Yaxchilan – Chiapas – Mexico



More on the Maya

Yaxchilan – Chiapas


This site is located amid a thick blanket of tropical rainforest on the banks of the River Usumacinta. It emerged around AD 350 and survived until 810. In pre-Hispanic times it was known as Pa’ Chan (Divided Sky). Its architectural layout is adapted to the topography of the terrain and the river, with the buildings arranged from east to west on a large plaza delimited to the south by elevations that served as foundations for the constructions. Yaxchilan is famous for its numerous finely carved monuments, which tell us something of the life of a long sequence of rulers and dignitaries over the course of six centuries. The principal means of representation is the stela, although there are also 58 carved lintels. The nearest towns are Palenque in Chiapas and Tenosique in Tabasco. There are access roads from both places, but only Palenque offers a bus route and travel agencies. Take the road to Chancal, from there to Frontera Corozal or Frontera Echeverria, on the banks of Usumacinta, and then hire a motor boat to cover the rest of the journey to Yaxchilan. From Frontera Corozal the journey downstream by motor boat takes approximately 30 minutes. The motor boat service runs all year round and can be booked on the spot through indigenous cooperatives or at any travel agency in Palenque.

Pre-Hispanic history

Yaxchilan is one of the great Maya sites from the Classic period, evolving from a tiny village of farmers and hunters into a prominent city. It is thought to have gained importance during the rule of Mahk’ina Skull I, who was lord of Yaxchilan around AD 410. When Mahk’ina Skull II acceded to the throne in 526 the city became a regional capital, as evidenced by the presence of its emblem glyph at other sites. It also exerted a certain political influence over sites such as El Chicozapote, Anaite, La Pasadita, El Cayo and La Mar. Amund AD 600 the rulers suddenly began to erect stelae, undoubtedly reflecting a period of political Instability. Thereafter, the record of rulers was renewed in 630, when Bird Jaguar III acceded to the throne. His son, Shield Jaguar II, who took the throne in 681, was responsible for the most important expansion of the city and his reign was characterised by constant struggles with other cities, over which he managed to maintain control. Shield Jaguar II had three wives: Fish Nst, Snake White and Lady Ik Skull, who was the mother of the next ruler, Bird Jaguar IV. Following the death of Shield Jaguar II (around 742), it would appear that his third wife ruled for the next 10 years. Under Bird Jaguar IV, Yaxchilan acquired its definitive appearance and consolidated its hegemony. This ruler commissioned buildings and monuments representing himself and his wives and deputies, which suggests the need to strengthen and expand political alliances to guarantee Mobility. In 757, when Shield Jaguar II was five years old, his father Bird Jaguar IV named him his official heir. Shield Jaguar II is shown taking a prisoner (around 787) on the central lintel of the Temple of the Pointings at Bonampak. In the final record for this dynasty, Lintel 10 (c. AD 808) shows Mahk’ina Skull III, who was apparently the son of Shield Jaguar II. Of this long line of rulers, Bird Jaguar IV (Yaxun Balam IV) is perhaps the best known. He acceded to the throne ot the mature age of 44 on 29 April 752 and became one of the most dynamic rulers of the Classic period (AD 250-830), creating numerous sculptures and texts In his 16-year reign: stelae 1, 3, 6, 9, 10, 11 and 35; lintels 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 16, 21, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 33, 38, P), 40, 50 and 59; the hieroglyphic stairway of Temple H; and altars 1, 3, 4 and 9. He sought important marriage Alliances with a number of high-ranking women from neighbouring kingdoms – Lady Great Skull, Lady Wak Tun from Motul de San Jose, Lady Wak Jalam Chan Ajaw from Motul de San Jose and Lady Mut Bahlam de Hix Witz – and proclaimed his legitimacy as ruler by commissioning numerous public texts. He was also responsible for the Architectural transformation of the site. The area around the Main Plaza, composed of several natural differences In the level of the terrain, was levelled and turned into a single monumental architectural group. At least 12 different buildings were erected or modified during his reign.

Site description

The present-day classification of the structures at Yaxchilan is based on the system devised by Teobert Maler, with adaptations by Silvanus Morley in 1931 and Roberto Garcia Moll in the 1970s. It adopts an ascending sequence of Arabic numerals. The association of buildings with stelae, lintels and monuments is particularly complex And the most orderly tour of the site is as follows:

  1. Structures situated along the banks of the river and In the Great Plaza: 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 66, 67, 68, 74, 80 and 81.
  2. Structures on the second terrace: 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30.
  3. Central Acropolis: 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38.
  4. South Acropolis: 39, 40, 41.
  5. West Acropolis: 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 87.
  6. North-West Group: 84, 85, 86.
  7. South-East Group: 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 88.

Structure 1.

This overlooks the Main Plaza from a natural terrace standing approximately 3 m high. Situated in a short passageway leading to the South Acropolis, it accommodates four stone lintels (5, 6, 7 and 8) with inscriptions, which Maler removed from their original position in the building to record and photograph. Lintel 8 is situated towards the east. All of the lintels commemorate a date at the end of a Katun ( and the protagonist is Yaxun Balam IV.

Structure 2.

This building has not been consolidated. In 1900 Maler found the remains of two monuments underneath a mound of rubble: Lintel 9 and Stela 30. In 1964 the lintel was taken to the National Museum of Anthropology and History, where it remains on display, the stela (fragment) is associated with an unnumbered mound to the east, near Structure 2. It was found by the first keeper of the archaeological area in 1934. Morley published a minor reference to it in 1937. The fragment comes from the top of a stela and depicts a cartouche with a figure.

Structure 3.

In 1897 Maler reported two lintels, one of them completely eroded. Lintel 10 is in a good condition and nowadays protected by a film. It refers to the blood relationship between an unnamed ruler and his father, Shield Jaguar II, whose mother was Lady ‘Perforator’.

Structure 5.

This is a low, elongated platform running parallel to the south-east end of the Main Plaza. It is surrounded by three other low platforms (4, 5 and 8) and no remains of an upper structure have been found. The rear of the building is narrow and falls steeply down to the river. Next to it stands Hieroglyphic Stairway 1, which is composed of 188 individual blocks of stone. Only the risers of the steps are sculpted. Maler described this stairway as ‘the most magnificent he had ever seen’. The glyphs are extremely difficult to read and many of them are completely eroded. The reading order begins at the top left with step 1 and continues across and down. The first step mentions an individual from the Jaguar family, while the next step shows the verb Chum wan (sat on the throne) but the date is totally illegible. The first and second steps display at least another four illegible glyphs regarding accessions to the throne. The events recorded on this stairway would appear to narrate the deeds of an individual called Jaguar and they culminate while Bird Jaguar IV was still alive. This monument seems to be the only complete list of rulers known to date at Yaxchilan. It was built during the reign of Yaxun Balam IV.

Structure 6.

The excavations conducted in 1976 provided a partial interpretation of the function of this building: to connect the Main Plaza to the area near the river. Numerous examples of Lacondon ceramics were found, the product of rites conducted by this group in recent times. The latest incense burning ceremony was recorded in 1985. Nowadays, Structure 6 is situated on the banks of the river, which flowed further to the south in the pre-Hispanic period. Some of the structures at the site were destroyed when the river was diverted in recent years. The excavations identified a 5-metre stairway leading down from the Main Plaza to structures 6 and 7.

Structure 7.

First recorded by Maudslay (1889) and consolidated and restored by Garcia Moll (1976), this structure is composed of two parallel galleries accessed on the east side. Like Structure 6, its facades overlook the river and the Main Plaza. Discernible on the frieze are the remains of a mask representing a supernatural creature, while the cream colour that once covered the internal walls is still partly visible. It is very similar in style – thick walls and wide access at the front – to Structure 6, which suggests that it was built around the same time.

Structure 9.

This structure is covered by thick vegetation and therefore barely visible. According to Maler, it has three entrances and two parallel galleries, and there are two associated altars. It is also associated with Stela 27, which bears one of the oldest inscriptions in the Usumacinta region. It mentions a ruler called Knot-Eye Jaguar, who is also named on Lintel 12 at Piedras Negras.

Structure 10.

Situated on a 3-metre-high platform, this structure consists of two more or less adjacent rooms, each one a different size. The north-west room has three entrances and the south-east one two entrances. Three carved lintels were found. The north-west room only has a lintel above the central entrance (Lintel 29), while the south-east room has two (30 and 31). The INAH excavated these buildings in 1979. Lintels 29 and 31 were found by Maler and Maudslay in situ. However, the archaeological project conducted in the 1970s found them on the floor and broken. All three lintels were restored and put back in their original position. They mention the date of the birth of one of the last rulers, Yaxun Balam IV. The three lintels record an 819-day count prior to his birth, the date of his birth, the date of his enthronement, and the end of two important cycles.

Structure 11.

This corresponds to a small residential group with a central courtyard. Three entrances give on to a small courtyard formed by the rear part of structures 10 and 74. The rooms overlooking the river are completely in ruins, although the floors are still visible. This building originally accommodated Lintel 56 which Maudslay reported and sent to Europe for display in the British Museum. However, it ended up by mistake at the Museum fur Volkerkunde in Berlin and was destroyed during the bombing in the Second World War. Fortunately, there is a copy at the British Museum. Nowadays, the structure has been reconstructed with three bare stelae in situ. The text mentions the inauguration of the building by one of the most important women in the history of Yaxchilan: Lady Xoc.

Structure 12.

This is situated in the Central Plaza, next to the Ball Court. Maudslay was the first to report the building and mentions the existence of two lintels. Maler reported having entered the building and found another two. On its 14th mission to Central America, the Carnegie Foundation excavated it and found another three lintels. Finally, Garcia Moll of the INAH found the last of a series of eight lintels that provide a continuous inscription commissioned by Ruler 10 of Yaxchilan; this mentions the nine previous rulers, his own date of enthronement and the kinship ties that link him to this line of rulers.

Structure 14 or ball court.

This is situated in a large area of the northern part of the Central Plaza. The group is composed of two parallel platforms, about 2.5 high, but asymmetrical: one is 13.8 m long and the other 18 m long. Five stone discs associated with this structure were found, all with a similar diameter (65 cm) and height (45 cm). They were distributed at the level of the playing area, so the stucco cladding did not conceal them. Although in a poor state of preservation, their design seems to show an individual seated in a cross-legged position on a throne which bears the image of a mythological creature. Cartouches around the central image depict images of what are probably important ancestors.

Structure 19.

This now serves as the main entrance to the site and a tour of this structure is an unforgettable experience. The ground plan is extremely complex and we do not know what the original plan was like. It is composed of nine vaulted chambers connected by 16 galleries, also vaulted, situated on three different levels. The two lower passages are practically below ground level. This group of chambers and passageways, now home to insects and bats, was filled in with pebbles and mud during the pre-Hispanic period and excavated during the 1970s by Garcia Moll. The top level overlooks the Main Plaza. The main facade displays four doorways. Between the openings are a series of niches embedded into the wall, creating the effect of yet more entrances. Running above them is a frieze with a double cornice. The doorway at the west end leads to a stairway and a lateral chamber occupied almost in Its entirety by a large bench. A small vaulted room leads to a stairway with seven steps descending to the lower levels of the structure. Maudslay was the first person, in 1882, to report and describe Altar I, a circular sculpture opposite the main entrance to the top level of the structure. Nearby is another very similar altar, although nowadays in a very poor state of preservation. The greatly eroded texts on this altar make a fleeting mention to the date 61 x 12 Yaxkin (AD 742) as the death of Itzamnaaj Balam II. Although produced after this ruler’s death, it nevertheless records important events from the latter days of his reign. The architecture of the building is similar to that of structures 20 and 30 in terms of the height of the vaulted ceilings and the width of the walls. This suggests that it is a slightly later building.

Structure 20.

This is situated on the first terrace on the north side of the Central Plaza. Opposite it, in the plaza itself, are five stelae commissioned by Itzamnaaj Balam II, each with a circular altar. This group of monuments is the focal point of a group of structures: 4, 5, 8 and 20. Flanking the access stairway are another three structures. The top step, in front of the threshold to the building, is carved (Hieroglyphic Stairway 5). Three doorways lead to a vaulted chamber. The facade is organised in such a way that the doorways divide the wall surface into three sections, all identical in size. Above the doorways is a frieze composed of three niches which contain the remains of human figures wearing armour, carved in stone and covered with stucco. These remains suggest that the figures formed part of a scene composed of human figures surrounded by supernatural figures (the monster Cauac) and aquatic plants, alternating with niches containing human figures seated on zoomorphic thrones. Six stelae (3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 33) stand opposite Structure 20 and there are three carved lintels above the doorways. Stela 3 was transferred to a platform at the south-east corner of the Central Plaza, very close to Structure 20. This is the best preserved stela but all of them are fragmented. Stela 33, a recent find, is carved on both faces like the rest of this group. The longest text appears at the top of one of the faces and mentions the end of a Katun. It was commissioned by a ruler whose name has been completely eroded. The second text mentions Itzamnaaj Balam II and his son Yaxu’un Balam IV. Visible on the other side is a cartouche with the image of an ancestor and what looks like a celestial monster. Of the three lintels that adorned the entrance, two remain in situ while the missing one was transferred to the National Museum of Anthropology and History in 1964. The hieroglyphic stairway was excavated during the consolidation works, photographed, drawn and then covered up again for its protection.



Structure 21.

The consolidation and restoration of this structure in 1983 yielded two important monuments: a small stela carved on both sides and a well-preserved stucco mural on the rear wall of the inner chamber. The mural displays traces of red and blue paint. The Interior of this structure must have been completely covered with stucco decorations. The three doorways lo the building had carved lintels (15, 16 and 17) but Maudslay sent them to the British Museum in 1883.

Structure 23.

This is one of the most interesting structures because it yielded three of the most fascinating reliefs ever found in the Maya area: lintels 74, 25 and 26. The structure is mentioned in these loxts as yotoot, meaning ‘house of the Lady Xoc’, the principal wife of King Itzamnaaj Balam III. The ruins of this ‘house’ are the second towards the west of the great stairway leading to Structure 33. They consist of two parallel galleries, each divided into several sections. Except for the south-east corner, the vaulted ceiling has all but collapsed. This is a massive construction whose exterior walls measure 2.59 m from base to cornice. The vaults add another 4.2 m to the already high walls. Opposite the central entrances nre various U-shaped benches abutted to the wall behind, above which are a series of 30-cm niches, traces of stucco can be discerned on the central pilaster of the rear wall of the central chamber representing the remains of a snake’s body – and there are also traces of red and blue paint in certain details beneath the vault. In 1889 Maudslay tiansported lintels 24 and 25 to the British Museum, where they remain on display today. Maler excavated l Intel 26 near the north door of the structure and in 1964 the INAH sent it to the National Museum of Anthropology and History. Lintel 23 was found during the excavations in 1979 and returned to its original position. The narrative on the three lintels begins on l intel 25, with Lady Xoc celebrating the enthronement of her husband Itzamnaaj Balam II in 681 and Invoking an important ancestor by performing a bloodletting ritual on her tongue. The ancestor is shown in the mouth of a mythological creature, half serpent half centipede, garbed in the characteristic elements of the Teotihuacan god Tlaloc. The associated text identifies this personage as a dedication to the patron god of Yaxchilan, Aj K’ahk O’Chaak, probably an allusion to Itzamnaaj Balam II himself as the city’s protector. Lintel 24, dated 709, shows Lady Xoc threading a barbed rope through her tongue. The blood runs down the woman’s face and is caught in a basket covered with paper at her feet. Itzamnaaj Balam illuminates and accompanies Xoc with a torch.

Lintel 26 shows the same lady presenting her husband with a jaguar-shaped helmet in 724 as part of a ritual that has yet to be fully interpreted. This building is important for two reasons: it was the first project commissioned by Itzamnaaj Balam II and it has yielded a number of finds. In 1979 Garcia Moll discovered two tombs inside it. Tomb 3 opposite the main entrance contained the remains of an elderly woman with a rich offering comprising over 400 jade beads and 34 ceramic vessels. A text mentions the date of the death of Lady Xoc as 749 and makes reference to a ‘fire’ ritual conducted in her muknal or ‘final resting place’. Tomb 2 contained the remains of a mature man accompanied by an even richer offering, with needles and deer horns carved with inscriptions that mention Itzamnaaj Balam and Lady Xoc.

Structure 33.

This is the most important building at Yaxchilan and has attracted visitors ever since it was completed during the reign of Itzamnaaj Balam II’s son, Yaxun Balam IV. Restored and consolidated by the INAH in 1975, the group to which it now belongs also includes Structure 9, situated in the Central Plaza, stelae 27, 1, 2 and 31, and the sculptures around Stela 1. The building was a place of worship for many years after it was abandoned during the 9th century. At the end of the 19th century, Maler reported large quantities of copal near the building, the product of activities conducted by groups of Lacondon people. Maler also lived at the building during his sojourn at the site. When the city was occupied, the roof comb of this building must have been a landmark for travellers sailing up the river or journeying from Yaxchilan. The stairway is 13.5 m wide and Stela 2 is situated on a small 2-metre terrace belonging to the Central Plaza. As one climbs up the central stairway, different parts of the building appear before the visitor’s eyes, such as the two lateral structures to the left. The great stairway leads to a small plaza measuring 30×15 m. Approximately 5 m from the central entrance to the building, a pit created during the 1975 excavations reveals another level of the earlier plaza. Situated inside the pit is a carved stalactite (Stela 31). Behind the stela is a small 2-metre-high platform leading to the hieroglyphic steps (Hieroglyphic Stairway 2) that constitutes a platform for the building. Ten of the steps mention members of the ruling family playing ball. Three show female figures holding sceptres shaped like supernatural creatures (K God). The room in the middle of the building is accessed via three doorways. The facade is articulated around three spaces: the main section, the frieze and the roof comb. The walls in the main section are very simple. Maler reported a red band running along the facade beneath the cornice and around the doorways, although nowadays there are no traces of this. At the top of the main section we see a cornice that projects some 40 cm from the plane of the wall, forming a surface from which rises a sloping plane that once displayed stucco figures in relief, which formed the frieze. Above each doorway we see a niche, aligned with the frieze. Along the lower part of the frieze is a stone frame which once supported a stucco figure, probably serving as a type of throne for a seated dignitary. Above the frame we see parts of the stucco human figures in the niche over the central and right doorways, and the remains of a seated figure in the niche above the left doorway. The roof comb comprises eight rows of stone that create a variety of tiny openings, probably designed to accommodate stucco figures. At the centre of the roof comb we see the remains of a large figure, seated and wearing a grand headdress. The three doorways display carved lintels (1, 2 and 3) and lead to a vaulted gallery. In the middle of the chamber are the remains of a seated sculpture; his head and headdress were removed from the main figure and now lie near the statue. The height of this figure with the now removed head is 2 m. On the wall near the lower part of the figure are four columns with glyphs, nowadays greatly eroded, which must have identified the individual represented on the monument. It is only possible to distinguish one title: ‘He of the 20 Captives’, one of the titles used by Yaxun Balam IV. Building 33 was probably finished by his son, Chel Te’ Chan K’inich, as a tribute to the father. Each of the three lintels that decorate the entrance show Yaxun Balam IV performing a ritual dance. Lintel 2 shows the same figure as a child, being assigned a series of royal titles, including the emblem glyph of Yaxchilan. In the 1970s Garcia Moll found the remains of a tomb with an extremely rich offering underneath Building 33, although the identity of the individual has yet to be established.

South Acropolis (Structures 39, 40 and 41).

The entrance to this complex is via the rear part of Building 33, following the path that leads to Structure 34, past buildings 38 and 37 and up to the top of the hill. This is the present-day route, but in pre-Hispanic times access must have been via a stairway behind Structure 1, leading to the front of Structure 41. A long platform in front of Structure 39 served as a base for Stela 10. The building rises from a seven-tier platform. Three doorways near the centre of the facade generate a dark interior space. Nowadays, most of the decoration, divided into three sections, has been lost. None of the stucco sculptures on the frieze have survived, although a few geometric designs are discernible at the top. Structure 39 was discovered by Maler in 1897. Stela 10 was found in situ at the time of the discovery but is now on display in the National Museum of Anthropology. Opposite the stela stood Altar 6, and altars 5 and 4 not far away. All of them still occupy their original position, although their carvings have disappeared completely.

Structure 40.

This is the central building in the South Acropolis. It was probably the second one to be constructed, after Building 39. It consists of two platforms rising directly from the level of the plaza. The associated monuments were aligned with the centre of the main facade. Altar 14 actually occupied the central doorway, while Stela 11 stood further back, but in a straight line, on the first platform. Altar 12 was situated on the left, accompanied by Altar 13, and to the right of the latter was Altar 15. Like most of the buildings at Yaxchilan, the central facade was divided into three sections: a section devoid of all decoration, covered in a simple white stucco, followed by a richly decorated frieze with stucco figures, now lost, and an ornate roof comb with stucco figures in relief. The interior consists of a dark, vaulted chamber whose rear wall displays the remains of three small stucco figures. There are also traces of polychrome paint on the walls. Maler reported ‘leaves, volutes, flowers interspersed here and there’. The colours reported by Maler are light and dark red, light and dark blue, different shades of yellow, coffee, white and green. Most of this mural has disappeared over the last century. Maler also reported having found Stela 11 in situ opposite Structure 40 in 1897. In 1964 this piece was removed along with 19 other stelae for transportation to the National Museum of Anthropology and History. However, due to its size, it could not be transported by air to its final destination and was returned by river to Yaxchilan, where it was placed on the banks of the river near Structure 5, its present-day location. Maler found two fragments from Stela 12 inside Structure 40 and a third fragment just south of the main facade, in what is thought it have been its original position. The stela has been restored and placed in front of the building’s main facade. In 1900 Maler discovered Stela 13 on the central terrace, situated north-west of Stela 11. It was consolidated by the INAH and put back in its original position in front of the building. Stela 11 was probably one of the first stelae commissioned by Yaxun Balam IV in 741, commemorating the first year {tun) of his accession to the throne. It celebrates his enthronement as an event carried out after a long series of ceremonies, including one to commemorate the death of his father Itzamnaaj Balam II.

Structure 41.

During the pre-Hispanic period, the main entrance to the South Acropolis must have led directly to Building 41. In 755, the year of its construction, the city’s inhabitants would have climbed up a great stairway and been confronted by three imposing stelae, each showing Shield Jaguar (Itzamnaaj Balam II) in military garb, humiliating a prisoner. Situated on a terrace 1.5 m higher up were two additional, albeit smaller stelae. Visible on the right are structures 40 and 39. Along the facade, a series of architectural elements form two parallel walls 1.5 m high with a cornice providing the support for the seated stucco figure of a dignitary. A band of stucco glyphs formed an inscription underneath the cornice on all four sides of the building. The frieze was decorated with zoomorphic masks and its surface was prolonged by a roof comb that projected the composition upwards to the sky. The structure was consolidated in 1979 by the archaeologist Roberto Garcia Moll (INAH). The building reveals two construction phases, like the platforms on which it stands. Stela 15 was discovered In 1900 by Maler. On falling to the ground it split into two pieces. One contained the image of the captive Ah Ahaual and the other section is on display in the National Museum of Anthropology and History. Stela 16, also found by Maler on the first terrace, again broke as it fell to the ground. It shows a figure holding a stick, with his head in profile. Unfortunately, this stela has been lost. Maler found Stela 18 laying on the lower part of the terrace from which the building rises. It had broken into four pieces. Stela 19 was found in numerous pieces and has never been reconstructed.

West or small acropolis.

This is accessed via a short path that commences just 200 m from the copper hut at the main entrance to the site and then veers right. The climb is a steep one but nevertheless worthwhile for the view of the buildings and the river from top. Excavated by the INAH at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, it comprises two important buildings:

Temple 44.

This was dedicated in 732 by Yaxun Balam IV to commemorate his military victories and reveals details of the revival of Yaxchilan as an important power in the region. Its main facade faces north to north-east. The building is composed of a single vaulted chamber, divided by a lateral wall. Maudslay was the first person to record and photograph it with the associated monuments. In 1931 Carl Ruppert excavated the entire main facade and in addition to the lintels mentioned by Maudslay found two carved steps. There are at least six stelae that may have been associated with Temple 44 during the pre-Hispanic period (stelae 14, 17, 21, 22, 23 and 29). All of them were reported by the 14th mission to Central America conducted by the Carnegie Foundation in 1931. Stela 14 was found in six pieces on the slope in front of the building’s main facade, along with stelae 17 and 21. Structure 44 was built and the inscriptions carved to exalt the military prowess of Yaxun Balam IV. The lintels and hieroglyphic steps emphasise the victories of the king and his ancestors. This emphasis on acts of war and the absence of references to important dates in the ritual calendar lend Temple 44 a different status from Building 23, whose texts emphasise Lady Xoc’s sacrificial acts and the corresponding astronomical associations, and from Building 41, which emphasises the ritual dates associated with important acts of war rather than the acts themselves. Each of the three doorways on the main facade is decorated with a carved lintel and two steps with carved texts. The texts narrate a series of consecutive events in which Itzamnaaj Bahlam is the victor of various battles between AD 681 and 732. The events begin with the capture of Aj Nik, which occurred before his enthronement as ruler of Yaxchilan. That Itzamnaaj Bahlam attached great importance to this capture is revealed by the fact that he adopted ‘Captor of Aj Nik’ as one of his titles for the rest of his life. However, we do know that the prisoner was not a high-ranking individual in the political context of the region, but a lesser nobleman from a small site, such as Maan or Namaan, near Yaxchilan. The second prisoner mentioned is Aj Kan Usja, lord of the unidentified site of Baktun, in 713. These events are also described in the texts on the stelae in front of Building 41 in the South Acropolis.

Temple 42.

This building has three doorways, each with a lintel, and two hieroglyphic steps that narrate important aspects of the life of Yaxun Balam IV (lintels 41, 42 and 43). It was restored in 1982 by the INAH. The upper part of Lintel 41 was first reported by Maudslay who sent it to the British Museum, where it remains on display. Its lower part was found in 1931 and restored to its original position. In 1889 Maudslay photographed Stela 42 and a copy was made. Nowadays, it can be viewed in situ. Stela 43 was recovered by the INAH and sent to Mexico City in 1964. Nowadays, it is on display in the Maya Room of the Museum of Anthropology and History.

From: ‘The Maya: an architectural and landscape guide’, produced jointly by the Junta de Andulacia and the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, 2010, pp160-171.



1. The Main Plaza; 2. Hieroglyphic Stairway; 3. Ball Court; 4. Structure 1; 5. Structure 3; 6. Structure 20; 7. Structure 21; 8. Structure 22; 9. Structures 23 and 24; 10. Central Acropolis; 11. Structure 33; 12. South Acropolis; 13. Structure 40; 14. Structure 41; 15. West Acropolis; 16. Temple 44; 17. Temple 42; 18. South-east group.

Getting there;

It is possible to get to Frontera Corozal by combi from Palenque but to visit the site and then return the same day might be problematic. There is accommodation at Frontera but some of it will be very expensive. The other issue is negotiating a launch to take you the 30 minutes down river (and then back again). Guide books say try to join a group but most of the groups are those organised by tour companies and the chances of getting on any of their launch is minimal. This is where taking an organised tour makes sense (which would normally be combined with a visit to Bonampak). The costs and hassle of doing this yourself outweighs the extra cost.


This, for me, was all part of the tour cost.

More on the Maya

Toniná – Chiapas – Mexico



More on the Maya

Toniná – Chiapas


With its privileged location overlooking one end of the Ocosingo Valley, Toniná became one of the great Maya capitals of the Classic period. Situated near the western border of the Maya area, in the transitional area between the low rainforest regions and the cold forests of the Chiapas central plateau, its position enabled it to play a crucial role in the trade relations with other territories. Between the 7th and 10th centuries AD, its political alliances and military advances earned it the status of an important regional power. The site lies 10 km east of the town of Ocosingo, easily reached on route 199.

Site description

The tour of the site commences by crossing a small stream and then climbing up to the large playing area of the sunken, I-shaped ball court. The ground of the playing area is covered by stone slabs which originally had a top layer of stucco, and there are several circular stone markers where offerings of sea shells with a red pigment and jade beads were found; seating areas for spectators seal both ends of the court. The sloping volumes of the parallel platforms were surmounted by imposing sculptures of prisoners, three on each side. One of these is currently on display at the site museum. The sculptures consisted of a large shield interwoven and fringed with feathers carved in bas-relief on a panel; projecting from the latter was the three-dimensional body of a kneeling prisoner with his hands tied behind his back. Thanks to the information recorded in the hieroglyphs, we know that this court was dedicated in AD 699 to celebrate the success of the military campaigns conducted by the governor B’aaknal Chaak in the Usumacinta region, and that it was subsequently remodelled in AD 776; the prisoners, who have been identified by their glyphs, were vassals of Palenque, Toniná’s eternal rival.

On leaving the ball court, you come to the great plaza and, at its north end, the great acropolis of Toning, the core political and ceremonial area of the city built on seven platforms rising from the natural elevation of a hill. On the opposite side of the plaza, along the south side, is a temple-pyramid known as the Temple of war, with five small altars in front of it. Evidence has been found in the Acropolis of numerous platforms, temples and richly decorated palaces, as well as tombs and sculpted monuments, all of which indicates intensive building activity over the course of several centuries. The local architectural style is easily distinguished by the slender slabs of stones, cut into square blocks, which were used for building walls, stairways, vaults and roof combs; the slabs were bonded with a clay mortar and then covered by thick layers of lime stucco. Meanwhile, the facades, friezes and walls of the constructions were often elaborately decorated with modelled stucco and painted, and although this material does not weather well, several examples have survived to this day and provide us with an insight into what the city must have looked like. The sculptural style at Toniná displays characteristics that have not been found anywhere else in the region, most notably manifested in the numerous exquisitely crafted images of governors and prisoners, carved in the round in the local sandstone and accompanied by hieroglyphic texts, although there are also magnificent examples of bas-relief carvings on panels and altars.

As you climb up to the different levels of the Acropolis, you will have the chance to discover different types of precincts and constructions. Situated at the east end of the first platform is the Palace of the Underworld. This is the sub-structure of a palace composed of 11 bays or vaulted passages which are accessed on the south side only, via three doors with a lintel and stepped vault. The layout is not symmetrical but forms a type of labyrinth in which the passages become increasingly narrower and darker; the only source of light comes from two small cross-shaped openings on the south facade of the palace. Structures of this type may have been associated with initiation rites for governors, during which contact was established with the gods or the governor’s ancestors through bloodletting rituals, and they may therefore have represented a symbolic entrance to the underworld. Other examples of pre-Hispanic labyrinths have been recorded at Yaxchilan, in the Usumacinta region, and at Oxkintok, Yucatan. Situated on the third platform is an imposing stepped fret, the symbol of the wind, and next to it a short free-standing stairway culminating in a throne decorated with hieroglyphs, leading to the palace area. The entire eastern section of the Acropolis, which is not open to visitors, was used throughout several dynasties as the residential area for the local elite, marking a clear division from the western section which appears to have been used for administrative and/or public affairs. In general, the different palaces adopt a similar layout, with the rooms opening onto a central quadrangular courtyard. The rooms were originally ornately decorated with polychrome stucco reliefs depicting historical and mythological scenes. The central part of the fifth platform was probably a necropolis because several tombs of important dignitaries, possibly members of the ruling class, have been found in this area. On the seventh and final platform of the Acropolis are several pyramid temples from the top of which visitors will gain panoramic views of the valley. The best preserved structure is the Temple of the earth monster, thus called because the middle of the stairway was decorated with a giant, open-mouthed mask with a stone sphere inside, possibly representing the sun emerging from the underworld at dawn. In this temple it is possible to see how the stepped vault resting on thick masonry walls was built, culminating in a perforated roof comb reminiscent of the Usumacinta style; another interesting element is the presence of an adoratorium inside a second bay, not unlike the ones in the Cross Group at Palenque. At the beginning of the 10th century AD, during the Chenek phase, the site was affected by the Maya collapse and the widespread abandonment of the Maya lowlands; there are clear signs of the arrival of foreign groups who settled at the site, looting the tombs and destroying the sculpted monuments.

Lynneth S. Lowe

From: ‘The Maya: an architectural and landscape guide’, produced jointly by the Junta de Andulacia and the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, 2010, pp453-459.



  1. Great Plaza; 2. Ball Court; 3. South Temple; 4. Great Acropolis; 5. Palace of the Underworld; 6. Palace of the Jaguars; 7. Mural; 8. Temple of War.

Getting there:

From Ocosingo. Colectivo to Toniná from Azucena/Periférico Oriente Sur, in the middle of the busy market area. M$25 right to the site entrance. If there is a delay in a return combi walk back up the road a kilometre to the next junction. Here there are all kinds of transport options going back to Ocosingo, just flag down everything that passes.


16d 54′ 07″ N

92d 00′ 34″ W


It displays an entrance of M$75 but I wasn’t charged. There’s a labour dispute (summer 2023) so that might account for it.

More on the Maya

Palenque – Chiapas – Mexico




More on the Maya

Palenque – Chiapas


From Villahermosa, Tabasco, take federal road 186. The turn-off to the right to the municipal area of Palenque is situated at km 114, and 32 km further along is the present-day city of Palenque; 8 km from there, along a branch road to the right, is the archaeological site. Palenque is well situated for visiting a variety of archaeological and natural points, all within a comfortable distance. Palenque can also be reached from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, via federal road 199. This route is longer, taking approximately five hours, but it takes in the archaeological site of Tonina, the Agua Azul waterfalls and Misolha.


We have recently learned that Palenque, like the other major sites in the Maya lowlands, has a long timeline of occupation stretching from at least the Middle Preclassic or approximately 600 BC. Although we do not have a knowledge of the characteristics of the site at that time, or its size and the form and number of structures, we have been able to identify ceramics from this period linking Palenque to other, better known sites in the lowlands of Mesoamerica. There is much clearer information about the Palenque of the early centuries AD. For example, the inscriptions of later texts tell us that the first ruler acceded to the throne in AD 431 and was succeeded by an uninterrupted series of rulers until AD 799. In terms of its ceramics, the history of Palenque has been divided into five phases: Picota (150 BC-AD 300), Motiepa (300-550), Otolum (550-650), Murcielagos (650-750) and Balunte (750-830).

Pre-Hispanic history

Palenque offers a fascinating history of minutely detailed events thanks to the recent translation and interpretation of texts written by the city’s inhabitants, and although the interpretations of its timeline are less precise the archaeological investigations of the city’s monuments nevertheless reveal extraordinarily long processes. The study of a site like Palenque contributes enormously to our knowledge of the pre-Hispanic Maya civilisation. The inscriptions mention Palenque in different ways. Its emblem glyph, the particular inscription that accompanies the names of the city’s rulers, is Baak (bone): for example, Hanaab Pakal Baakal ahaw (Hanaab Pakal, lord of Baak). By extension, Baakal was probably the name used to designate the territory under Palenque’s influence. Other glyphs are used to refer to certain sections of the city or to the different names by which Palenque was known, such as Lakamha (Great Water) and Toktan (original home of the dynasty).

Our knowledge of the earliest periods comes from texts written retrospectively that mention the dates of enthronement and death of several of the city’s first rulers. For example, K’uk’ Bahlam (Quetzal Jaguar) is referred to as the founder of a line of rulers that culminated in AD 799, the date of the last known record. He used the title ‘Lord of Toktan’ and his short four-year reign commenced on 10 March 431. The date of his enthronement corresponds to events of great importance in the Maya area, associated with the presence of Teotihuacan at sites such as Tikal and Copan. The next ruler, whose name has not been translated but whose image is represented on a small alabaster vase currently on display in the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington, acceded to the throne in 435 and reigned for 50 years. A tablet found in the 1990s in one of the rooms of Temple XVII mentions Ihe third ruler, Butz’aj Sak Chiik, who acceded to the throne in 487. He was succeeded by his younger brother Ahkal Mo’ Naab I (Turtle Macaw Lake), who is mentioned in a text found in Temple XVII as the future heir (Ch’ok, young prince) and acceded to the throne In 501. His enthronement mentions Palenque for the first time as Lakamha and marks a change in relation to the earlier rulers of the city who are said to come from a place called Toktan. Four years after the death of Ahkal Mo’ Naab I (AD 524), interpreted as a time of difficulties in the line of succession, the throne passed In 529 to K’an Joy Chitam I (Precious Tied Peccary), who reigned for 36 years and died in 565 at the age of 74.

He was succeeded by a nephew of the same name who reigned for five years. Ahkal Mo’ Naab II was succeeded in 572 by Kan Bahlam I (Snake Jaguar), probably his younger brother; he reigned for 11 years and was the first ruler to use the title K’inich (Great Sun), which was thereafter adopted by all the subsequent Palenque rulers.

The next stage in the history of Palenque was a period of political complications, military defeats and problems of succession. Kan Bahlam I died without a male heir and in 583 the throne passed to his sister or daughter (the inscriptions do not clarify the exact relationship), Yohl Ik’nal, who became the first female ruler of Palenque. Although this custom was extremely rare in the Maya kingdoms of the Classic period, in the case of Palenque it would be repeated. During her reign, Palenque was attacked and probably sacked by the kingdom of Ka’an (Calakmul); according to the explanation on the hieroglyphic stairway in House C of the Palace, this event took place on 21 April 599. Lady Yohl Ik’nal died in 604 and was succeeded by Aj Ne Yohl Mat, probably her son. He clearly wielded great influence in the region because he is mentioned in texts at a number of distant sites, such as Santa Elena near the River San Pedro, where he is referred to as a witness to the enthronement of a local ruler. Even so, his reign was beset by various problems. On 4 April 611 Palenque was burned and sacked for the second time by Calakmul. It is not clear what happened to Aj Ne Yohl Mat after this defeat, but we do know that he died in March 612 and that this ushered in a dark period in the history of Palenque. The texts are ambiguous about the identity of his successor, but the period culminated in the accession to the throne of the 12-year-old K’inich Janaab Pakal. His enthronement is represented on the Oval Palace Tablet on the internal wall of House E of the Palace, which shows his mother Sak K’uk’ presenting him with the ‘drum-shaped crown’, the symbol of royal power at Palenque. Sak K’uk’ lived for another 25 years and some historians believe that she and her consort K’an Mo’ Hix acted as regents of the city, at least during the early years of Janaab Pakal’s reign.

Janaab Pakal I is the first ruler about whom we have texts and inscriptions written during his reign: the Oval Palace Tablet, the Panel of the Inscriptions, the hieroglyphic stairway in House C, the facade of the Temple Olvidado and the Temple of the Count, and the thrones in the underground passages of the Palace. This corpus of information tells us that he was a very active ruler who transformed the city’s appearance and marked its future. The best known ruler and probably the most important in the long history of Palenque, he reigned for 68 years, until his death on 28 August 683.

His reign was the longest in the history of Palenque as well as a period characterised by experimentation with new architectural and aesthetic forms that lent the city Its unique style. From the political point of view, he invested most of his reign into regaining the kingdom’s prestige, lost after successive defeats by Calakmul. Thanks to the inscriptions and sculptures covering the walls, stairways and facades of buildings in the East Court of the Palace, we know that during the second half of his reign he engaged in military campaigns against neighbouring kingdoms in the east (Pomona, Santa Elena). There is much less information about the early years of his reign. In 626 he married Tz’akbu Ahau, who took the titles ‘Lady of Toktan’ and ‘Lady of Ux Te Kuh’, and she bore him two sons who eventually succeeded him on the throne. In 1994 a sub-structure of Temple XII, situated alongside the Temple of the Inscriptions, yielded the rich tomb of a high-ranking woman whose date of burial – judging from the associated ceramics – coincides with the death of Pakal’s wife. In the absence of glyphic texts to identify her, the woman’s skeletal remains were christened the ‘Red Queen’. Today, we know that the remains correspond to those of an elderly woman who had not been born in Palenque, who was not directly related to Janaab Pakal and whose death almost coincided with that of Pakal himself. This data points to Tz’akbu Ahau: due to her high rank as Pakal’s wife and the mother of future rulers of the city, she is a vital personage in the history of the site. Janaab Pakal is identified by the way in which he died. The Temple of the Inscriptions, where he is buried, is probably the best known monument dedicated to the memory of a Maya ruler. It is also one of the finest manifestations of the architectural knowledge and the combination of religion and politics in the pre-Hispanic Maya world. Its discovery in 1952 marked an important break-through in the history of Maya archaeology. Jannab Pakal commissioned important works in the city. The first building he erected during his long reign was the Temple Olvidado, where his father’s remains were probably buried. However, he also transformed the Palace and in 654 inaugurated one of its principal constructions: House E or Sak Nuk Naah, as it is mentioned in the texts, a white building with floral designs on the facade. It was dedicated to the enthronement of at least three rulers and, as reflected in the design of the Oval Tablet situated in the front gallery, it was here that the young Pakal was invested as the ruler of Lakamha. In 661 he built the East Court, delimited by two important buildings: houses B and C. In this court and on the hieroglyphic stairways decorating the entrance to House C, Janab Pakal deployed a political discourse as a successful military leader, depicting a series of prisoners whose names identify them as important figures in the ‘Pipa’ kingdom, associated with the present-day site of Pomona, and the ‘Wa-pajaro’ kingdom, possibly the site we now know as Santa Elena. Jaanab Pakal was also involved in the remodelling of the North Group, primarily in the construction of the Temple of the Count.

He was succeeded by his son K’inich Kan Bahlam II, who completed the monument in memory of his father. The three inner tablets in the Temple of the Inscriptions were produced during his reign and the date of his enthronement is mentioned in the final section: 7 January 684. He commissioned the stucco designs on the four pilasters at the front of the temple, where he is depicted as the semi-divine young heir to the throne with one leg in the form of a serpent. The principal work from his reign is the Cross Group. Inaugurated in 692, this is composed of three exceptional buildings in terms of their innovative architectural design and symbolic content: the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Foliated Cross and the Temple of the Sun. Each of these has an inner chamber or adoratorium with a decorative panel in which Kan Bahlam is shown as a child and adult worshipping the symbol from which the different temples take their name. This complex iconographic and textual programme combines mythological and historical aspects in an extremely elaborate and diverse format. In the political domain, this ruler enjoyed numerous military victories during his reign. Tonina, as recorded in texts at Temple XVII and the Temple of the Sun, was crushed in 687, at the beginning of Kan Bahlam’s reign. He was an active and very successful military leader, judging from the frequent mentions of his activities in texts at the neighbouring kingdoms of La Mar, Moral-Reforma and Anaite. He died on 16 February 702 at the age of 66. His tomb has yet to be discovered.

Kan Bahlam II probably died without issue and was succeeded by his younger brother K’inich Kan Joy Chitam II (Great Precious Tied Peccary), who acceded to the throne at the age of 57. His most important architectural work was the remodelling of the north section of the Palace, whose gallery yielded the remains of a tablet (the famous Palace Tablet), which offers a traditional representation of the new king, Kan Joy Chitam II, receiving the drum-shaped crown from his mother and father, thus becoming the legitimate ruler of Palenque. However, this narrative introduces a section that has been a topic of great debate by historians in recent years. We have known for some time that the fortunes of Palenque received a serious setback during this ruler’s reign. In 711 Tonina captured the Palenque ruler, as represented on a monument in that city. The Palace Tablet depicts the enthronement of Kan Joy Chitam but mentions the birth and name of another individual, Ux Yop Huun, suggesting that he is the individual represented in the scene rather than Kan Joy Chitam. The associated text ends with the dedication of the building in 720, referring to Ux Yop Huun as the owner and to Kan Joy Chitam as the ‘supervisor’ of the ceremony. We have recently discovered texts that mention Kan Joy Chitam presiding over a ceremony at Piedras Negras in 718, which would seem to indicate that this ruler returned to Palenque after being captured, although, judging from the text on the Palace Tablet, no longer as the city’s ruler.

He was succeeded by his nephew K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Nahb III, who has recently been recognised as an important ruler in the history of Palenque thanks to the discoveries of sculpted thrones in temples XIX and XXI, situated in the South Acropolis. He is also represented on the famous Tablet of the Slaves, originally situated in Group IV, the residence of one of the principal lords, Chak Suutz’. Ahkal Mo’ Nahb acceded to the throne on 13 September 721. The magnificent panels in Temple XIX show a 43-year-old ruler receiving a headband that will make him ruler from another lord, Janaab Ajau – not the famous Janaab Pakal buried in the Temple of the Inscriptions. Both figures recreate an episode from the Palenque mythology in which the deity Itzamnaaj invests GI, an important Palenque deity, as ruler of the city in 3309 BC. This scene is witnessed by five prominent Palenque noblemen, identified by their respective names and titles.

This ruler was succeeded by K’inich Janaab Pakal II. The main text about his reign can be found on the throne in Temple XXI, discovered in 2002, where he is referred to as Bah Chok’ or the principal heir of K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Nahb III. Of the next ruler, K’inich Kan Bahlam II, we know of only one mention: a text enthronement ceremony of a local ruler. We can surmise from this that Palenque exerted a certain control over Pomona, although the lack of texts about this ruler at Palenque itself suggests a short reign. The last ruler of Palenque, the youngest son of Ahkal Mo’ Naab III, known as K’inich K’uk’ Bahlam II, Acceded to the throne in 764. During his reign elaborate texts with a sophisticated script were produced, as shown for example in the relief of the tablet of the 96 Glyphs, found in 1935 during the excavations of the South Court, near the Palace Tower. This text tries to replicate in stone the calligraphic style of other media and represents one of the finest examples of calligraphy from the Classic period. It commemorates the 20th anniversary, in 783, of K’uk’ hahlam II’s accession.

The last mention of a probable ruler of Palenque comes from the fragment of a vessel found by Alberto Ruz in the 1950s in the Murcielagos or Bat Group, and a second piece of the same vessel found 40 years later during nearby excavations in the same group. The vessel mentions a dignitary called Wak Kimi Janaab I’akal III (6 Death Shield) in 799. The last reference to the kingdom of Palenque (Baakal) can be found on a piece of adobe brick with the date 814 found at the archaeological site of Comalcalco.

Tour of the site

Although the ancient city of Palenque covers approximately 210 ha, only the core area is open to visitors. This comprises the most important buildings that have been excavated and consolidated: the Palace, the Temple of the Inscriptions, temples XII, XIII and the Temple of the Skull, the Ball Court, and the North Group comprising the Temple of the Count and temples I, II, III, IV and V. The Cross Group near the recently excavated South Acropolis can also be visited, comprising the following important buildings: the temples of the Cross, the Foliated Cross and the Sun, as well as Temple XVII. The South Acropolis is a late addition of constructions from Akal Mo’ Naab Ill’s reign; it comprises buildings XIX, XX and XXI, which recently yielded texts and tablets with inscriptions, now on display in the site museum. The path along the banks of the River Otolum leads to another three interesting architectural groups that are also open to visitors: C, B and the Murcielagos or Bat Group. These three complexes offer the only evidence of residential architecture and provides us with a window onto the daily life of the pre-Hispanic Maya. Situated alongside the North Group, in the Main Plaza, is a steep stairway leading to the fourth residential complex that has been excavated: groups I and II. A series of paths lead to the interior of the archaeological park and can be visited in the company of special guides.

Site description

There are three environmental characteristics in the region that must be taken into account when assessing the ancient city of Palenque: its situation in relation to permanent sources of water, its proximity to a wide strip of fertile land, and its defensive, transport and spatial potential which permitted its expansion over several centuries of occupation. However, to turn this potential into a reality, the terrain had to be adapted to offset the effects of erosion and the constant danger of flooding caused by torrential seasonal rainfall. The available land at Palenque was subjected to considerable modifications and expansions through the construction of vast terraces to level the ground and the channelling of the streams. These feats of engineering required supervision and planning from experienced individuals, as well as the coordination of a considerable number of workers. One of the things that usually strikes visitors is the existence of complex aqueducts and channels.

Palenque was built on three natural terraces, the second of which, with an east-west orientation, contains the core area of the city and most of the structures. This topographical situation was perhaps the factor that most influenced the urban layout and the reason why it did not expand radially, as was the case at most pre-Hispanic Maya sites. However, it was probably with the enthronement of the first known ruler of a long dynasty, Kuk’ Balam I (AD 431), that the Central Plaza became its administrative and political centre. At that time, part of the second natural terrace was expanded to accommodate the Central Plaza, where the first versions of the city’s most important constructions were built – the Palace, the North Group, the Temple of the Count and the Temple of the Inscriptions – as well as a network of plazas and accesses. There are remains of ceramic vessels, which the archaeologists have classified as belonging to the Motiepa phase, corresponding to this period of expansion. They were found in sub-structures from the first construction phase of the Palace, in the Ball Court filling, underneath the Temple of the Sun and behind the Temple of the Count. This core area was covered by buildings with ritual, administrative, political and residential functions. The nerve centre is the Palace, where the royal court of Palenque lived. Although the final form of this area is the product of continuous additions and remodellings – especially during the city’s golden age, the Otolum and Murcielagos periods, corresponding to the last four rulers recorded on the inscriptions – the presence of Picota and Motiepa ceramics in the fillings of plazas and buildings suggests that the activities associated with the government of the city had been conducted here since much earlier.

The recent map of Palenque shows approximately 1,450 structures distributed over an area of 210 ha (see page 58). We do not yet have the appropriate parameters for calculating the total number of inhabitants during the last phase of its occupation – the Balunte period from AD 750 to 830 – let alone the population of earlier periods. However, we can suppose that it was inhabited by between 8,000 and 10,000 individuals during this final stage. Although there is very little evidence of the early occupation of the site, the current excavations, primarily focused on studying the city’s expansion, will shed light on this stage of Palenque’s history. However, according to the data already available, we can establish the existence of a small settlement in the Late Preclassic, around 600 BC, and we are sure that Palenque shared an early occupation with certain nearby sites in the lower foothills of the Chiapas mountains. Several of these centres would subsequently be incorporated – for reasons we have yet to clarify – into the sphere of interaction in which Palenque was the principal political centre.

The architectural structure of Palenque follows a modular pattern and is composed of groups which are similar in size and probably function, although different in scale, organised in clusters around plazas. According to some authors, there are 32 major groups separated by topological elements such as rivers, ravines and terraces, and/or by empty spaces. However, a recent review of the data suggests the existence of 56 separate groups of settlement inside the ancient city limits. In strictly formal terms – given the gaps in our knowledge concerning fundamental aspects of their internal organisation and articulation – the different buildings and groups display a high degree of architectural homogeneity. In the 1990s the excavation of a sample of buildings, especially in the Cross Group and groups B, C and IV, reinforced this idea. The use of a similar architectural pattern can probably be explained by the fact that the different residential groups conducted similar economic and ritual activities. Meanwhile, the quantitative (number of structures, Architectural volume) and qualitative (building materials, decoration) differences are probably related to natural processes in the cyclical development of the groups or to their occupation by different social groups, there is no doubt whatsoever that the main residential groups are the ones nearest the core area of the site And denote a long occupation. The core area of Polenque covers 8.5 ha and is the largest open space in the city, comprising the Palace, the Ball Court and soveral temples, buildings and plazas with civic and ceremonial functions. This complex is subdivided into three large sections: the West Plaza, North Plaza and Ball Court. There are no major architectural barriers, but the construction on different levels of the plazas nnd the existence of great stairways seem to direct the flow towards the south end – to the temple-pyramids lomposed of the Temple of the Inscriptions, temples XII and XIII, and the Temple of the Skull, all funerary monuments for the ruling dynasty – and to the north, lo the North Group and the north fagade of the Palace. Us layout clearly corresponds to what some authors have described as a pattern of architectural associations with a highly symbolic content, in which the north is associated with a celestial, supernatural sphere and the south with the region of the dead. Meanwhile, the middle, the terrestrial plane, is exemplified by the Ball Court and the Palace. This architectural order ‘materialises’ a vision of the world in which the ruler Is the centre of both the community and the cosmos. These buildings in the core area, whose north and west sides face large plazas, with no architectural rlements segregating them from the rest of the city, inay have provided a point of gathering for vast numbers of Individuals: the North Group plaza has a surface Area of 5,795.5 sq m and could easily accommodate between 5,000 and 6,000 people on special occasions. This idea is reinforced by the existence of an east-west axis of circulation that integrates this area with the rest of the city. Based on this perspective, the core area of Palenque was a hub for the 56 residential groups that formed the ancient city.

Meanwhile, its situation on the slopes of the Chiapas mountains (alt. 145 m), in one of the wettest parts of the country, lends Palenque certain unique qualities in terms of the settlement pattern. The northern part of the city dominated a narrow valley of 180 ha with highly fertile land, where the crop fields were located. There are very few settlements in this area adjacent to the city, leaving large open spaces for other daily activities. Situated further north is a chain of low hills with settlements mainly dating from the last Balunte period (AD 750-850). Behind them stretch the vast flood plains of the north-western lowlands. Towards the south, the city is delimited by the Chiapas mountains. There is no other centre in the region that is comparable in surface area, density and size of structures. The nearest sites are Comalcalco, 90 km west, and Pomona, 75 km north-east.

Although there are fragments of Preclassic ceramics, their frequency and location are too rare to confirm the existence of a permanent settlement at Palenque at such an early date. The Picota period (150 BC-AD 300) reveals evidence of greater occupation, although the city covered a mere 30 ha. However, around AD 400, during the Motiepa phase, there is substantial evidence of an important regional settlement. Motiepa plates were deposited as an offering in the oldest tomb found to date at Palenque, in Temple XVIII. The Motiepa phase was also marked by a considerable transformation in the political system, characterised by the beginning of Palenque’s dynastic sequence. Furthermore, in the immediate vicinity of Palenque, the sites of Nututun and El Lacandon have yielded contexts from the same period, which seems to indicate the transformation of Palenque into a centralised regional polity. During its final period (750-830), Palenque covered an area of approximately 200 ha.

Like other Mesoamerican and Maya lowland cities, Palenque combines a formal layout – the core area – with a more random arrangement of buildings. The city displays a modular pattern composed of functional groups on different scales. These groups probably formed part of larger units or ‘neighbourhoods’. However, we still lack vital information about their internal organisation and how they were articulated one with the other. Based on ethnographic data, it has been suggested that these groups may have been comparable to the sian otot of the modern-day Chorti people or the sna of today’s Zinacantecs, that is, residential groups comprising extended families and non-related individuals which revolve around the central figure of an individual endowed with greater prestige because of his proximity, in terms of kinship, to the founder of the residential group. For the vast majority of the Palenque inhabitants, the residential spaces constituted the principal area where the main activities to guarantee the survival of the community were carried out. Although we know very little about the internal organisation of such groups, the excavation of a sample of them, especially in the Cross Group and groups B, C and IV, has begun to shed some light on this aspect.

The Cross Group is directly associated with the ruling lineage at Palenque. The constructed volume, size of the open spaces, quality of the monuments, and importance of the texts and images in and on the buildings are on a greater scale than any other group in the city, with the exception of the Palace and the Temple of the Inscriptions. The texts and images contain information about significant events in the lives of the rulers and display the undeniable attributes of their status as leaders. But despite the quantitative and qualitative differences between the group occupied by the ruling lineage and the other residential groups in the city, there are evident structural similarities, principally in their multi-purpose nature. If we compare the material obtained from the excavations of a sample of the latter – groups B, C and IV – we can see certain parallels in terms of the general layout of the buildings, the apparently ritual functions served by several of them, and the economic activities carried out inside them.

In Group C, for example, buildings 1 and 3 have parallel vaulted galleries subdivided into rooms with materials associated with domestic activities, while Building 2 has a ritual function. The latter structure adopts the form of a tiered platform that measures 30×8 m and stands 7 m tall. It displays the remains of stairways at the north and south ends of the west facade. This structure yielded three cist burials and the probable remains of composite incense burners. All the buildings excavated in Group B reveal evidence of domestic activities, except for buildings 2 and 3, whose central chambers contain shrines like those to be found in the temples in the Plaza of the Sun and the niche in House F of the Palace, albeit smaller and inferior in quality. A limestone sculpture similar to the characteristic ceramic incense burners found at Palenque adorned one of the shrines. The central motif of the sculpture was a deliberately mutilated human face. Situated underneath the room containing the shrine in Building 3 was the most important funerary chamber in Group B. The central court in Group IV is delimited to the west by buildings I and 2, while buildings 3 and 4 flank the north-east corner. The materials recovered suggest a domestic function in the case of the former, while the latter reveal ritual characteristics in that they adopt the form of small tiered pyramids with stairways at the front. Ihese buildings yielded numerous fragments of incense burners and cist burials.

Description of structures and monuments

Temple of the inscriptions.

This structures takes its name from the three large tablets of limestone with hieroglyphic inscriptions (620 glyphs) found inside it. Composed of a stepped platform surmounted by a temple, the structure is decorated with stucco reliefs. Inside, two flights of steps lead to an imposing funerary crypt containing the sarcophagus of K’inich lanaab Pakal, who governed Palenque from 615 to 683. The temple rests on a nine-tier platform. The central stairway that leads from the plaza to the Interior comprises four sections of 9, 19, 19 and 13 steps, plus a final 9 steps, making a total of 69. There ore five north-facing entrances on the front of the temple formed by six stucco pilasters. Although brilliant white nowadays, during pre-Hispanic times the entire temple and platform were painted deep red, like most of the buildings in the city. The principal characteristic of this building is its function as a post mortem monument for one of the most important rulers in the history of Palenque. The discovery of the tomb of K’inich Janaab Pakal represents one of the best known achievements in Mesoamerican archaeology. It took Alberto Ruz approximately two years to remove the rubble covering the passage and stairway leading to the funerary chamber. The access was sealed with a trapezoidal door. The crypt measures 9×4 m and has a 7-m-high vaulted ceiling. The chamber is almost entirely occupied by a sarcophagus dug directly out of a block of limestone measuring 379×220 cm, covered by a finely carved lid depicting the ruler descending to the world of the dead. The complex iconography on the lid shows an idealised version of the young Janaab Pakal falling and being devoured by a mythological creature represented by a gaunt jaw. Situated between the dignitary and the gaping mouth lies a plate with remains of important ceremonial elements: a sea shell and a piece of obsidian. Rising from the plate is a tree, probably a ceiba, which represents the connection between the subterranean world, the world of the living and the sky. This mythical tree serves as an axis mundi, as a symbol linking the three supernatural levels. Perching at the top of the tree is a mythological bird (Itzam Ye), which looks down on Janaab Pakal’s descent to the world of the dead. The frame surrounding the sarcophagus represents the sky, showing planets, stars and constellations that indicate that the action is taking place in a sacred place and time. Along the top and bottom are the images of two individuals with their titles and names. Meanwhile, next to the sarcophagus, ten dignitaries seem to emerge from fruit trees. We know from the texts accompanying these images that each personage represents a dead member of Janaab Pakal’s kin: his parents Yohl Ik’nal and K’an Mo’ Hix are repeated at both ends of the sarcophagus, while Janaab Pakal, Ahkal Mo’ Naab I, K’an Joy Chitam I and K’an Bahlam I appear only once.


This is one of the most sophisticated examples of Maya architecture and it accommodated the kingdom’s principal functions. Situated towards the middle and centre of the city, it owes its name to its composition, which includes four courts and long bays, the result of countless transformations over the course of more than 400 years. The buildings in the Palace rest on a trapezoidal surface measuring 97×73 m and standing approximately 10 m tall. Its architecture is distinguished by the use of arches and pilasters in the construction of large covered spaces to create well-lit Interiors. The history of its construction is still a controversial issue. Archaeological materials corresponding to the Early Classic (prior to AD 500) have been found and three construction phases have been identified for the base platform. The Palace appears to have been extended southwards on three occasions, which means that the subterranean passages beneath the present-day level of the palace are not the traces of an earlier building but a later addition to the existing ground plan. We do know, however, the dates when several of the upper buildings were inaugurated: House E was built during the reign of Janaab Pakal in 664; houses C and B in 661; and House A was completed in 668. The north gallery of House A-D was built by Kan Joy Chitam II after 702 and House D probably during the reign of Kan Bahlam II. The Tower was added during U Pakal Kinich’s reign and corresponds to the final stage of the city’s occupation, like the buildings in the southern section: houses G, H, K, I and L. The Tower is the most impressive of these structures. The hypothesis that it may have been an astronomical observatory cannot be totally dismissed because we are not sure whether it had a roof or not during the pre-Hispanic period. It certainly serves as an astronomical marker because at sunset during the spring equinox the sun shines through a small T-shaped window and lights up a niche on the rear wall. It was probably also used for observing the activities conducted inside the Palace grounds and in the immediate vicinity.

Central plaza or north group.

This is one of the largest spaces at Palenque, covering an area of 5,024 sq m and clearly permitting the congregation of vast numbers of the city’s population. Rather than restricting the flow of people, its accesses direct them to a specific point of gathering: from the north, via the North Group; from the west via the Temple of the Count; and from the south via the difference in height between the north court of the Palace and the Ball Court

North group.

This comprises a long platform surmounted by five temples. The buildings have been numbered I to V from east to west. Temples I and III are composed of a small, single chamber, while Temples II and IV have two parallel bays and a portico with three entrances; Temple V is the longest and has five doorways on its fagade. The construction sequence of the different buildings is as follows: Temple V substructure, Temple II, temples I and III, Temple V, Temple IV substructure and finally Temple IV. All of them were built during the Otolum period.

Temple of the count.

This building was thus named by Frederick Waldeck who is said to have lived there during his sojourn at the site. It consists of a five-tier platform with an east-facing main fagade. The temple at the top still displays all its architectural features. It was probably the tomb of a high-ranking personage during the pre-Hispanic period, but the identity has not been established because when it was discovered in the 1930s by Miguel Angel Fernandez it had already been sacked. Some of the architectural details, such as the proportion between the width of the chamber and the height of the vaulted ceiling, and certain ceramic remains indicate that it was built during Janaab Pakal’s reign.

Ball court.

This is situated in an important part of the Central Plaza, near the Palace and the North Group. It is composed of two parallel mounds, each measuring 22×10 m, which form a 3-m-wide playing area. The structure was built on an intermediate, probably artificial level of the large natural terrace that accommodates the civic and ceremonial precinct. Visible to the north and east of the Ball Court are a series of low platforms clearly meant to separate this structure from the North Group. To the south, wide stairways leading to the east court of the Palace probably served as a seating area for spectators. The court is open-ended. The internal walls of the mounds slope in the talud style, while the exterior walls display three vertical tiers culminating in a wide band of moulding. There are no markers or rings, and the central section of the talud contains large slabs of porous and greatly eroded limestone. Situated north of the Ball Court are two stairways leading down to the North Group, a rectangular platform and the remains of a construction with stone walls probably once covered by a roof made of perishable materials. There is evidence of constructions near the Ball Court during the Early Classic (Motiepa phase, 350-500, and Cascadas, 500-600) and in all likelihood during the Lite Preclassic (250 BC-AD 150). The Ball Court we see today was remodelled on at least two occasions during the Late Classic.


Situated to the south-east is the River Otolum which crosses the site from south to north and explains the construction of a bridge at the north end, At the so-called Queen’s Bath. Further upstream, at the section corresponding to the east facade of the Palace, it was covered. This construction, known as the Aqueduct, linked two important parts of the site.

Cross group.

Dedicated in 692, this group comprises three temples: the Temple of the Cross, the Foliated Cross and the Sun. Together, the three offer a set of related texts and images, forming an extremely complicated narrative that blends historical elements with mythological events in ways that are often Inextricable. The artists behind this fascinating legacy used numerous media to express images and texts and impress the onlookers. The central narrative theme is the situation of the guardian gods – known as GI, II and III or the Palenque Triad – in the story of the foundation of the cosmos and their relationship with historic personages in Palenque’s ruling dynasty. Kan Bahlam built three temples with their respective pyramid platforms to accommodate each of these divine beings. Each temple holds a small shrine representing a ritual steam bath, indicating the nature of these buildings as a place of ‘ritual purification’. Tach temple also has its own carved tablet depicting two aspects of Kan Bahlam: the child and the adult. In each case, the two figures are shown worshipping a series of elements associated with the divinity of each temple. For years, the esoteric nature of this romposition has illuminated current thinking about religious aspects of the pre-Hispanic Maya.

Restricted areas.

House E and the Tower at the group known as the Palace, the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Tomb of Pakal and areas currently undergoing exploration, such as Temples XX, XXI and XXII.

Alberto Ruz Lhuillier Palenque Site Museum

This holds the archaeological and historical collection pertaining to the ancient city of Palenque. A recent construction, it opened in May 1993. It is situated 1.5 km from the site and in addition to other buildings forms part of the service area for the archaeological park. There are two rooms with permanent exhibitions. The first one, on the ground floor, contains approximately 260 archaeological pieces ranging from ceramic, lithic, stucco, bone, shell and jadeite artefacts. There are also several magnificent, finely executed limestone tablets with scenes of enthronements; they once decorated some of the buildings at the site. This same room also contains an excellent collection of incense burners made out of clay and profusely decorated and painted, demonstrating the profound magic-religious sense and extraordinary aesthetic sensibilities of the ancient city’s population. The second room at the top of the museum is given over to the history of archaeological research at Palenque, from the late 18th century to the present day. The exhibition is accompanied by illustrations and objects representing the milestones when pioneers, travellers, explorers and researchers contributed in one way or another to the knowledge of the site and the conservation of one of the most important cities in the Maya culture. This room also contains a small space for temporary exhibitions. Videos are used in both rooms to offer a brief summary of the archaeology of Palenque. A replica of the Tomb of Pakal was recently completed and a new area is now open for special tours by 40 or 5 people. This space exhibits exact replicas of the funerary chamber (7×3.75 m and 6.5 m high) and the sarcophagus (3×2.10 m and 1.10 m high). Also on display is a reproduction of the limestone lid (3.80×2.20 m and 25 cm thick) with its low-relief carvings. This slab stone represents the image of Pakal and shows all the elements depicted in the sarcophagus and lid reliefs. Meanwhile, the translucent walls display images of the nine dignitaries from the underworld and Pakal’s ancestors, represented on the inner walls of the original chamber. Using printed, electronic and audiovisual media, the room dedicated to the Tomb of Pakal explains how it was discovered, its significance in the Maya worldview and the decipherment of its inscriptions and hieroglyphs. Another of the novelties in this new space is the reproduction of the funerary mask (24×19 cm) worn by Pakal in his tomb, which consists of 340 pieces of jade.

From: ‘The Maya: an architectural and landscape guide’, produced jointly by the Junta de Andulacia and the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, 2010, pp144-159

Getting there:

From Palenque town. There are regular colectivos from the centre of town, passing the ADO bus station and then the 7 kilometres to the ticket office. Ask to be put off there – the colectivo carries on a little further. Just flag down the first one returning to town. M$25 each way.


17d 29’ 03” N

92d 02’ 48” W


One fee is for entrance to the National Park (M$105) and the other is for entrance to the site itself (M$90). You go to one ticket office for the Park and then another for the site. Then the entrance to the site is about 200m further along the road, from Palenque town, across the road on the left. It is then quite a haul up a lot of steps to get to the Central Plaza group.

The museum is in the complex where you pay your entrance fees. Entrance to museum included in ticket price. NOT open on Monday.

More on the Maya