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A reconstruction of Pakal's tomb in the Museo Nacional de Antropología

Underground Tunnels Found Beneath Pakal Tomb in Maya Site of Palenque

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Archaeologists at the world-renowned Maya site of Palenque in Mexico have made a surprising discovery beneath the Temple of Inscriptions, the impressive funerary monument built for Maya ruler Pakal – underground water tunnels that appears to have been created as a symbolic path to guide Pakal to the afterlife.

Archaeologist Arnoldo González Cruz, project manager at Palenque, announced at a press conference that the finding consists of nine channels of about 17 meters in length through which water circulates.  The channel is fed by a spring and “reveals complex hydraulic engineering”.

The tunnel was discoverd with sonar and explored with robots. (INAH)

Associated Press reports that Gonzalez believes the tomb and pyramid were intentionally built on top of the spring between 683 and 702 AD, and that the tunnels were created to lead water under the funeral chamber and guide Pakal’s spirit to the underworld. Evidence comes from carvings on a pair of stone ear adornments, which say a god "will guide the dead toward the underworld, by submerging (them) into the water so they will be received there."

The Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque, Mexico

The Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque, Mexico (Daniel Mannerich / Flickr)

El Comercio reports that the underground channels were discovered following the use of ground penetrating radar in the Temple of Inscriptions. The program coordinator of Archaeology from the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico, Pedro Sánchez Nava, said that one of the studies revealed underground structures which were worthy of further investigation. 

 "We decided to study this data and we discovered that it was complex hydraulic channels carved directly into the bedrock, just below the funeral chamber of Pakal, " said Sanchez [via El Comercio].

Sculpture of King K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, or “Pakal the Great”. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. Wikimedia Commons

The great Maya city of Palenque is hidden deep in the jungles of Mexico.  Known for its stunning architecture, sprawling temples, artwork and treasures, it has been luring explorers, tomb raiders and archaeologists here for centuries.  The Temple of the Inscriptions ranks among the most famous monuments of the Maya world and is the largest Mesoamerican stepped pyramid structure. The Temple 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 Maya site of Palenque, Mexico

The Maya site of Palenque, Mexico (Dennis Jarvis / Flickr)

The finding of Pakal’s sarcophagus in the 20th century stunned the world, and has been surrounded in controversy ever since. The secret opening to his tomb was discovered by Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in 1948 and it took another four years to clear the rubble from the stairway leading down to Pakal’s tomb.  His skeletal remains were still lying in his coffin, wearing a jade mask and bead necklaces.  The tomb itself is remarkable for its large, elaborately carved sarcophagus, and stucco sculpture decorating the walls, which depict the ruler's transition to divinity and figures from Maya mythology.

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. 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.

The magnificent sarcophagus lid of Pakal.

The magnificent sarcophagus lid of Pakal. Asaf Braverman / Flickr

The newly-discovered underground water channels continue to be excavated and it is hoped that further discoveries may shed more light on the life and death of this powerful ruler.

Top image: A reconstruction of Pakal's tomb in the Museo Nacional de Antropología. Wikimedia Commons

Extracts taken from Ancient Origins article ‘Palenque and the Great Temple of the Inscriptions: A Site Built for a King’ by Bryan Hill.

By April Holloway



Why doesn't anyone take videos or even document with pictures from these dig sites. It's frustrating.

ancient-origins's picture

Hi Rob, no photos had been released at the time of writing. However, we do now have a photograph and we will be updating the page shortly. 

It would be nice to have either photographs or schematics of the newly discovered tunnels as opposed to the stock photographs that we've seen numerous times.

aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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