In southern Mexico, lies one of the greatest ruins of the most advanced culture of ancient MesoAmerica. Near the Usumacinta River, Palenque is a Mayan city-state that reached its greatest period during the seventh century CE. When Palenque was first discovered, it was completely overwhelmed by the plantlife of the rainforest. Through time, excavation revealed a massive archaeological site that attracts thousands of tourists each year. What attracts all of these tourists is not the size of the site, but rather the delicate, sophisticated, and intricate architecture and art that has been discovered there.
Palenque is known most for their fine buildings, roof combs, sculptures, and bas-relief carvings that exemplify the best of Mayan creations. It is not as large as other known Mayan sites such as Tikal or Copan, but makes up for its size with its beauty deep in the rainforest. It is actually so deep that much of the Early Classic history of the city-state has yet to be excavated. Archaeologists have said that only five percent of the actual city has been uncovered.
Palenque has a very complex history and we only know a part of it from what archaeologists have excavated. The city itself has gone through an extensive process of overbuilding through time. The actual structures that are visible today are said to be the rebuilding efforts of the aftermath of the Calakmul attacks in the seventh century. More of the history of Palenque was recently revealed to us through deeper understanding of the extremely complex Mayan hieroglyphic writing system. By reading these ancient inscriptions, experts gained knowledge of Palenque’s rivals such as other sites like Calakmul and Tonina and also the first list of dynastic rulers. This is the reason why Palenque is quite probably the most written about and studied Mayan site.
From that list of dynastic rulers, one ruler is most famous and synonomous with the city of Palenque. He is most responsible for rebuilding and also Palenque’s golden age. His name was K’inich Janaab’ Pakal and his tomb was found not so long ago when excavating the Temple of Inscriptions. In 1952, an archaeologist named Alberto Ruz Lhullier removed a slab of stone that stood out on the floor of the back room of the temple pyramid. When he removed the stone, it revealed a passageway leading down into the heart of the temple. The staircase took a turn into a tomb where they discovered a large sarcophagus that belonged to Pakal. The tomb was impressive for the large ornately carved sarcophagus, the ornaments adorned by Pakal himself including a beautiful jade death mask, and also the stucco sculpture that surrounded the walls of the tomb. The lid of the sarcophagus, as it is still extremely in tact and preserved, shows images of death and the underworld. Historians also learned how the Temple of Inscriptions was actually built by observing the tomb. Obviously the sarcophagus was too large to carry into the tomb itself. They realized that the tomb was built first and then the Temple was built over it.
The Temple of Inscriptions itself is one of Palenque’s most elegant and distinguishing structures. The large pyramid contains the second longest glyphic text from the ancient Mayans. Nearly 180 years are recorded of the city’s history from these inscriptions. It indeed is a very large structure where it measures 60 meters wide and almost 28 meters high. Some of the biggest stones used weigh 12 to 15 tons.
Not far from the temple, is the Palace of Palenque. The palace consists of several buildings and courtyards that have been constantly built over each other. The Palace is especially significant for all the sculptures and bas-reliefs that were found therein. However, the most distinguishing factor of the Palace is the unique four-story tower that is not found at any other Mayan site. Some historians say that it was used as a lookout tower while others say it was used along with the Sun to reveal certain times of the year.
Another major feature is the group of sophisticated structures known as the Temples of the Sun, Cross, and Foliated Cross. They received their names from early explorers who named them after the cross-like images found on the inscriptions. The images are actually a representation of the Mayan center belief of the tree of creation. They are especially distinguishable because of the graceful placement on top of step pyramids. Each temple is marked by elaborate relief carvings in the inner chambers. The carvings depict figures participating in rituals and presenting certain sacred objects to a deity or higher authority. Because of better understanding of Mayan symbols, we now know that the images depict K’inich Kan B’ahlam during passage ritual and also his initiation of kingship.
Palenque is also notable for it’s advanced technology. When someone hears the word, aqueduct, they think of ancient Rome. However, the ancient Mayans had their own version in Palenque where they built an underground vault with great stone blocks. It worked so that the Otulum River flowed underneath the floor of Palenque’s main plaza. It was no problem getting water in since it was a “rain”forest. They simply needed a way to get it out.
Palenque contains numerous temples, tombs, a ballcourt, and buildings that reach far out into the forest. For example, the Temple of the Lion was named for a relief of a king sitting in a throne in the form of a jaguar. The Temple of the Count is another elegant example where it got its name from an early explorer who lived there and claimed to actually be a Count.
The most interesting thing about Palenque however is how this thriving city-state was abandoned. There is no real answer for the sudden absence of people and when the Spanish arrived in the 1520’s, there was barely anyone at all. However today, Palenque is not empty due to the vast amounts of tourists that make it probably the most iconic and beautiful MesoAmerican ruin.
1. History Channel: Lost Worlds: Palenque, DVD
3. Martin, Simon; and Nikolai Grube (2000). Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. London and New York: Thames & Hudson.
4. Schele, Linda (1976) Accession Iconography of Chan-Bahlum in the Group of the Cross at Palenque. In The Art, Iconography, and Dynastic History of Palenque, Part III.