Ancient Inscriptions Decoded at the Spectacular Temple of the Mayan King Pakal
Hieroglyphic inscriptions on the tomb of an ancient Mayan King have been translated more than 60 years after archaeologists discovered the hidden burial crypt in the rainforests of Mexico.
The glyphs were found on the spectacular Temple of the Inscriptions of Palenque which houses a tomb attributed to the ancient Mayan King Pakal. The glyphs were deciphered in 2015 and read “The House of the Nine Sharpened Spears”, as revealed by a team of researchers led by epigraphist Guillermo Bernal Romero from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
Bernal, from UNAM’s Mayan Studies Center, and colleagues deciphered the Mayan glyph T514, “Yej”, which means “cutting edge”, as reported by Latin-American news site Prensa Latina . The Yej glyph was found over 60 years ago at the top of the Temple of the Inscriptions in Chiapas, Mexico, which holds the tomb of the most famous king of Palenque, K'inich Janaab' Pakal . Once translated, the glyph, or badge, was identified in more than 50 other inscriptions “depicting events like taking war prisoners, military entries to cities and other martial events of the Maya Classic period.”
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Researchers were able to use this key to finally decipher the numerous other inscriptions, including the text at the top at the tomb of Pakal—“The House of the Nine Sharpened Spears.”
The ancient Palace of Palenque. Wikimedia Commons
The Guardian reports that Bernal, from UNAM’s Mayan Studies Center, said that “The House of the Nine Sharpened Spears’ is a denomination represented by the nine warriors in the walls of the tomb.”
King K’inich Janaab’ Pakal came to power at the age of 12 in the seventh century, and lived until he was 80. During Pakal’s youth, Palenque (then known as Lakamha, or “Big Water”) suffered many raids by Kaan (or Calakmul), a powerful Mayan city. His mother, Ix Sak K'uk', ruled as Queen at Palenque until Pakal reached the age of maturity, at which time he became the king, or ‘Ajaw’, and she served as Regent. His reign as king was prosperous, and he ruled for some 68 years—the longest known reign in Western Hemisphere history. He and his government were responsible for the building of some of the finest architecture, bas-relief carvings, and sculpture that the Maya ever produced.
Sculpture of King K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, or “Pakal the Great”. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. Wikimedia Commons
The iconic Temple of the Inscriptions is the largest Mesoamerican stepped pyramid structure. Built as a funerary monument to Pakal, the impressive architecture has nine levels and five entrances. When archaeologists rediscovered the monument in 1952 they found excellently preserved hieroglyphic texts, sculptural panels, the skeletons of several male and female sacrificial victims, and the tomb and rich grave goods of the king.
A reconstruction of Pakal's tomb in the Museo Nacional de Antropología. Wikimedia Commons
David Stuart of the University of Texas said of Pakal’s tomb in a lecture, it’s “the American equivalent, if there is one, to King Tut’s tomb. He [Pakal] was really venerated by later kings, his descendants, as a great historical figure that really brought Palenque back from the brink,” reports LiveScience.
Detail of one of the bas-relief found at Palenque, Mexico. Wikimedia Commons
In an incredible find, Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier (sometimes called the "Hitchcock of Archaeology") was doing temple excavations in the rainforest in the early 1950’s when he uncovered a floor panel which hid a secret staircase choked with rubble. When the debris was finally cleared after four years, Ruz was able to squeeze into the revealed burial chamber deep inside the pyramid which held the untouched tomb of an ancient King.
The magnificent sarcophagus lid of Pakal. Asaf Braverman / Flickr
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Pakal had been buried with several male and female human sacrifices, and grave goods included jade figures, jewelry, and a jade funerary mask found on the king’s remains.
The jade mask and ornaments found with King K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, or “Pakal the Great” at Palenque. Wikimedia Commons
And in 2016 archaeologists made another fascinating discovery under the Temple of Inscriptions – a water tunnel. Archaeologist Arnoldo Gonzalez told The Guardian that the Maya people would have believed the underground water tunnel would shuttle Pakal’s spirit into the Underworld. A popular legend says Pakal flew off in a spaceship, but the water tunnel suggests that he may have floated down a waterway instead. As Gonzalez said, “There is nothing to do with spaceships.”
The Guardian writes, “The Maya civilization, which developed hieroglyphic writing, a calendar and astronomical system, reached its peak of influence between AD 250 and 900, extending its reach over what is now Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.”
Between 700 AD and 800 AD the Maya culture approached collapse. The Mesoamerican city of Palenque was eventually mysteriously abandoned, and the amazing temples, homes, and art were devoured by the rainforest and not seen again for nearly 1000 years.
Today, much of what we know about the history of Palenque has been revealed through the reclaimed monument inscriptions. Information on the Palenque ruling dynasty and the city’s rivalries with Kaan and other states are known thanks to the translations on the preserved structures.
Excavations and research will undoubtedly reveal more of the yet-uncovered history of the Maya culture. Incredibly, it was estimated in 2005 that less than 10% of the total city had been explored, leaving more than one thousand structures still shrouded by thick jungle.
Featured Image: The amazing Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque, Mexico. Wikimedia Commons
By Liz Leafloor