Palenque and the Great Temple of the Inscriptions: A Site Built for a King
Hidden deep in the jungles of Mexico are the ruins of the great Maya city of Palenque. Known for its stunning architecture, sprawling temples, artwork and treasures, it has been luring explorers, tomb raiders and archaeologists here for centuries. The site is home to the Temple of the Inscriptions which houses the tomb of one of the most famous Maya leaders of Paleqnue – Pakal. The finding of his sarcophagus in the 20th century stunned the world, and has been surrounded in controversy ever since.
Discovery of the Great Temple of Inscriptions
Located in the modern-day state of Chiapas, Mexico, the Temple of the Inscriptions ranks among the most famous monuments of the Maya world and is the largest Mesoamerican stepped pyramid structure. Its ancient name was Lakamha (“Big Water”) and its modern name comes from the nearby Spanish colonial settlement of Santo Domingo de Palenque. The ruin's existence was unknown until 1773 when it was discovered by the Spanish explorer Ramon de Ordonez y Aguilar. Even then, Palenque was rediscovered and lost several times until 1841 when explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, (considered the pioneers of Maya archaeology), documented and provided illustrations of the site in their book. Their accounts were superior in both accuracy and volume compared to the small amount that had been previously published on ancient Mesoamerican cultures.
The Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque, Mexico ( Daniel Mannerich / Flickr )
The tomb of Lord Pakal
The Temple of the Inscriptions was specifically built as the funerary monument for K'inich Janaab' Pakal, ruler of Palenque in the 7th century A.D. whose reign over the area lasted almost 70 years. Construction of this monument was commissioned by Pakal himself in the last decade of his life, and was completed by his son and successor K'inich Kan B'alam II a short time after 683 AD. The site consists of a "temple" structure that sits atop an eight-stepped pyramid for a total of nine levels. On top of the pyramid sits the temple which is comprised of two passageways divided by a series of pillars, and covered by a vaulted roof. Both the temple and the pyramid had a thick layer of stucco on it and were painted red, as was common for many Maya buildings.
The hieroglyphic tablets of Palenque
The five entrances in the front of the building are surrounded by five piers bearing both carved images and hieroglyphic texts in Maya script. The Temple of the Inscriptions gets its name from three hieroglyphic tablets, known as the East Tablet, the Central Tablet, and the West Tablet, on the temple's inner walls. These tablets emphasize the idea that events that happened in the past will be repeated on the same calendar date and constitute the second longest known Maya inscriptions, 617 glyphs. Columns E through F mark the beginning of a record of various events in Pakal's life, which continues until the last two columns on the tablets; these announce his death and name Kan B'alam II as his heir. All of the tablets, excluding the final two columns, were completed during Pakal's lifetime and record approximately 180 years of the city's history from the 4th through 12th K'atuh.
Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico ( Wikimedia Commons )
The spectacular discovery of Pakal’s sarcophagus
Despite the fact that Palenque, and the Temple of the Inscriptions, had been visited and studied for more than two hundred years, it took until the 20th century to make a discovery that would change the world's view of Maya pyramids. In 1952, archaeologist Alberto Ruiz discovered a trap doors in floor of the Temple of the Inscriptions. He removed a stone slab on the upper platform only to discover a passageway that penetrated deep into the pyramid. This tunnel had been blocked for centuries by earth and stone making the descent into the structure difficult and dangerous. Removing the backfill took almost two years, and in the process, offerings of jade, shell and pottery were found which spoke to the importance of the place. Ruiz and his team finally reached an underground room where a 20 ton stone sarcophagus was discovered with a beautifully carved lid containing the tomb of king Pakal.
Pakal’s sarcophagus chamber ( Asaf Braverman / Flickr )
The tomb itself is remarkable for its large, elaborately carved sarcophagus, and stucco sculpture decorating the walls. The coffin found was a singular stone block for the body of Pakal with rich ornaments accompanying him, including a jade death mask and jade jewelry. He was holding a cube in one hand and a sphere in the other. Five skeletons, both male and female, were also found at the entrance of the crypt. Interesting, the lid of Pakal’s sarcophagus weighs 7 tons and the dimensions of the passageway in the Temple of the Inscriptions indicate that it could not have fit through. This makes the Temple of the Inscriptions somewhat unique and many believe it was built specifically around the sarcophagus as the final resting place of Lord Pakal.
The jade adornments of Lord Pakal (public domain images)
The mystery of the sarcophagus lid
The much-discussed symbolism of the sarcophagus lid is commonly believed to depict Pakal in the guise of one of the Maize Gods emerging from the underworld with the Tree of Life pattern in the background. In the image that covers it, Pakal lies on top of the ’earth monster’. Below him are the open jaws of a jaguar, symbolizing Xibalba. Above him is the Celestial Bird, perched atop the Cosmic Tree (represented by a cross) which, in turn, holds a serpent in its branches. Thus, in the image, Pakal lies between two worlds: the heavens and the underworld. Also on the sarcophagus are Pakal’s ancestors, arraigned in a line going back six generations.
However, not everyone agrees with this interpretation. A more alternative hypothesis is that Pakal is depicted operating a type of machinery or vehicle. When turned on its side, Pakal appears to be operating a complex series of controls. Ancient astronaut theorists maintain that the depiction is evidence of extra-terrestrial visitation in Earth’s past.
The intricate carving found on Pakal ’s sarcophagus lid ( Asaf Braverman / Flickr )
The curious ‘psychoduct’
A curious feature to the Temple of the Inscriptions is a psychoduct (or hollow tube) that runs from the tomb, up the sides of the interior stairs to the temple floor. Many theories have been proposed as to its purpose such as being a channel for Pakal's spirit to communicate with his descendants during bloodletting rituals above. Based on the observation that during the winter solstice the sun appears to set into the temple, (following the path of the interior staircase), some have suggested that the duct provided a path for the setting sun to take directly to Pakal's remains.
A new understanding of Maya culture
The discovery of the Temple of the Inscriptions changed previously held notions about Maya pyramids and Maya culture. Previously, it was believed there the Maya did not construct mortuary shrines, yet Pakal was buried in luxury and splendor that seemed to equal the elaborate tombs of Ancient Egypt. In no other part of America has a tomb like this been found to date. Up until about 2004, it was possible to descend the stairwell and see Pakal’s tomb up close, but due to deterioration caused by too many visitors, it has been closed off to the public. A re-creation of the crypt is on display at the Museum of Palenque in Mexico, while the real one is still sitting safely at the bottom of the Temple.
Palenque Brings Tourist Dollars
Palenque has become one of the strongest tourist destinations in Chiapas due to its history, architecture, gastronomy, crafts, natural attractions, and other elements are of interest for national and international tourism. To this end, the local municipality has put substantial funding into its conservation, the surrounding natural beauty, as well as the development of infrastructure, such as a new Palenque airport, and an upcoming railway line from Cancun to Palenque. On July 20, 2018, the National Park of Palenque celebrated its 37th anniversary of having been declared as a national park.
Featured image: The Maya site of Palenque, Mexico ( Dennis Jarvis / Flickr )
By Bryan Hill
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