caverns. Until fairly recently, archaeologists saw caves as relatively minor adjuncts to the grand ceremonial structures that remain above ground. Now it is possible to image the cave system as equal in importance to the world above.

Many of the objects represent the Toltec rain god Tlaloc. Others reference the Tree of Life, the ceiba, which spans the subterranean, earthly, and celestial realms. National Geographic writes that “Balamku remained sealed for more than 50 years, until it was reopened in 2018 by National Geographic Explorer Guillermo de Anda and his team of investigators from the Great Maya Aquifer Project during their search for the water table beneath Chichén Itzá. Exploration of the system was funded in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society.”

Reports say the objects have been untouched for a thousand years, but I don’t know how that can be known for certain. We do know that archaeologist Víctor Segovia Pinto knew of the entrance to the caves and had it sealed up in 1966, for reasons that National Geographic implies are mysterious. So they have been untouched for more than fifty years anyway.

There is an embedded video about the discovery in the National Geographic site (linked in the first paragraph above. Be warned it is prefaced by a long commercial, and the clock restarts if you scroll to read on.

The image at the head of the post (which I took in 2007) is El Castillo, the central pyramid in the Chichen Itza complex, viewed from the Thousand Columns (which was a large covered space). The newly explored caves were within two miles of it.

The Observatory at Chichen Itza (El Caracol)

The Observatory at Chichen Itza (El Caracol)

Named in Spanish El Caracol (the snail) for the spiral staircase inside its tower, the observatory at the Maya-Toltec site of Chichen Itza appears to be oriented toward a variety of celestial phenomena, viewed through its doors and windows. An unusual structure, with a round building on a square platform, it was built in the tenth century CE, late in the Classic Maya period (what’s called the Terminal Classic). The platform enables sky viewing over the surrounding vegetation. Its northeast–southwest axis is oriented to the summer solstice sunrise and the winter solstice sunset.

The central tower has partly collapsed, making it difficult to determine all of the observatory’s astronomical aspects. It is clear, however, that it was designed to trace the movements of the planet Venus with particular care. Venus was associated with a war deity, and it possible that one of the uses of the observatory was the planning of military activities. A grand staircase at the front of the building is – uniquely among Chichen Itza buildings – oriented to 27.5 degrees north of west, the northern extreme of the path of Venus.

Among the great Maya cities, Chichen Itza has a particularly extensive range of architectural elements, to which the observatory certainly contributes. The city is thought to have had an unusually diverse population, perhaps contributing to its variety of architectural styles.

Photo Wednesday

chac mool, chichen itza

This fiery chac-mool image comes from shapeshift’s photostream.


Pink Floyd and Chichen Itza

I’m not a big Pink Floyd fan, but the juxtaposition of their music with a family visit to the Maya site expresses something of how the public views Chichen Itza.

Mayan Theater, Los Angeles

mayan theater, los angeles facade

Posting is a little light while I’m on the road. Meanwhile, for your amusement, here are a couple of images of the facade of the Mayan Theater (1040 Hill Street, near 11th Street) in Los Angeles.

The decorative motifs on the facade of the theater were inspired by elements of the late Maya sites of Uxmal and Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. The theater opened in 1927 with a performance of George Gershwin’s Oh, Kay! Over the years the neighborhood declined, and it became a site for porno films. I think now it’s a concert venue.

I went to a party at the Mayan Theater once. Booker T and the MGs Junior Walker and the All Stars performed.

mayan theater, los angeles -- detail of facade


Supposedly 45 million people have voted on a new list of the seven wonders of the world, and currently Chichen Itza is ranking number two.

Someone explain to me why anyone cares. Why would 45 million people vote on this?

Chichen Itza is wonderful, but even among Maya ruins whether it is more wonderful than Uxmal, Palenque, Tikal, or Copan is questionable, to say the least.

UPDATE: Actually, on reflection I think I do care about this. It would be better if Chichen Itza did not make the list, as it’s already suffering from heavy tourist traffic. So, if you’re the sort of person who is likely to vote, please vote for whatever is currently below it in the results.

UPDATE2, 7/7/07: Results are in. Whatever.

The Observatory at Chichen Itza

el caracol, the observatory at chichen itza

I’m having some trouble getting my Maya materials online because there are so many of them, and there’s just so little time. So, we’ll do this one building at a time. This is “El Caracol” (“the snail,” so called in Spanish for its winding internal staircase), which is called “The Observatory” in English.

It’s not hard to see how it gets that name, because it looks a lot like a modern observatory. It’s quite unusual for a Maya building, with its round dome placed on a square base. Slits in the dome allowed viewing the sky at the cardinal and subcardinal directions. Certainly the movements of celestial objects were important to the Maya, and their astronomical reckoning was quite advanced (witness their highly accurate calendar). But I’m not sure that we can say definitively how this building was used in its particulars. As with all Maya sites, a great deal of fancy has come to surround the ruins, making it difficult to separate fancy from fact.

The earliest parts of the Observatory were probably constructed in the ninth century. The building underwent several modifications over the succeeding centuries.

Click the small image in the post to see several more images of the Observatory.

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