Mayan Observatory
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Archaeologists in Mexico have determined the ancient Mayas observed equinoxes and solstices using the watchtower-like structures built atop the ceremonial ball court at the temples of Chichen Itza. This discovery adds to understanding the many layers of ritual significance the ball game had for the Maya culture.

The Mayas played an early version of basketball in the court, using their elbows, knees and hips to knock a heavy ball through a stone ring set in the walls. The watchtower structures sat atop the low walls surrounding this ball court.

The ball court was built around 864 AD, so even though the bases of these structures had been detected before, the stairs leading to them had crumbled. All that remained of the structures was the base, or footing, which made it difficult for archaeologists to understand what their purpose was.

The Mexican government's National Institute of Anthropology and History announced that the boxes had been 90% reconstructed. A team, led by archaeologist Jose Huchim, confirmed that the sun shone through the slit-like openings on the winter solstice when the setting sun touches the horizon. The slits, which are just tall enough to stand up in, also form a diagonal pattern at the equinox.

The team knows of no other Maya ball court with such structures.

"This is the place where we're finding this type of pasaje (structure)," Huchim said. There is a stone structure atop the court at nearby Uxmal, but it seems to have been used as a spectator's stand for elite audiences.

Some possible uses for the structures, according to Huchim, are to determine when the matches would be played given that the ball, as it was knocked through the air, may have been seen as imitating the sun's arc as it pass trough the sky. Another possible use could be "like a calendar, to mark important periods for agriculture." Finally, Huchim notes old descriptions sometimes depicted people atop the walls who may have been acting as umpires.

The stairs are being restored so visitors can experience the phenomenon.

Francisco Estrada-Belli, Boston University archaeologist, states solar sighting lines were "part of Maya architecture and cosmology."

"The fact that the sun rise can be observed behind a structure should be understood in that sense, as reverence to the sun or other star, not necessarily as an observatory in the technical sense," Estrada-Belli said. The orientation of the structures "emphasized the sacrality of the ritual space."