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Palenque

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The Palace, Ruins of Palenque
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The Palace, Ruins of Palenque

Palenque is a Maya archeological site not far from the Usumacinta River in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, about 130 km south of Ciudad del Carmen. It is a medium sized site, much smaller than such huge sites as Tikal or Copán, but it contains some of the finest architecture, sculpture, and stucco reliefs the Maya produced.

Contents

The name

The site was already long abandoned when the Spanish arrived in Chiapas. The first European to visit the ruins and publish an account was Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada in 1567; at the time the local Chol Maya called it Otolum meaning "Land with strong houses", de la Nada roughly translated this into Spanish to give the site the name "Palenque", meaning "fortification". Palenque also became the name for the town (Santo Domingo del Palenque) which was built over some peripheral ruins down in the valley from the main ceremonial center of the ancient city.

An ancient name for the city was Lakam Ha, which translates as "Big Water" or "Wide Water", for the numerous springs and wide cascades that are found within the site. Palenque was the capital of the important classic-age Mayan city-state of B'aakal (Bone).

Temple of the Inscriptions, people at the top
Temple of the Inscriptions, people at the top

The Maya Classic city

While the site was occupied by the middle Pre-Classic, it did not gain importance until several hundred years later. By 600 the first of the famous structures now visible were being constructed. Situated in the western reaches of Mayan territory, on the edge of the southern highlands, B'aakal was a large and vital center of Maya civilization from the 5th century AD to the 9th century.

The B'aakal state had a chequered career. Its original dynasts were perhaps Olmec. Politically, the city experienced diverse fortunes, being disastrously defeated by Kalakmul in 599 and again in 611.

Nevertheless, B'aakal produced what is arguably the best known Mayan Ajaw (king or lord), Pacal the Great, who ruled from 615 to 683, and left one of the most magnificent tomb-works of ancient Mesoamerica, beneath the Temple of Inscriptions. This is a grand temple atop a step pyramid dedicated in 692, inside is an elaborate long hieroglyphic text carved in stone detailing the city's ruling dynasty and the exploits of Pacal the Great. A stone slab in the floor could be lifted up, revealing a passageway (filled in shortly before the city's abandonment and reopened by archeologists) to long interior stairway leading back down to ground level and the shrine/tomb of the semi-divine Pacal. Over his crypt is an elaborate stone showing him falling into the underworld, and taking the guise of one of the Maya Hero Twins in the Popul Vuh who defeated the lords of the underworld to achieve immortality.

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Palenque_Overview.jpg
A view of the main plaza of Palenque from the top of one of the pyramids

Other important structures at Palenque include:

  • The Palace, actually a complex of several connected and adjacent buildings and courtyards built up over several generations on a wide artificial terrace. The Palace houses many fine sculptures and stucco reliefs in addition to the distinctive 4 story tower.
  • The Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Sun, and Temple of the Foliated Cross. This is a set of graceful temples atop step pyramids, each with an elaborately carved relief in the inner chamber. They commemorate the succession of King Chan Bahlum II to the throne after the death of Pacal the Great, and show the late king passing on his greatness to his successor. These temples were named by early explorers; the cross-like images in two of the reliefs actually depict the tree of creation at the center of the world in Maya mythology.
  • The Aqueduct constructed with great stone blocks with a 3 meter high vault to make the Otulum River flow underneath the floor of Palenque's main plaza.
  • The Temple of The Lion at a distance of some 200 meters south of the main group of temples; its name came from the elaborate stucco depiction of a king seated on a throne in the form of a jaguar.
  • Structure XII with a stucco depiction of the God of Death.
  • Temple of the Count another elegant Classic Palenque temple, which got its name from the fact that early explorer Jean Frederic Waldeck lived in the building for some time, and Waldeck claimed to be a Count.

The site also has a number of other temples, tombs, and elite residences, some a good distance from the center of the site, a court for playing the Mesoamerican Ballgame, and an interesting stone bridge over the Otulum River some distance below the Aquaduct.

Rulers

A list of known Maya rulers of the city, with dates of their reigns:

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ChanBahlumCatherwood.jpg
K'inich K'an B'alam II ("Chan Bahlam II")

The abandonment of Palenque

During the 8th century, B'aakal came under increasing stress, in concert with most other Classic Mayan city-states, and there was no new elite construction in the ceremonial center sometime after 800. An agricultural population continued to live here for a few generations, then the site was abandoned and was slowly grown over by the forest. The district was very sparcely populated when the Spanish first arrived in the 1520s.

Modern examinations of Palenque

Palenque is perhaps the most studied and written about of Maya sites.

Stucco tablet in the "Temple of the Lion" as drawn by Waldeck
Stucco tablet in the "Temple of the Lion" as drawn by Waldeck

After de la Nada's brief account of the ruins no attention was paid to them until 1773 when one Don Ramon de Ordoñez y Aguilar examined Palenque and sent a report to the Capitan General in Antigua Guatemala, a further examination was made in 1784 saying that the ruins were of particular interest, so two years later surveyor and architect Antonio Bernasconi was sent with a small military force under Colonel Antonio del Rio to examine the site in more detail. Del Rio's forces smashed through several walls to see what could be found, doing a fair amount of damage to the Palace, while Bernasconi made the first map of the site as well as drawing copies of a few of the stucco figures and sculptures. Draughtsman Luciano Castañeda made more drawings in 1807, and the first book on Palenque, Descriptions of the Ruins of an Ancient City, discovered near Palenque, was published in London in 1822 based on the reports of those last two expeditions together with engravings based on Bernasconi and Castañedas drawings; two more publications in 1834 contained descriptions and drawings based on the same sources.

Juan Galindo visited Palenque in 1831, and filed a report with the Central American government. He was the first to note that the figures depicted in Palenque's ancient art looked like the local Native Americans; some other early explorers, even years later, attributed the site to such distant peoples as Egyptians, Polynesians, or the Lost Tribes of Israel.

Starting in 1832 Jean Frederic Waldeck spent two years at Palenque making numerous drawings, but most of his work was not published until 1866. Meanwhile the site was visited in 1840 first by Patrick Walker and Herbert Caddy on a mission from the governor of British Honduras, and then by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood who published an illustrated account the following year which was greatly superior to the previous accounts of the ruins.

Désiré Charnay made the first photographs of Palenque in 1858, and returned in 1881 - 1882. Alfred Maudslay encamped at the ruins in 1890 - 1891 and made extensive photographs of all the art and inscriptions he could find, and made paper and plaster molds of many of the inscriptions, setting a high standard for all future investigators to follow.

Several other expeditions visited the ruins before Frans Blom of Tulane University in 1923, who made superior maps of both the main site and various previously neglected outlying ruins and filed a report for the Mexican government on recommendations on work that could be done to preserve the ruins.

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Palenque_Relief.jpg
A stucco relief in the Palenque museum, from one of the recently excavated buildings.

From 1949 through 1952 Alberto Ruz Lhuillier supervised excavations and consolidations of the site for Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH); it was Ruz Lhuillier who was the first person to gaze upon Pacal The Great's tomb in over a thousand years. Further INAH work was done in lead by Jorge Acosta into the 1970s.

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Palenque_Houses.jpg
Housing blocks just below the pyramids would have been reserved for the powerful in Maya society.

In 1973 the first of the very productive Palenque "Mesa Redonda"s (Round tables) was held here on the inspiration of Merle Green Robertson; thereafter every few years top Mayanists would meet at Palenque to discuss and examine new findings in the field. Meanwhile Robertson was conducting a detailed examination of all art at Palenque, including recording all the traces of color on the sculpture.

The 1970s also saw a small museum built at the site.

In the last 15 or 20 years, a great deal more of the site has been excavated, but currently, archaeologists estimate that only 5% of the total city has been uncovered.

This section needs to be brought up to date.

Palenque remains much visited, and perhaps evokes more affection in visitors than any other Mesoamerican ruin.


Other meanings

  • In Filipino languages, palenque means the town market.

External links

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