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Maya watchtowers marked astronomical seasons

Image: Chichen Itza watchtower
This view of the Chichen Itza archaeological site shows a watchtower in the foreground and a pyramid in the background. Archaeologists say slits in the watchtower appear to have served a role in marking the seasons for the Maya culture.INAH
/ Source: The Associated Press

Experts in Mexico say they have determined that the ancient Maya used watchtower-style structures at the temple complex of Chichen Itza to observe the equinoxes and solstices.

The bases of the structures were found atop the walls of the long ceremonial court, where a ritual ball game was played. But to determine their use, archaeologists first had to rebuild the small, stone-roofed structures.

Each of the structures has a narrow slit running through it.

Government archaeologist Jose Huchim says he has found that the sun's rays shine into the slits at the winter solstice, and at another angle on the equinoxes.

The sun played an important role in Maya culture, for religious as well as agricultural reasons, the National Institute of Anthropology and History said in a statement on Thursday. For instance, equinoxes and solstices were key dates in the calendar for corn cultivation.

Archaeologists believe the Maya ball game was itself an analogy for the sun's journey through the sky: "The sun's course — that is, rising from the east, reaching the zenith and being hidden in the west — is at a given time reproduced through the movement of the ball during the practice of ritual," Huchim said.

Huchim said that stairways to the structures are being restored so visitors can observe the phenomenon.

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This report was supplemented by NBC News.