Mayan Sites – Palennque

DFN: I didn’t make it to Palennque, but, I did make it to Uxmal and Chichen Itza. I’ve got Palennque on my ‘hit’ list.

Maya Site of Palennque History
By: Willigers

Enclosed and surrounded by dense jungle forest with pervasive mahogany, cedar and sapodilla trees, frequently shrouded in fog lies the Maya site of Palenque. Resting on the eastern front of the Rio Usumacinta Basin in the neighborhood of the roaming foothills of Chiapas’ Oriental- at elevation of about 3000 meters-overlooking the lower plain extending to the Gulf of Mexico it is one of the most fascinating and most beautiful places the world has to offer.

The Mayan archaeological site of Palenque represents the western regional variant of Classic Maya civilization. Although the earliest occupation of the site dates to about 100 BC, it became a major population center only at about 600 AD. Nearly all construction at Palenque stopped by about 800 AD. Unlike its cousin site of Chichen Itza or Tikal, Palenque’s well-preserved ruins now visible are the heavily restored remains of the ceremonial center the ceremonial center may be divided into three major areas:

1. The Pyramid of the Inscriptions, the west facade of the Palace and the unexcavated mound Temple XI;
2. Arroyo Otulum, Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Cross and the Temple of the Foliated Cross;
3. Ball Court and the Temple of the Count, Palace, Temple X, and the North Group.

In 1952 an impressive tomb was uncovered under the Temple of the Inscriptions, demonstrating for the first time that the Maya pyramids served -contrary to former belief of the Maya- both as funerary structures and temple platforms. To this day many of the inscriptions at Palenque have been deciphered, revealing much of the dynastic history of the site. The following descriptions of the different elements are best described via the time frame that corresponds to the rulers. This is because it was the rulers, namely Pacal and his children that held the greatest and most influential power in Palenque, sponsoring structures during their reign.

Perhaps one of the greatest and most ambitious, not to mention precocious Mayan kings, Pacal assumed power in 603 AD at the very early age of 12 and ruled for 68 years until his death in 683 AD. Well known for his drive and contributions of Palenque, Pacal built the Forgotten Temple in 647 AD. He also sponsored the Temple of the Count, as well as underground galleries beneath passages in the Palace. Stucco reliefs of masks in tableros on the west end of the north facade of the Palace and figures with well defined facial features on columns on the north facade celebrate Pacal’s ancestry. His remains, adorned with jade ornaments and face covered with a jade mask were deposited in a stone sarcophagus covered with an elaborately carved stone located in a chamber 1.5 m below the surface of the plaza above which was erected as the Pyramid or Temple of the Inscriptions. The sarcophagus is currently accessible by a stairway from Temple of the Inscriptions on the top of the pyramid.

Pacal left more than just majestic temples to remind the Mayan world of his existence; Chan-Balum, the eldest son, assumed power in 684 AD upon the death of his father ruled under the same lineage for another 18 years. He was responsible for the completion of the temple atop the Pyramid of the Inscriptions modeled after the Forgotten Temple and the construction of the Group of the Cross temples: the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Foliated Cross, and the Temple of the Sun. The panels on the rear interior walls of all these temples depict Chan-Balum and Pacal containing texts purporting to legitimize Chan-Balum’s power.

Kan-Xul the younger son of Pacal succeeded his older brother in 702 AD at the age of 38 and ruled for yet another 23 years. He remodeled the Palace adding rooms, galleries and courtyards with bas-relief slabs some exhibiting fine detail. Under his direction the Palace assumed roughly its present form including T-windows (also present in other structures at Palenque and at other sites) whose function is unclear. Some theories suggest that the T formations functioned as vocal points for an system of acoustics within the walls of the palace that allowed for communication around its walls. The T-form also appears in the Ik day glyph which means ‘wind" and ‘breath" and might be taken as a metaphor for ‘life’.

Though uncertain, Kan-Xul may also been responsible for adding the tower to the Palace. This structure supported by wooden lentils with an interior staircase is thought by some to have functioned as an astronomical observatory, a theory supported by the presence of a venus glyph on a landing. Temple XIV is also attributed to Kan-Xul. This structure was apparently deliberately placed to block access to the Group of the Cross. Kan-Xul is thought to have been made a prisoner of war and decapitated.

Credits for the original version of this post goes out to Duende Tours: Palenque History

More information:
Mayan Pyramids: ancient technology article on

Pictures of Palenque
Pictures of Mexico

Duende Tours Home

Fields, Virginia M. (1991) Iconographic heritage of the Maya Jester God. In Sixth Palenque Round Table, 1986. Virginia M. Fields, ed. pp. 167 – 174 Palenque Round Table (6 session, 1986) University of Oklahoma Press Norman.

Freidel, David and Barbara Macleod (2000) Creation Redux:new thoughts on Maya cosmology from epigraphy, iconography, and archaeology. PARI Journal 1(2):1-8,18.
Guenter, Stanley (n.d.). The Tomb of K’inich Janaab Pakal:The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque (PDF). Mesoweb Articles. Mesoweb. Retrieved on 2008-02-04.

Houston, Stephen (1996) Symbolic Sweatbaths of the Maya:Architectural Meaning in the Cross Group at Palenque, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity, 7(2), pp. 132-151.
Kelley, David (1965) The Birth of the Gods at Palenque. In Estudios de Cultura Maya 5, 93-134. Mxico:Universidad Nacional Autnoma de Mexico.

Robertson, Merle Greene (1991) The Sculpture of Palenque Vol. IV. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Schele, Linda (1992) Notebook for the XVIth Maya Hieroglyphic Writing Workshop at Texas. Austin, TX:University of Texas at Austin.

Stuart, David and Stephen Houston (1994) Classic Maya Place Names Studies. Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, 33. Washington, DC:Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.


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