Palenque Site Museum

Chiapas, Mexico


A jewel among the Maya museums in Mexico, the Site Museum Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in Palenque displays ancient Mayan artefacts from the local ruin site. And what treasures they are! 


Outside Palenque Museum. Right: Palenque Temple of Inscriptions.

Outside Palenque Museum. Right: Palenque Temple of Inscriptions.

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This is where you will find the famous sarcophagus of King Pakal (the 'ancient astronaut'), stucco heads, masks, walls with hieroglyphs, ritual items, jade jewellery from tombs and stunning incense burners.

I recommend visiting it before you enter the ruins. Well, that is what I did on one of my visits to Palenque. That way you can see what was inside the ruins and learn about the Mayan beliefs, religion and mythology and then just walk around the ruins to get the feeling of that lifestyle. On the other hand, the visit after the ruins will cool you down as it is pretty humid in the jungle. Your choice.

Here are some of my favourite exhibits.

 

The people and the Focus: King Pakal and his family

The sarcophagus of K'inich Janab' Pakal is the most intriguing exhibit and a subject of continued studies by many scientists. 

I think the museum has done an excellent job of visually interpreting to the visitors the secrets that are hidden in the reliefs and hieroglyphs on the sarcophagus. Many mainstream scholars believe the depiction of King Pakal on the lid of his sarcophagus symbolises a journey to the underworld. The central image is that of a world tree. Beneath Pakal are the open jaws of a funeral serpent (or the Witz monster?) a common iconographic representation of entrance into the realm of the dead. The king himself wears the attributes of the Maize God and is shown in a posture of rebirth.

Others believe that he is an ancient astronaut, sitting in a rocket, his hands on the controls, fumes from the rocket under him. The drawing below right is a representation of Pakal as 'ancient astronaut' (as seen by Erich von Däniken ). Pakal has a mask on his nose; he uses his two hands to manipulate some controls, and the heel of his left foot is on a kind of pedal with different adjustments. Outside of this whole frame, you see a little flame like the exhaust of a rocket (Source: laufuhr-test.info).

The sarcophagus lid with the 'rebirth' of Pakal. 

The sarcophagus lid with the 'rebirth' of Pakal. 

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For me, the fascinating thing is the belief in reincarnation. As the sarcophagus tells us, Pakal clearly believed that his ancestors would eventually return from the underworld, emerging as fruit trees. His ancestors are represented as sprouting from trees, with fruit hanging. His mother Lady Sak K'kuk is depicted with a cocoa tree, his father K'an Mo' Hix with a nance tree, Yohl Ik'nal with the black sapote and her second portrait with an avocado tree. It is worth walking around the sarcophagus just to see that depiction. What is not clear is how they decided which fruit represents which person. Based on its usefulness? Or taste? Or beauty? Nothing was left to random choice by the ancient Maya…

 

 
The explanation of the lid, as given by the museum. On the right, Pakal's ancestors presented as fruit trees.

The explanation of the lid, as given by the museum. On the right, Pakal's ancestors presented as fruit trees.

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The Mystery: The Incense burners

The mystery is not the burner itself but why the gods portrayed on the burners have their tongues hanging out. And why did they wear goggles? Here is one example of many burners at the museum that I have been trying to unravel. I have seen many pictures of Maya incense burners but it is not until you 'meet' them in person, that certain elements 'shout out' for some answers.

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The elaborate censer below portrays a deity central to a creation myth from Palenque. Water curls on his cheeks and shell ear ornaments link him to the rain god, Chac and connect him to the watery world. A shark as his headdress is topped by a toothy crocodile. It seems that he is wearing goggles. And his tongue is hanging out. So how to interpret this?

The ancient Maya believed that copal resin was very sacred. Both lower and upper classes burned the resin in balls or lumps. Incense burners ranged from ceramic and wooden burners to ones made from gourds. When the incense burned, the ancient Maya thought the gods came down to eat the smoke.

As for the headdress of the god in the depicted burner, we know that animal attributes in the costumes are frequently found on the reliefs and sculptures of gods, rulers and warriors in many Maya sites. This designates an entity, relating to an ancient and widespread Mesoamerican belief, in which one part of the human soul manifests itself as a sort of animal. Cosmic crocodiles exhaled storms and battled with the gods of the underworld. So this could be a representation of the cyclical motion of the cosmos as the Maya experienced it. The sun rose in the morning from the east, bearing the features of a shark as it began to traverse the sky (it only had these features in the early morning). In other words, it could be a symbol of birth or rebirth.

Tlaloc, Aztec god of rain, water, and fertility, usually shown with goggles Museum of Anthropology of Xalapa:  arcomuseum.com .

Tlaloc, Aztec god of rain, water, and fertility, usually shown with goggles Museum of Anthropology of Xalapa: arcomuseum.com.

The god's connection to the watery underworld is not just expressed by water curls on his cheek and shell ear ornaments but also by his goggles. Goggles are associated with the Aztec rain god of Tlaloc and goggles have been found in Teotihuacan, where the warriors wore them as well (some believe it was for eye protection).

However, Yax K'uk' Mo', the founder and first king of the dynasty in Copan (Honduras) has also beendepicted with goggles, and shell goggles were also found in the Sacred Cenote of Chichén Itzá. So if gods and rulers wore goggles, they could represent a metaphor - they could see beyond death into paradise. Again, a symbol of rebirth?

Goggles found in Chichén Itzá cenote, Photograph © Justin Kerr

Goggles found in Chichén Itzá cenote, Photograph © Justin Kerr

I also read a theory that the goggle-eyes of Tlaloc are representative of the owl’s ability to traverse the darkness of the underworld.                                    Well, the rain god did dwell in the caves and cenotes, so that could fit. Another option I came across is that the goggles represented the stare of the ruler (at his people), which expressed his high status. Also, the S-shaped scroll (like the shape of goggles) was used as a glyph for the word muyal, meaning 'cloud' in Classic Maya texts, and is a metaphor for the heavens.

 

Chac, the Temple of the Cross. I can clearly see the goggles here. Was it a model for the incense burner? His tongue is stuck out.

Chac, the Temple of the Cross. I can clearly see the goggles here. Was it a model for the incense burner? His tongue is stuck out.

And just look at the image of Chac from the Temple of the Cross.

Which of these theories speaks to you?

As for the hanging-out tongue, I really struggled to find any cohesive views. One opinion suggested that it is a visual representation of a god's devouring role, and a symbol of the divine link between human sacrifice and providing sustenance. In other words, the god is bloodthirsty and is waiting for blood from human sacrifice. A lot can be said about the bloodletting rituals and undoubtedly the incense burners were used during those rituals. 

Others suggest that it represents the power of the words that the gods may be conveying.

 

On Graham Hancock's forum site (one of my favourite authors about the mysteries of our planet), I came across the following suggestions by the site users (not by Graham):

  • When a person dies the tongue will swell and push out of the mouth. The god image is reflecting that.
  • To stick the tongue out is a sign of respect (as in modern Tibet).
  • The tongue is extended in many traditions to enhance the power of contact with the spirit world.
  • There are different mudras or yogic postures with the tongue sticking out, to activate certain energies.

On the right is the yogic Lion Pose suggested by the site users.

Well, this all seems a bit unscientific but apparently the Maya had a word for yoga (yok'hah) and had a system of knowledge and practices based on understanding of energy dynamics and an expansive cosmology. I personally don't know anything about yoga but I enjoy observing the gods' and rulers' hand signs, breath scrolls, postures and trance positions on ceramics, sculptures, and carved panels.

If these theories are not your cup of tea, you can just enjoy the technical skills of the artisans.

 

Don't miss: Stucco heads and masks

The head that impressed me most at the museum is the portrait of Kan B'alam II, the oldest son of Pakal the Great and the Red Queen. On this we can nearly see his crossed eyes, which was a common practice. The Maya thought their gods were cross-eyed and they wanted to copy that. They dangled a bead in front of the eyes of their infants, to encourage their eyes to cross, which was a sign of beauty. Furthermore it seems that this face is also slightly scarred. Facial scarification (or tattoo) was another common practice for the Maya.

The king's skull is clearly elongated. The skull modification was applied to appease the gods and for an aesthetic purpose. They bound their infants' heads with boards to get the forehead to slant backward.

Portrait of Kan B'alam II, 8th century

Portrait of Kan B'alam II, 8th century

His nose has a pronounced beak, and what seems like a subtle break where the nose meets the forehead. Apparently it was common to break the nose to get that shape. Many Maya resorted to a removable artificial nose bridge to give their nose the right hook shape, as the fashion dictated.

G emstone inlay in Mayan mouth:     gemselect.com .

Gemstone inlay in Mayan mouth:  gemselect.com.

We can't see dental mutilation properly on this head but there is another stucco head in the museum that indicates this practice. Pointed teeth were in fashion. Mayan nobles filed their teeth in the form of the letter T, resembling the sign for Ik, 'the god of wind'. Females also had jade implants for decoration.

Some of these practices actually come from the Olmecs ('the original' inhabitants of Central America). If you go to La Venta Olmec park in Villahermosa in Tabasco, you will not only see the famous large Olmec heads, but also the practice of crossed eyes, scarred faces and filed teeth.

Another piece worth examining is the recently excavated throne of K'inich Ahkal Mo' Nahb (721-736 AD) in Temple XXI, with some unusual creatures on the tablet (see the photo below).

 
The tablet on the throne.
 
U Pakal K'inich on the right of the tablet:  bluffton.edu  .

U Pakal K'inich on the right of the tablet: bluffton.edu.

Broadly speaking, the tablet scene shows a ceremony of self-sacrifice conducted by Ahkal Mo' Nahb (second left in the photo above) and his brother U Pakal K'inich (second right), each dealing with a designated supernatural being. The rite is taking place in 736 AD. The event is presided over by their grandfather, King Pakal the Great (in the centre). With this rite, the young heir Pakal confirmed his right to inherit the throne (he was crowned six years later, in 742 AD). He is wearing the same outfit as his father, a simple headdress decorated with water lilies and a cape made of feathers.

 
Ruler K'inich Ahkal Mo' Nahb (right) and the supernatural being (left). Source:  bluffton.edu  .  The same source is used in the photos below.

Ruler K'inich Ahkal Mo' Nahb (right) and the supernatural being (left). Source: bluffton.edu. The same source is used in the photos below.

 

Let's have a closer look at the scene. The figure on the right is Ahkal Mo' Nahb in the same outfit as his brother, future heir, and his father Pakal. On the far left and far right of the whole throne is the supernatural being Xak'al Miht Tu-mu'uy Ti-ch'o. He offers Ahkal Mo' Nahb' III a bundle made of tied feathers and cloth or bark paper tied with three knots symbolizing the bloodletting sacrifice. This creature wears a jaguar cape and ornamented headdress, crowned with the maize plant. Although his face is rodent-like, he has feline paws. However, the museum explains that the text gives his title as Nahb'at, 'anointer', a priestly title usually held by human beings. He could have been a priest transformed into some kind of 'way' (animal alter ego). Each individual was born with an alter ego, which frequently took animal form. The animal acted as a guardian spirit. Nikolai Grube, Stephen Houston and David Stuart have independently deciphered a centrally important glyph that reads 'way' or 'animal companion spirit'. It derives from the words 'to sleep' and 'to dream'. The priest's duties as shaman consisted of him intervening on behalf of his people with Xibalba; he was responsible for setting events such as war, ascension to the throne, sowing, and harvest. At the heart of his power was his ability to transform himself into his animal-self. To become a divine, one had to be represented as having animal qualities – fangs, wings, beaks, or snouts. There is evidence that the Maya used hallucinogenic compounds to induce their trance-like states during such performances or rituals.

It is this transformation into an animal-self, that we relate to our own monsters and heroes even today. We are all familiar with Dracula and werewolves, but even Superman and Batman undergo a kind of transformation into this alternate self that is similar to that of the Mayan priest or shaman.

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Although Pakal was already deceased at the time of the rite, he returns from the underworld to witness the event. He was considered a divine figure, who could come back from the land of death on special occasions and present himself to his descendants. His incarnation holds a stingray spine, decorated with the 'Perforator god' (a deity related to ritual bloodletting). He offers this instrument to his grandson on the left (who faces the divinity and is back-to-back with Pakal). His throne is covered with jaguar skin. On his head we can see the diadem of the legendary ruler Ch'away U Kokan, who governed Palenque almost a thousand years before Pakal (252 BC). Ch'away was considered as the starter of the Palenque god triad worship (gods GI, GII and GIII) that the Pakal dynasty re-established (by building the Cross Group of temples devoted to the triad of gods). Ch'away was also the first governor in Palenque to make a bloodletting offering to deities. His memory was retained by oral tradition and the ruler absorbed him into his own dynasty.

Details of Pakal's scene.

Details of Pakal's scene.

Piercing body parts during bloodletting rituals involved the use of sharp objects such as obsidian blades, stingray spines, carved bones, perforators, and knotted ropes. The Maya, who regularly fished for stingrays, would have known all about the dangers of stingray venom so they used stingray spines which had been carefully cleaned and dried; or reserved them for special acts of piety or in rituals where references to the necessity of risking death was an important factor. Equipment also included bark paper to collect some of the blood, and copal incense to burn the stained paper and produce smoke and pungent odours. Cloth bundles were probably used to carry around all the equipment.

 
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How to get there

The museum is a couple of minutes drive before the gate to the ruins. The bonus is that the rooms are air-conditioned, while it is very hot and humid outside so the visit offers a restful time. There is also an excellent souvenir shop at the museum, with original little sculptures by current Maya artisans, more elegant than most of the usual artefacts. The entry fee during our visit in April 2017 was 75 pesos (joint entry for the museum and the ruins).

 

Mix and Match

Definitely to be combined with a visit to the Palenque ruins. Both can be easily done in one day. You will need about an hour to view it, unless you want to observe those hanging out tongues very closely!

Sources:

Graham Hancock's blog

Romero, Bernal and Martha Cuevas Garcia, 2010. Guide to Palenque. Mexico City: INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia).