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Palenque


Site listed in The Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions "Sources of Sculpture and their Codes" and designated PAL (Graham and Mathews 1999).

See Mesoweb's Palenque for structures, monuments, inscriptions, feature articles, and other resources.


Located on the northern foothills of the Chiapas Highlands overlooking the Tabasco Plain, Palenque is renowned for its elegant sculptural technique, its architecture, and for the tomb of K'inich Janaab Pakal the Great, which must have been a wonder of the ancient world as much as our own (Martin and Grube 2008:155).

Palenque more than compensates for its lack of stelae with the magnificent abundance of its architectural sculpture in stucco and stone; lingering traces of colorful paintwork on its limestone facades evoke its bygone visual glory (ibid.:155). Ironically, some of its greatest artistic achievements were born of adversity, as kings sought to legitimize themselves following military defeat and consequent ruptures in the order of dynastic succession (ibid.:155).

Our knowledge of Baakal, as the kingdom was anciently known, comes from retrospective inscriptions produced by Pakal and his descendants beginning in the late seventh century (ibid.:156). The evidence from archaeology is comparatively meager, as large areas of the site have not been excavated and structures like the Palace are built over earlier phases that have not been explored (ibid.:156, 164).

The place name given to the ancient settlement of Palenque as distinct from the name of the kingdom that it controlled was Lakamha', "Big Water" (ibid.:157). This may be a reference to the many streams that flow through the site and cascade down from its upland terrace to the plains below; or it may refer specifically to the Otolum river, which flows through the site center and past the Palace in an aqueduct (ibid.:157).

Another place name, Toktahn (possibly "Mist Center"), may refer to a different locale where the kingdom was originally located (ibid.:157).

Another Palenque place name is mythological. Muwaan Mat, the progenitor of Palenque's patron deities, is said to have acceded as an ajaw at a location called Matwiil; and historical rulers used the formula "Divine Matwiil Lord" as a kind of emblem glyph (ibid.:159).

The mythological history of Palenque begins with the accession of a god nicknamed GI the Elder in 3309 BC under the auspices of another deity named Yax Naah Itzamnaaj (ibid.:159).

The foregoing is based on Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens by Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube (2008:155-157, 159).


Since the First Palenque Round Table in 1973, the inscriptions of Palenque have been studied extensively. In addition to the subsequent meetings in the Round Table series, the Dumbarton Oaks Pre-Columbian Library and Collections, under the direction of Elizabeth Benson, sponsored a series of mini-conferences between 1974 and 1978 that led to significant advances in decipherment and methodology. Publications include the Round Table series published by the Precolumbian Art Research Institute and the Notebooks for the Maya Meetings at University of Texas, Austin.


As evocatively described by Gillett Griffin (1974:9),

Palenque, the most enigmatically moving of all Maya sites, has held its secrets for over twelve hundred years. The location is imbued with a quality that reaches out and draws one irresistably. Enigmatic though it might be, its architecture sings to us with a Mozartian sort of richness and classical elegance not mute like the heavier, more rigidly conservative architecture of most other Classic Maya sites. Originality and harmony shine out of the mellow Palenque limestone. The presence of its builders is felt across the centuries by those who give themselves completely to the Palenque experience.

First of all the setting, nestled against the Chiapas mountain wall, most of it engulfed by lush, deep rain forest, is most dramatic. It sits in a shelf sculpted into the mountain by subtle Maya designers, at the edge of a virtual precipice, facing the vast unbroken stretch of eighty miles of savannah and swampland stretching north to the Gulf of Mexico, which provided natural protection in ancient times. At the back of the central nuclear plaza the mountains spin upwards dizzily into clouds of dense soaring rain forest which conceal endless levels of man-made terraces, bearing uncounted structures, most of which appear to have been mausoleums. Through this enchanted setting clear streams splash and tumble, cascading over sinter basins and into sparkling pools. All of the early travelers remarked with pleasure on the extraordinary beauty of the setting of Palenque. In this century Frans Blom remarked "the first visit to Palenque is immensely impressive. When one has lived there for some time this ruined city becomes an obsession." (more)


The scene is also set by Merle Greene Robertson (1985:3):

On the western edge of the Maya realm, along the foothills of the Sierra de Palenque mountains, a small tribe of Indians in Preclassic times decided to make their home. The beauty of the natural surroundings, with their lush tropical vegetation and many streams and rivers cascading over low hills and across a small level area in the terrain, must have seemed quite appropriate to the small group that settled in what centuries later was to be known as Palenque. It is not known with any certainty what these people called their community; quite possibly it was Lakam Ha', or "Big Water". (B'aakal, based on the word for "Bone", seems to have been the name of their kingdom.) Palenque still holds the mystical charm and appeal that must have been the deciding factor in that early group's choice of a home. Although the site dates back to Preclassic times, probably as early as 500 B.C., it did not achieve unusual importance until somewhere around the mid-7th century A.D. (more)