What makes this site special?
The ancient 'Astronaut'
Arguably the most remarkable Mayan artifact ever found is the famous tomb of King Pakal the Great, the 'Palenque Astronaut'. But the importance of Palenque lies rather in its architectural inventiveness and detailed epigraphic record.
It is one of the most mystical Mayan sites. It is also the home of advanced engineering, as the city had a system of aqueducts, toilets and possibly even a fountain.
There are constant discoveries on the site, as Palenque is an endless source of information about the ancient Maya. For example, in 2002 they excavated in Temple XXI the throne of K'inich Ahkal Mo' Nahb (721-736 AD), with some extraordinary creatures on a tablet. If you don't have time or energy to go through all the sites of the Palenque ruins, you can see the tablet at the site museum (the entry ticket is valid for both the ruins and the museum). You may need to decide how to prioritise and what to see at this big site. I strongly recommend the museum first, before going to the ruins, as that is where you will learn all the stories and mysteries, while at the ruins you can get the feeling of the place. I came here in 2013, then 2017 and in 2018 I will undoubtedly return. It is one of my favourite Maya sites. I still have not seen all the structures, yet alone the jungle (you can get a separate jungle tour to see the ruins that have not yet been reconstructed).
Palenque is a Spanish term meaning 'palisade' or 'stockade', a modern reference to the 'strong houses'. One of the ancient names for Palenque is Na Chan Kan, which means 'City of Snakes'. (Snake lords were also ruling in the city of Calakmul).
It was also anciently known as Lakam Ha ('Big Water'). I find this name most fitting because Palenque had an abundance of water from the jungle springs (apparently 50 springs and 9 rivers).
An aqueduct, constructed of great stone blocks, diverts the Otulum River to flow underneath the main plaza. By constricting the flow of the stream so that it shot up in a 2m gush, they possibly produced a fountain. The underground conduit was 66m long. Getting running water to the palace was impossible without water pressure. Assuming this sloping conduit was smoothly plastered, as the aqueducts were at Palenque, the researchers calculated the resulting water pressure could drive a fountain shooting water a few metres up. And like modern builders, the Maya covered the conduits with stones that paved city streets and plazas.
At least two more sectors of the Palenque site have aqueducts and constructions related to water management. These are areas not open to the public, almost 1km away from the site's core.
Some claim that the earliest settlement of Palenque was around 300 BC; others put it at 1,800 BC. Inscriptions tell us that the earliest king at Palenque was a man called 'Snake Spine', who supposedly came to the throne in 967 BC, long before the city even existed, by some calculations. That would be at a time when the Olmecs, an earlier civilization in Mexico, were flourishing.
K'uk Balam became Ajaw in 431 AD. He founded a dynasty with 16 successors, which lasted until the beginning of the 9th Century AD.
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 Balam (635-702), and his grandson 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. Jointly they map in glyphic texts nearly 200 years of Palenque's history.
Alberto Ruz Lhuillier found the burial tomb of Pakal the Great at the Temple of Inscriptions in 1952 . This has since become one of the most extensively studied archaeological sites in the Americas. Since 2004 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 it came under attack by another Maya centre, Calakmul, in 599 AD and again in 611 AD. 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, later continued by his son and grandson.
At its height in the seventh and eighth centuries its urban core had a population as high as 6,000 people living in 2.2sq km.
In 711 AD, Palenque was defeated by 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 AD, and a gradual population decline started. The city was abandoned by 850 AD.
King Pakal the Great (K’inich Janaab Pakal) is the most famous ruler of Palenque. He became the ruler at the age of 12, in 615 AD. The stucco head in the photo on the right (commons.wikimedia.org) was found in his tomb and shows him as an attractive man, in my view. I am devoting a special space to him in the Mystery section. Here I would like to look at a succession of Palenque queens and Pakal's sons and grandsons.
One of the interesting anomalies in Palenque occurred with the death of king Kan Balam in 583 AD. Royal descent traditionally passed from father to son, but in this case the person who assumed the throne, Lady Yohl Ik’nal, was a woman. Her Maya name means 'Heart of the Wind Place' and the wind symbol in the shape of letter T can be seen in her glyph. While some people assume that she was the daughter of Kan Balam, there is no actual evidence of this.
In 611 AD, Palenque suffered a devastating defeat by Calakmul. The current ruler, Aj Ne Ohl Mat, was captured and killed. What happened next in the Palenque succession is surrounded by mystery and controversy. In the 'king list' put together by Simon Martin & Nikolai Grube, Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens (2000) the next ruler was Lady Muwaan Mat. It is believed that Muwaan Mat was her pseudonym (it was the name of a primordial deity from creation mythology). She is also affectionately known to scholars as Lady Beastie. Her real name was Lady Sak K’uk’ ('White Quetzal'). She ruled as Regent for three years (612-615 AD), during her son Pakal's childhood. Her origin is not known and her husband, Pakal's father, was K’an Hix Mo’ ('Yellow Jaguar Macaw') who may have been a noble of foreign origin. There is no indication that Pakal's father ever occupied the throne of Palenque.
Palenque was one of the few Maya dynasties that allowed a woman to take the crown in default of a male heir. Even so, she was expected to step down the moment her son reached maturity. Pakal, whose name means 'Shield', was crowned king by his mother on 29 July, 615 AD, shortly after his 12th birthday. The passing of the crown from mother to son was not unknown. It had taken place not many years before when Pakal’s great-grandmother, Lady Kanal-Ikal, was queen and her son, Ak-Kan succeeded her. Despite this precedent and the fact that Pakal proved to be an unusually capable ruler, his right to rule at all was always in question, as his title was not passed to him from the father.
The next female ruler was the Red Queen. Her Mayan name was Tz’aakb’u Ahau, 'Maker of a Progression of Lords'. The name indicates her main role in life. And she certainly did produce a succession of lords, as two of her sons became rulers after Pakal’s death, and a third son fathered the next ruler, Pakal’s grandson. She came from another city (possibly from Tabasco) and in 626 AD was married to K’inich Janaab Pakal. Archaeologists discovered her tomb at Palenque in 1994. Her tomb is in the Temple of the Red Queen, next to the Temple of Inscriptions. Her skeleton was covered by red cinnabar, a form of mercuric oxide that leaves a red residue. She was given the name of the Red Queen, while the scientists were analysing her DNA. Apparently cinnabar is poisonous so this was meant to deter robbers. The Maya used cinnabar as a preservative, but only for bodies of elite nobles and rulers. In her tomb they found the usual burial objects of the royals: jade, shells, beads, and artefacts of bone or ceramic. Her face was covered by a jadeite mask. She died around the age of 60. The bodies of a young woman and a child lay next to her crypt, apparently ritually killed so they could assist her in the afterlife (a common practice for royal burials).
Her oldest son Chan Kan Balam II came to the throne in his forties and continued building the town that his father Pakal the Great built. His stuco head is on the left, as taken by me at Palenque museum. He built the observatory and three temples of the Cross. He did not produce an heir, so his brother K'inich Joy Chitam II came to the throne when he was 56 years old. Seven years later in 711 AD he lost a battle and was captured by Toniná; it is not clear if he was executed by their leader, or was later restored to his kingship. He was succeeded in late 721 AD by Ahkal Mo' Nahb III, the grandson of 'the Red Queen' and Pakal the Great.
The Focus: THE PALACE
It is a complex of several connected and adjacent buildings and courtyards, and was built by several generations on a wide artificial terrace over four centuries. The Palace was used by the Maya aristocracy for administrative functions, entertainment, and ritualistic ceremonies.
It is located in the centre of the ancient city. The Palace's most unusual feature is the four-story tower known as The Observation Tower. It may have been used either as an astronomical observatory or a watchtower against enemies. Or both.
A corbel arch can be seen in a hallway of the Palace. Within the Palace there are numerous sculptures and bas-relief carvings. The staircase is elegant and very broad. The buildings have roof combs with intricate lattice works of stone. Possibly it was simple decoration, to add height as an expression of a powerful building.
A slight mystery is the colour of the temple. The local guide Roberto explained to us the temple was painted red (like the Maya pyramids and temples). The carmine pigment was gained from cochineal larvae on the prickly pear. This contradicts the story of the white paint that the Spaniards encountered, as described in two historic books: William Prescott's story in The Conquest of Mexico and Buddy Levi's version in Conquistador.
The building was already in existence, but Pakal made it much larger than it had been. He started his construction by adding monument rooms onto the old level of the building. He then built Sak Nuk Naah which translates as 'White Skin House', also called Building E; it was the only building in the palace painted white and not red.
The Palace complex was used as a royal residence and court but also as accommodation for nobles, servants, and military personnel. The east court of the palace was a ceremonial area marking military triumphs. House A is covered with frescos of prisoners captured in 662 AD. Here, the kings of Palenque would decapitate the rulers of their fallen enemies. Check out the courtyard for the reliefs.
Many buildings contained T-shaped holes. This is a representation of the god 'Ik,' the god of the wind, and it allowed the wind to pass through, so Ik doesn't get angry and destroy the structure.
Other features of note are a steam bath, which had fresh water, and two lavatories constructed over an underground stream, which transported waste away from the city. What a neat solution for the plumbing infrastructure! Archaeologists speculate that the toilet (in the photo right below) was designed for a woman, as the forward part is gently curved to prevent splash-back. The male toilet is right opposite.
The Mystery: The Palenque Astronaut
Pakal became the Ajaw (lord, ruler) in 615 AD. He ruled for 68 years, dying in 683 AD at the ripe old age of 80 (quite unusual for his time).
Since Pakal's father was a lord, but not the king, other noble families in Palenque claimed they had more right to rule than he. In response, both Pakal and his eldest son, Kinich Kan B'alam II, would make sure to represent the accomplishments and legitimacy of their family in all of the buildings and monuments of Palenque including the Palace, the Temples of the Cross, and the Temple of the Inscriptions.
The famous Pakal tomb was built by his son in the main structure of the Temple of the Inscriptions, sited just to the left (east) of Sak K'uk's tomb. You can see a replica of the lid at the Palenque Museum as the entry to the tomb is now barred to tourists. The intricate carving shows Pakal falling into the mouth of a monster (the Witz monster, also referred to as Earth Monster or Cave Monster), which represents the underworld. Every detail of each carving had deep religious and political meaning. The deceased first entered the water of the cave (the underworld), then travelled up the Tree of Life to the Sky (heaven). The cosmic bird Itzam Yeh was waiting for him on top of the tree.
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. The king himself wears the attributes of the Maize God and is shown in a peculiar posture that may denote rebirth.
In the past, the lid’s interpretation has raised controversy. Linda Schele saw Pakal falling down the Milky Way into the southern horizon, a view that has not found general acceptance among scholars.
In the centre of that frame is a man sitting, bending forward. He 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. The rear portion is separated from him; and outside of this whole frame there is an exhaust.
Erich von Däniken proposed in his book Chariots of the Gods that Pakal was an astronaut and the lid shows him in his spaceship. Many today see Pakal at the controls of a spaceship. The model maker Paul Francis even made a 3D model of the ancient astronaut (alienexplorations.blogspot.com). What do you think?
The concept of Pakal's tomb is remarkably similar to the Egyptian pyramids, which served as a sort of launching platform for deceased pharaohs, including worldly goods the Pharaoh would need and elaborate inscriptions as to how the Pharaohs' soul was to navigate through the underworld and reach the afterlife.
The depiction is restrained by a Sky Band, a chain of glyphs that represent celestial bodies and the zodiac constellations. Some people regard the scene as showing the king being carried by the celestial serpent to the celestial realm of the gods. In Maya art whenever you see a 'traveller', a person in transition from one world to the next, there is always a 'means of transport'. Most often it is a serpent, or a double-headed serpent or a twisted serpent (which represents the umbilical cord). In other words being in the mouths of a double-headed serpent was a symbol of transition from one world to the next.
On the sides of the sarcophagus his ancestors are represented as sprouting from trees showing hanging fruit.
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, etc. The ancient Maya believed in reincarnation and that their deceased would eventually return from the underworld, emerging as fruit trees.
We now know that the crypt was built first and then the Temple was constructed over it. It was built over a stream so that the king had an easier route to the underworld (the entry to the underworld was by water as life began and terminated in the water of a cave). Young men were sacrificed in the crypt to help him into the underworld, and the stairway was carefully filled with rubble and sealed at the top.
Pakal was covered with red cinnabar, like his wife (who died 11 years before him) and richly adorned with jade finery. His actual remains and the jewellery are now in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. To me, his jade mask is much finer than that of his wife, the Red Queen. It makes Pakal look alive, as if he was looking at us. His eyes are crossed, as this was a fashion in Maya times (certainly for the nobles), and he is wearing long earplugs, which were also a fashion for nobility. In the palms of Pakal's hands Ruz Lhuillier found strange circular and rectangular objects with a mysterious religious significance.
Unique to Pakal's tomb is the psychoduct, a hollow duct which leads from the tomb itself, up the stairway and through a hole in the stone covering the entrance to the burial. This tunnel was discovered and explored with robots (by INAH). The appearance of the psychoduct and the stone band that connects to it have led many scholars to compare the structure to an umbilical cord. The fact that this 'umbilical cord' connects the figure on Pier C to Pakal’s tomb supports the identification of the figure as Lady Sak K'uk. The umbilical cord can then be interpreted as a reference to the royal bloodline. Others say that it was there simply because his successors talked to him via the duct, so it was a communication channel. I rather like that idea!
In order to relieve the tremendous weight of the pyramid above, the ancient architects chose the very stable triangular form for passages and the tomb itself. Even the door to the tomb is triangular.
It has been also suggested that the duct aligns with the winter solstice and that the sun shines down on Pakal's tomb. I would like to witness that. A water tunnel would carry his spirit to the underworld. The tomb was deliberately built at the top of the spring. 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'.
As for the detailed epigraphic records that I mentioned right at the beginning, there is only space here to mention the hieroglyphs in the Temple of the Inscriptions. The temple gets its name from three hieroglyphic tablets, known as the East Tablet, the Central Tablet, and the West Tablet, on the temple's inner walls (which are now closed to the public). These tablets emphasise the idea that events that happened in the past will be repeated on the same calendar date, a theme also found in the Books of Chilam Balam, and constitute the second-longest known Maya inscriptions, 617 glyphs.
The East Inscriptions Tablet contains a ‘Katun History’ for Palenque, across seven katuns (almost 140 years). Across this time the city saw momentous changes in the Baakel, or ‘Bone,’ kingdom, including the move of its capital from its Early Classic home at Tok Tahn to its later home at Lakam Ha, and its subsequent sack at the hands of Palenque’s arch-enemy, the 'Snake', kingdom of Dzibanché/Calakmul. The highlight of the East Tablet is this war event.
The Central Tablet continues in discussing the end of Pakal’s reign. During this period Palenque recovered its fortunes.
The West Tablet begins with declarations of how happy the gods were, and will be, on various Period Endings, from the reign of K’inich Janaab Pakal I to ones in the distant future. This progresses to the anniversary of Pakal’s accession, which will fall in the year 4772 AD (just imagine that prediction!), only eight days after the end of the first piktun since Creation. This date is connected with another famous accession, that of the ‘Square-Nosed Beastie,’ which occurred over a million years ago. It could not be more complex, could it? I am not sue what to make of such a prediction. A real resurrection a thousand years later?
Don't Miss: The CROSS group
This group requires a bit of stamina as you have to climb the hill and then the pyramids. Religious expression at Palenque was focused here, on the Triad: three gods which were hierarchically arranged from most-to-least important and each of which had their own temple. The Temple of the Cross was associated with the sea god GI, the Temple of the Foliated Cross was linked to the god Unen K'awiil (GII), who was associated with agriculture, and the Temple of the Sun's patron deity was GIII, also known as the Jaguar Sun God of the Underworld. These three gods were the creation of another god, known today as the Triad Progenitor, who was born in 3121 BC and who is considered a maize god.
Just prior to Pakal’s rule, the Triad had been thrown down, and during his rule there was a political and religious renaissance in which the Triad rituals were reinstated. After he finished his father's tomb, Ki’inich Kan Balam built the three temples of the Triad. All three of the temples currently designated as the Cross Group were dedicated on the same day: 10 January 692 AD. At this dedication, according to the inscriptions, the three patron gods of the Palenque dynasty were housed in their respective shrines.
The three temples are called the Cross Group and surround a plaza just above and to the east of the great plaza of the Temple of the Inscriptions All these temples are still half buried in green mould and give Palenque an organic feel. All three temples are laid out in a similar pattern. The name of this group comes from a cross, which is carved on a tablet inside in the Temple of the Cross. Europeans have given the temple its name after seeing the cross here, but it is not a European religious symbol. To the Maya, a cross symbolised the Ceiba, or the Tree of Life which connects the underworld with its roots to the heavens.
Representations of K'an Balam (Maize Jaguar) are present in each of the three temples. In the Temple of the Foliated Cross, he is shown as a boy. His name, Maize Jaguar, evokes two of the most powerful Maya symbols. The Temple of the Sun shows him as a young man and is associated with war and the underworld and the Temple of the Cross depicts him as an older man and associates him with the deity Chac.
Apart from the masks of Chac inside The Temple of the Sun, there is a tablet showing K'an Balam facing his father Pakal, separated by the cross representing the Ceiba Tree of Life.
This tablet celebrates the accession in AD 690 of Kan Balam, who is portrayed on the right of the tablet. As befits the importance of the day, Kan Balam is the larger figure. The identity of the figure on the left has been controversial. His long 'muffler' and apparent cold-weather clothing led to speculation that he was from Teotihuacán in the Valley of Mexico. Linda Schele observes with regard to his outfit: 'This apparel most likely represents the burial clothing he wore in his own final portal deep beneath the Temple of the Inscriptions'. In other words, Kan Balam has journeyed to the underworld of the dead to receive his father's blessing on this special occasion. At his back are two astronomical signs, one representing the four phases of the moon, and the other the great Period of the Sun. Both figures open their lips in prayer to the deity. At the right of the cross are the signs of the four seasons of the year, vernal equinox, summer solstice, autumnal equinox, and winter solstice. The bird above the cross is the Celestial bird. It could also represent Venus, star of the morning, and the strange figure below may be a skull, to represent the star of the evening. However, in my view, it is the Witz (Mountain or Earth monster which represents the entry to the underworld).
How to get there:
Palenque airport has direct flights from Mexico City with Interjet and Tuxtla Gutiérrez with Ka'an Air. The airport in Villahermosa is about 2.5 hours away by road.
There are two bus stations in town and they are just 2 minutes walk from each other. There are many buses daily from San Cristóbal de las Casas (five hours), Tuxtla Gutiérrez (six hours), Villahermosa (2.5 hours), Mérida (8 hours), Campeche (5 hours), Cancún (13 hours). Daily (one or two buses) also ply from Mexico City (16 hours), Oaxaca (15 hours), Playa del Carmen (12 hours), and Tulum (12 hours).
You can also take a colectivo (small van) from Tuxtla Gutierrez bus station to San Cristóbal de las Casas (2 hours/50 Pesos), then to Ocosingo (3 hours/65 Pesos) and finally from there to Palenque (3 hours/60 Pesos).
There is plenty of accommodation in Palenque, either in the village or on the road to the ruins. We stayed in cheap cabins at Kin Balam, the last hotel before the entry to the museum and the ruins. We enjoyed the swimming pool and the lovely El Panchán restaurant across the road, with a fantastic menu, cheap prices and a visit by a howler monkey.
On another occasion I stayed in Chan-Kah Resort Village, on the road to the ruins, in a jungle set-up and on yetanother occasion in hotel Chablis in the town of Palenque.
Mix & Match
In my view, Palenque needs a day by itself, if not two. You can do the museum and the ruins in one day. If you have more time, I recommend going to Agua Azul (Lakes and Rivers) for a swim in the jungle. There are many tour companies that can take you there, and also to the Misola Há waterfalls. We went by rented car across the Chiapas Highlands (Jungles) from San Cristóbal (Towns and Villages) and were stopped by the Zapatistas who blocked the road for hours. It is much easier to go there from the other end, from Palenque (it is only an hour and a half from there). You can also visit the amazing ruins of Bonampak and Yaxchilán and even stay a night in the Lacandón jungle, where you can kayak or walk in the jungle, at a place called Lacanjá. If you extend your walk beyond the Moctuniha waterfall, you will also see the Lacanjá ruins.