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Sun-Earth Day Presents: Ancient Observatories, Timeless Knowledge

Technology Through Time: Issue #22, Chichen Itza

For a thousand years, the slanting rays of the setting sun have played a spectacular shadow game with this great Mayan pyramid. At the appointed hour, the shadow of the Feathered Serpent, Kulkulkan slides down the northern stairway...and vanishes.


Pyramid of Kulkulkan. (El Castillo)
The ruins of Chichen Itza lie about midway between the towns of Cancun and Merida on the Yukatan Peninsula
Latitude 2040'N
Longitude 8832'W


This is a square-based, stepped pyramid approximately 75 feet tall, constructed by the Mayans ca 1000-1200 AD, directly upon the multiple foundations of previous temples. It was mysteriously abandoned along with the surrounding city of Chichen Itza by 1400 AD. Kulkulkan is the Mayan name for the Feathered Serpent God (also known as Quetzalcoatl to the Aztecs). The axes that run through the northwest and southwest corners of the pyramid are oriented toward the rising point of the sun at the summer solstice and its setting point at the winter solstice. The pyramid is unique among all known pyramids, worldwide, for its central role in a dramatic shadow and light display during the equinoxes. At the appointed hour, the setting sun casts a shadow of a serpent writhing down the northern steps of the pyramid. The sunlight bathes the western balustrade of the pyramid's main stairway and causes seven isosceles triangles to form, imitating the body of a serpent 37 yards long that creeps downwards until it joins the huge serpent's head carved in stone at the bottom of the stairway. Each face of the pyramid has a stairway with ninety-one steps, which together with the shared step of the platform at the top, add up to 365, the number of days in a year. These stairways also divide the nine terraces of each side of the pyramid into eighteen segments, representing the eighteen months of the Mayan calendar.



Image Gallery:

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Photo Credit:

Troy Cline, Lou Mayo, Clive Ruggles

Technology Through Time Bulletin Board Activity

This bulletin board activity is designed to focus student attention on the role that sun watching has played in humankind's survival through time. As part of this display you may wish to use your own world map ordownload one we have created for you.

Webcast Alert: Ancient Observatories: Chichen Itza

March 20, 2005

Join the Exploratorium crew and NASA scientists as we delve into the ancient knowledge of the Mayans who built solar alignments into their buildings.

Chichen Itza Links