Palenque nestles in a lap of landscape where steep mountains, lush with rain forest, meet low hills that give onto grassy plains and vast swamplands. There, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, a network of streams stretches north from the mountains toward the Gulf of Mexico, some 80 miles away.

The city probably began its rise in the fourth century AD; at some time in the early ninth century it was mysteriously abandoned. Its peak of grandeur came late in the Maya Classic Period, from AD 650 to 750. Palenque flourished when great Maya lords ruled city-states in present-day southeastern Mexico and Central America.

For more than a thousand years this city-state lay forgotten by the outside world. But some Maya remembered the ancients. Working in Guatemala late in the 19th century, archaeologist Teobert Maler wrote, “The Mayas believe that at midnight . . . their ancestors return to earth and, adorned as in the days of their glory, wander about in the forsaken temples and palaces, where the spirit voices are heard in the air.” The Maya of Mexico’s Lacandon forest made pilgrimages to Palenque from time to time, slipping into the jungle-clad ruins to gaze upon the temples and the ancient stone and stucco figures and to marvel at the enigmatic glyphs. There they chanted prayers, made offerings of food, and burned incense. They had not forgotten: Palenque was a city of the gods.

Around 1750, when Chiapas was still part of the Spanish colony of Guatemala, news of this puzzling place (then called Casas de Piedras, “stone houses”) began to spread beyond the mountains. Antonio del Rio, an artillery captain, led an exploration of the site in May 1787. On the first day he encountered “a fog so extremely dense, that it was impossible to distinguish each other at the distance of five paces; and whereby the principal building, surrounded by copse wood and trees of large dimensions, in full foliage and closely interwoven was completely concealed from our view.”

Del Rio ordered the site to be cleared. Overwhelmed by what he saw, he surmised that “the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans . . . some one of these nations pursued their conquests even to this country. . . .” He observed wistfully that the inhabitants must have enjoyed a better life “than all the concentrated luxury and refinement of the most polished cities at the present-period can produce.”

Nearby, rising from the base of a steep hillside and echoing its shape, looms an equally well-known structure, a pyramid of nine terraces topped by the temple of the Inscriptions, so called because its interior walls bear panels inscribed with glyphs – 620 of them. They are exquisitely carved in low relief on dense, fine-grained limestone. One of the treasures of the ancient art world, they form the longest intact Maya text yet discovered.

What do these symbols mean? Who built the city and carved them? Why? These questions have lured adventurers and scholars to Palenque ever since its discovery.

Del Rio and other 18th-century travelers saw correlations in biblical and classical lore. In the 19th century a host of explorers and gentlemen eccentrics came from Europe, but it was American travel writer John Lloyd Stephens and English artist Frederick Catherwood who, after visiting the site in 1840, provided enlightened explanations for Palenque.

Stephens wrote of the Palace: “For the first time we were in a building erected by the aboriginal inhabitants. It had been standing there before the Europeans knew of the existence of this continent, and we prepared to take up our abode under its roof.” He set up camp, feeling “admiration and astonishment” at the end of his first day in Palenque.

Stephens knew he would be lost in the treacherous ruins without a guide. He hired a man who had assisted other visitors and would have been hard to lose even in difficult terrain. One writer described him as “dressed in a sort of uniform with a pair of fringe epauletts and overalls of tanned leather with innumerable little buttons down the sides, and his horse was caparisoned in black leather trappings that gave it the appearance of a Rhinoceros.”

When Stephens scrambled up the ruined pyramid now known as the Temple of the Inscriptions, he found wall panels with “complicated, unintelligible, and anomalous characters.” Catherwood set about drawing these glyphs. Stephens wondered as to their meaning. “The Indians call this building an escuela, or school, but our friends, the padres, called it a tribunal of justice, and these stones, they said, contained the tables of the law.”

 

Many 19th-century antiquarians fantasized about Maya history. One French cleric, on studying some Maya glyphs, believed he found in them an M and a U. He claimed a discovery of great significance – Mu, a lost continent in the Pacific. An archaeologist then read in the glyphs about Mu’s cataclysmic demise and the flight of some of its inhabitants to Central America where, as the Maya, they built cities and wrote the history of Mu.

Others of that time, however, laid the foundation for modern Maya studies. By the end of the 19th century a few scholars had made an amazing discovery: some Maya glyphs are dates. The 20th century brought increased expertise in the fields of anthropology, archaeology, art history, and linguistics. And a mid-century discovery at Palenque astonished the world.

In 1949, as Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier worked in the Temple of the Inscriptions, he examined something unusual. One of the flagstones that paved the temple floor looked different from the others: Stone plugs filled holes drilled along two of its edges. Ruz and his crew began to excavate the floor around this flagstone. Beneath it they found a vaulted stone stairway intentionally filled with rubble. It led downward into the unknown.

At that time archaeologists believed that Maya pyramids were only massive bases for the temples they supported. Ruz and his crew, puzzled by their discovery, began the painstaking labor of clearing the stairway and carefully recording the process. They removed rocks – tons of them. Ruz wrote: “The farther we descended the more difficult the work became. The rocks were raised one by one with ropes and pulleys, the dirt pail by pail; we had only one gasoline lamp that consumed much of the little oxygen that reached the bottom through the small opening in the floor of the temple. In the first season of work we uncovered twenty-three steps . . . . “ A square stone tube lay attached to one wall and followed the stairs in a serpentine path.

The next season the workers changed over to electric lighting. Inching downward, they came to a landing. They were now approximately in the center of the pyramid. To their amazement, the stairway turned and led deeper.

It was not until two digging seasons later, in 1952, that Ruz reached the bottom of the stairs, 75 feet beneath the temple floor. He found two offerings – a stone box, holding jade, shells, and a pearl, and an enclosure containing the bones of six young people who had been sacrificed.

Ruz had come to think that the stairs were part of a secret passage. But near the human offering he found a doorway blocked by a great triangular stone slab. He removed some stone and plaster rubble along one edge, “and through this open space I could see with the help of an electric flashlight . . . . a spacious chamber with stucco reliefs on the walls and an enormous sculptured monument that almost filled it totally.” Two days layer Ruz removed the great slab and entered a place kept secret for nearly 1,300 years.

Offerings of jade, mother-of-pearl, and a seashell lay on top of the huge monument, or altar, as Ruz called it. On the floor sat clay plates and vases and “two beautiful human heads modeled in stucco.”

Ruz decided that the secret room was a place where priests celebrated religious ceremonies. He wondered why it had been concealed, and concluded that the “great Maya city must have been threatened by hostile invasion . . . at the time of greatest peril, this threat induced the priests to close the secret chamber so that it might not suffer foreign profanation.”

It was not until five months later that Ruz found the supposed altar was hollow. He ordered a tree felled and its trunk cut into sections. Using these and heavy jacks, the crew began to lift the top stone “millimeter by millimeter . . . . When there was sufficient room . . . I could see that the contents was a burial. For that matter, the entire chamber was a monumental sepulcher.”

With the top finally removed, Ruz gazed upon “the bones of an individual who had been buried with his jewelry in place and wrapped in a red shroud . . . .” A jade mosaic mask had covered his face. Among his ornaments, all made of jade, were bracelets, a breastplate, necklaces, ear plugs, and a ring for each finger. A jade bead had been placed in his mouth.

A physical anthropologist concluded that the bones were those of a man about six feet tall who had died in his late 30s to mid-40s. Knowing that rulers in other Mexican cultures often had dates as names, Ruz believed glyphs indicated this man’s name was a Maya date – 8 Ahau.

Through intensified research, the story of the tomb and its occupant now starts to unfold. Scholars who gathered at Palenque in December nearly two decades ago – especially linguist Floyd Lounsbury, archaeologist Peter Mathews, and art historian Linda Schele – studied glyphs in the crypt, in the temple, and in other structures. Within days, building upon earlier work and deciphering new glyphs, they made astonishing discoveries.

Glyphs revealed that the Temple of the Inscriptions entombed a man named – at least in part – Pacal, or Shield. The ten figures depicted with fruit trees on the sarcophagus sides are his royal ancestors. Pascal’s father, was doubtless of royal lineage, but probably from another Maya city. The inscriptions combine fact with myth, tracing Lady Zac-Kuk’s ancestry back to a Palenque goddess who was born around 3000 BC. The proclamation established that she and her son, Pacal, were divine, as most Maya rulers claimed to be. Other inscriptions record that Pacal was born in March, AD 603, and became ruler of Palenque in July 615, when he was 12 years old. He reined for 68 years until his death in August 683, at the age of 80.

During Pacal’s long tenure, and that of his son and successor, Chan-Bahlum, the city reached its peak of magnificence. The two rulers sponsored a flowering of scholarship and skill; astronomers, mathematicians, sculptors, and architects turned the city into a great intellectual and artistic center.

Merle Greene Robertson has spend decades studying the art and architecture of Palenque, a city she calls “an epic poem scribed in stone and stucco.” The work of Merle and other scholars has also brought to light the Maya worldview and revealed beliefs essential for understanding the tomb.

The Maya believed that time revolved in recurring cycles, with propitious dates and days to be dreaded. Above earth stretched the layers of heaven. A gigantic, sacred ceiba tree connected earth with these realms of the gods. Beneath the earth lay the dark, fearsome underworld, into which the sun set and traveled through the night to rise again triumphant at dawn. The elite dead also made this treacherous journey before rising to joint heir celestial ancestors. Mountains were sacred, and caves were entries to the underworld. Architecture held symbolic meaning. The Maya built pyramids to represent mountains; temple doorways were like the mouths of caves. World trees rose from temples; a city of many temples was a sacred forest.

As Pacal grew old, he planned his funeral monument at a spot near the Palace. In their book The Blood of Kings, art historians Mary Ellen Miller and Linda Schele explain: “The king sited the Temple of Inscriptions along the line connecting the center of the palace with one of the most important alignments of the sun in the tropical year. At the winter solstice, the sun reaches its southernmost point, setting exactly on the line that runs through the tomb.”

Pacal ordered that his sarcophagus would show him surrounded by ancestors, representing a royal orchard bearing fruit. On the lid, the king slips in death down the world tree toward the maw of the underworld. He is like a setting sun; he sits on the head of the sun god, who is ready to disappear below the horizon. The stucco figures on the walls are gods.

Solutions, however, have created new mysteries. Was Pacal indeed 80 when he died? Would a reexamination of his bones using the latest technology confirm or disprove that he died at a younger age? Some scholars suggest that he did live to be 80, then selected a date and had himself sacrificed. Parts of the sarcophagus still bear painted black lines indicating where sculptors should carve. Why was it left unfinished and the temple constructed over it? And what was the purpose of the stone tube that archaeologists called a psychoduct? Many scholars believe it provided a way for the dead king to communicate with the living.

Had Pacal and his great dynasty been forgotten? Perhaps not. A Lacandon Maya chief, Chan K’in (Little Sun) said that lords were buried beneath buildings at Palenque long before he heard of Ruz’s discovery.

Just as in the 18th and 19th centuries, some people still offer explanations of the tomb based only on their own knowledge. During the heat of space-age excitement, one popular theory saw ancient astronauts from another planet visiting earth and constructing Maya cities. The sarcophagus lid showed Pacal reclining in a rocket seat and preparing to blast off. More recently, a civil engineer proposed that the scene shows Pacal with one foot poised to press a pedal in a gigantic earth-moving machine.

 

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