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Palenque Prized for Unlocking Maya Mysteries

Photo: Palenque temple, Mexico

The Maya ruins of Palenque sit in the mist-shrouded jungles of eastern Mexico. The Temple of the Inscriptions, shown here, is the site’s most impressive structure. Deep within the temple is an ornate, vaulted chamber containing the crypt of the ruler Pacal.

Photograph by Kenneth Garrett

By Kelly Hearn

The first published account of this lost city was in 1567, from a Spaniard, Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada.

Exploring near the Usumacinta River, located in the modern Mexican state of Chiapas, Lorenzo came upon its stone temples and plazas, originally decorated with blue- and red-painted stucco but by then long abandoned by the Maya who built it. Lorenzo gave the grand structure the name Palenque, a Spanish word meaning “fortification.”

500 years later, Palenque—one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico—is a modern wellspring from which researchers have drawn some of the most detailed information about Maya culture.

It wasn’t large, surpassed in size by cities like Calakmul and Tikal, say experts. In 2003, David Stuart of Harvard’s Peabody Museum reported that Palenque supported no more than 6,220 people at its peak.

But Palenque is prized for something else.

“The main point of interest about Palenque is not its size and [or] age, as other sites are larger and likely much older,” says Michael D. Carrasco, an assistant professor of art history at Florida State University. “Its importance lies rather in its naturalistic sculpture, architectural inventiveness, and detailed epigraphic record.”

Researchers say Palenque dates to the Early Classic (A.D. 200-600) period, but most knowledge about the city comes from the Classic period (A.D. 600-900).

Palenque’s wealth of epigraphy (inscriptions) and recorded history has helped archaeologists to build the first time line of rulers of a Maya city—one that, while impressive, is still fuzzy in places.

Few Kings

Carrasco says the Palenque known to modernity is the product of a limited number of rulers, starting with Pakal the Great (603-683), his son, K’inich Kan Bahlam (635-702), and K’inich Akul Mo’ Naab (678-736).

This succession of kings commissioned the Temple of the Cross Group, Temple XIX, and the Temple of Inscriptions, said to be one of the most profuse sources of glyphic text from the Maya world. It maps nearly 200 years of Palenque’s history.

The three rulers also commissioned lengthy glyphic texts, which researchers have used to tease apart Maya script.

Much scientific debt is owned to Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, who in 1952 rolled away a stone inside the Temple of Inscriptions and found the burial tomb of Pakal the Great. This has since become one of the most extensively studied archaeological sites in the Americas.

David Freidel, a Maya specialist from Southern Methodist University, says the tomb contains Pakal’s sarcophagus, upon which is etched the image of “a handsome youth, the maize god, preparing to ascend into the sky along the cosmic World Tree.” Since 2004, Friedel says, researchers working at Palenque have discovered three royal tombs, a tomb of sacrifices, offerings to a royal, and a high noble’s tomb.

Records at the site suggest the site came under attack by another Maya center, Calakmul, in 599 and again in 611. “This attack was the beginning of or perhaps catalyst for the building campaigns of Pakal and later kings,” says Carrasco.

It was after the second attack that 12-year-old Pakal became ruler, setting in motion a vast rebuilding of Palenque from 615 to 683, one that would be continued by two later rulers: his son, K’inich Kan Bahlam, and Akul Mo’ Naab, thought to be Pakal’s grandson.

In 711, Palenque was sacked by the realm of Toniná. Though Temple XIX was built after that attack, still under the reign of Akul Mo’ Naab, the event shifted Palenque’s ruling dynamics, perhaps prompting a dissolution of concentrated power and replacing it with a shared arrangement between nobles and the king. The construction of elite building stopped after 800, and a gradual population decline ensued. By the time the Spanish got to Chiapas in the 16th century, the Maya had abandoned the city.


Valley of the Kings—Gateway to Afterlife Provides Window on the Past

Photo: Valley of the Kings, Egypt

The Pyramids of Giza and the Nile Delta were the tombs of choice for pharaohs of Egypt’s Old Kingdom. But New Kingdom pharaohs, who wanted to be closer to the source of their dynastic roots in the south, built their crypts in the hills of this barren tract west of Luxor, now called the Valley of the Kings.

By Brian Handwerk

The ancient Egyptians built massive public monuments to their pharaohs. But they also spent time and treasure creating hidden underground mausoleums that no one was ever meant to see.

The most famed collection of such elaborate tombs—the Valley of the Kings—lies on the Nile’s west bank near Luxor.

During Egypt’s New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.) the valley became a royal burial ground for pharaohs such as Tutankhamun, Seti I, and Ramses II, as well as queens, high priests, and other elites of the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties.

The tombs evidence elaborate preparations for the next world, in which humans were promised continuing life and pharaohs were expected to become one with the gods. Mummification was used to preserve the body so that the deceased’s eternal soul would be able to reanimate it in the afterlife.

The underground tombs were also well stocked with all the material goods a ruler might need in the next world. Treasures—like the golden masks found with King Tut—are dazzling, but the tombs also contained the more mundane.

“They included furniture, clothes (even underwear), and jewelry [though] it’s curious that we have no books—from Tut at least,” says Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at American University in Cairo and a National Geographic grantee.

Tombs were also well provisioned with enough food and drink, including wine and beer, for royal feasting in the next world, as well as sacred objects meant to help the deceased achieve eternal life, even favored companions.

“[We find] pets buried nearby,” Ikram says. “Hunting dogs, pet baboons, and gazelles.”

More Mysteries Await?

Tomb robbers, treasure hunters, and archaeologists have been combing the Valley of the Kings for centuries—yet it continues to yield surprises.

Many thought that the 62 tombs discovered before 1922 represented all that would be found in the valley—until Howard Carter discovered the resting place of a boy king called King Tutankhamun.

In 2005 a team led by archaeologist Otto Schaden discovered the valley’s first unknown tomb since Tutankhamun’s. The site, dubbed KV 63, was found only about 50 feet (15 meters) from the walls of Tut’s resting place.

KV 63 had no mummy but housed sarcophagi, pottery, linens, flowers, and other materials. Some believe it heralds the presence of another as yet undiscovered tomb.

“KV 63 is an embalming cache; there must be a tomb to go with it,” Ikram says.

At least one late Ramesside pharaoh’s tomb (Ramses VIII) is still undiscovered, and many believe it may be found within the valley.

Clues to such discoveries may be found in period Egyptian writings that mention notables who likely rated tombs but have not been identified.

“You try to find out what hasn’t been discovered, and figure out where they might possibly be, and then look in those areas,” said David P. Silverman, an Egyptologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “You never know what you are going to find.”

But if more tombs are found, will they be as relatively unmolested as Tut’s? The odds are against it.

Though their entrances were well hidden, nearly all of the valley’s known royal tombs were likely robbed before the end of the 20th dynasty—Egyptian records testify to robbers’ trials and to the harsh punishments handed down.

By the time the Greek writer Diodorus Siculus visited the valley’s tombs (circa 60 B.C.) he wrote, “We found nothing there except the results of pillage and destruction.”

It’s possible, perhaps, that any tomb yet to be found was so well hidden that it also escaped the notice of ancient thieves. Only time will tell.