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Palenque (Classic Period)

by Dr. Maya Jimenez

King Pakal and the expansion of Palenque

According to Maya glyphic inscriptions, the city of Palenque (in what is today southern Mexico)—comprised of temples, a ballcourt, and the largest surviving Maya palatial complex—was established in 432 C.E. However, it was not until 600-700 C.E. that the city grew in importance. The rule of the king K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, from 615 to 683 C.E., initiated an ambitious architectural expansion at Palenque, an endeavor that was continued by his sons. Local lords such as Pakal, and other like him, each ruled over one of the many Maya city states, each with their own royal court.
The palace complex is located in the center of the city, flanked by the Temple of the Inscriptions and a ballcourt. Both buildings echo the uneven terrain of the Chiapas region (Chiapas is a southern Mexican state bordering Guatemala.), and in some cases they are built into the rolling hills—as in the case of the Temple of Inscriptions.
From: Lynn V. Foster and Peter Mathews, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 227 (annotated).
King Pakal lived and ruled from the Palace, where various royal ceremonies took place. The unroofed portion to the east of the palace (to the right in the photo below) is believed to be the throne room where kings were crowned. Built like the city, over the course of 200 years and in various stages, the palace features a prominent tower near the center (that scholars believe may have been used as either an observatory or a watchtower).
The Palace, Palenque (photo: Daniel Mennerich, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The roofed portions that remain reveal the typical architecture of the Maya, most obviously seen in the Temple of the Sun (a roof comb is a decorative element on the roof of many Maya structures, sometimes solid stone and decorated with mosaic or stucco and sometimes an open lattice), While the palace occupies a prominent place in the city of Palenque and features a façade with multiple staircases, access to the building was limited and its enclosed spaces purposely guaranteed privacy.

A funerary pyramid

Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque, Maya, 5th-8th centuries (photo: Carlos Adampol Galindo, CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Temple of the Inscriptions has been called the greatest Maya funerary pyramid and gets its name from the relief panels inside the temple containing an unusually long glyphic inscription that includes a history of the city and its most famous ruler, Pakal (find a translation here). The enclosure at the top was decorated with the iconic Maya roof comb, and decorated with Maya inscriptions.
Diagram of a Maya pyramid (Temple II, 8th century, Tikal), Cyark reconstruction
The pyramid consists of nine levels—the same number of stages found in the Maya underworld (this same numerological association, which was pan-Mesoamerican, is also seen at Temple I in Tikal and El Castillo in Chichen Itza). Long considered a simple pyramid with a temple on top, in 1952, Mexican archeologist Alberto Ruz Lhullier discovered that the Temple of the Inscriptions also contains an interior burial chamber. The tomb of King Pakal is found at the nadir, or lowest point, of the pyramid in a burial chamber that may have once been accessible by an interior stairway but was eventually sealed.
Drawing of the carving on the lid of Pakal’s Tomb, Palenque, Mexico, 5th-8th century CE, Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City (as drawn by Merle Greene Robertson)
The location of the tomb is significant since King Pakal is buried in a subterranean chamber directly below the pyramid—and is therefore connected to the “earthly” realm. In this way, Pakal inhabits both the world of the living and the dead. The lid of the sarcophagus (a sculpted coffin placed above ground), which was carved out of a single piece of stone features a depiction of the king suspended over the jaws of the underworld (above). On the lid, as in his tomb, Pakal is positioned in an intermediary space, between the heavens—symbolized by the world tree and bird above him—and Xibalba, the Maya underworld.
In addition to the remains of Pakal, precious materials such as jade, shells, pearls, and obsidians were discovered inside the sarcophagus. This idealized portrait of Pakal (image left) associates the king with the Maya maize god (his hair is meant to resemble corn silk). It was also found in the tomb and reveals the Maya ideal of beauty, as seen in the king’s oval face, elongated nose, and high cheekbones. His finely sculpted features and realistic portrayal reveal the naturalism of Classic Maya figurative sculpture.
Portrait Head of Pakal, Palenque, Mexico, c. 650-83, stucco (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City)
While the tomb of Pakal was largely hidden from view until 1952, archeologists believe that at some point it was made accessible to those who wished to worship the ruler after his death. They also believe that—because construction of the tomb began before Pakal’s death in 683 C.E.—the Temple of the Inscriptions was most likely built to the ruler’s specifications. However, some archaeologists, after studying the skeleton's teeth, hold that the tomb contains the remains of a man 40 years younger than Pakal—a reminder that Maya archaeology remains a dynamic area of study.
Essay by Dr. Maya Jimenez

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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user puiyenchui
    Have they since found out who's actually in the tomb, if it's "the remains of a man 40 years younger than Pakal"? Where is the actual body of Pakal and why isn't he buried in the temple that was "most likely built to the ruler's specifications"?
    (7 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      The following is from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%27inich_Janaab%27_Pakal
      Part of it answers your questions
      After his death, Pakal was succeeded by his son K'inich Kan B'alam II. A younger son, K'inich K'an Joy Chitam II, succeeded his brother K'inich Kan B'alam II. After his death, Pakal was deified and was said to communicate with his descendants; he was buried within the Temple of Inscriptions. Though Palenque had been examined by archaeologists before, the secret to opening his tomb — closed off by a stone slab with stone plugs in the holes, which had until then escaped the attention of archaeologists—was discovered by Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in 1948. It took four years to clear the rubble from the stairway leading down to Pakal’s tomb, but it was finally uncovered in 1952.[13] His skeletal remains were still lying in his coffin, wearing a jade mask and bead necklaces, surrounded by sculptures and stucco reliefs depicting the ruler's transition to divinity and figures from Maya mythology. Traces of pigment show that these were once colorfully painted, common of much Maya sculpture at the time.[14]

      The Temple of the Inscriptions.
      Whether the bones in the tomb are really those of Pakal is under debate because analysis of the wear on the skeleton’s teeth places the age of the owner at death as 40 years younger than Pakal would have been at his death. Epigraphers insist that the inscriptions on the tomb indicate that it is indeed K'inich Janaab' Pakal entombed within, and that he died at the age of 80 after ruling for around 70 years. Some contest that the glyphs refer to two people with the same name or that an unusual method for recording time was used, but other experts in the field say that allowing for such possibilities would go against everything else that is known about the Maya calendar and records of events. The most commonly accepted explanation for the irregularity is that Pakal, being an aristocrat, had access to softer, less abrasive food than the average person so that his teeth naturally acquired less wear.[15]
      (5 votes)