Palenque – Chiapas – Mexico




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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

Coba – Quintana Roo – Mexico



More on the Maya

Coba – Quintana Roo


The pre-Hispanic settlement of Coba is situated in the north-east of the Yucatan Peninsula, in the state of Quintana Roo, 47 km from the Caribbean Sea. It comprises five lakes – Coba, Macanxoc, Xcanha, Sacalpuc and Yaxlaguna – and still boasts part of its rich vegetation and wildlife in a state where tourist resorts are rapidly encroaching on the natural environment.

Pre-Hispanic history

Several of the inscriptions found at the site confirm that in this case – a very rare occurrence – Coba is the original name of the city. One of the possible and, given its proximity to the lakes, most plausible translations is ‘ruffled waters’. The city of Coba covers an area of approximately 70 sq km. In this region with its absence of surface water, the presence of the lakes must have played a crucial role in the development and survival of the city and its population. The city boasted a large network of sacbeob or raised stone causeways, of which about 50 have been recorded. The length and width of these ‘white roads’ vary: some serve as internal connections for groups of buildings, while others link distant cities and regions. Such is the case of Sacbe 1, which is 100 km long. The classical architecture of this city is more akin to the predominant style in the Peten region of Guatemala, rather than to that of northern Yucatan. The inhabitants of Coba who did not belong to the ruling class lived on the outskirts of the city, in dwellings very similar to those used by the present-day Maya. The first settlements recorded date from the Late Preclassic, and although no constructions from that period have been found to date, they probably took the form of villages on the edges of the lakes, with an economy based on farming and hunting. In the Early Classic, Coba exerted economic and political power over several nearby communities. The road network and most of the stelae at the site date from the Late Classic. Between AD 800 and 1000, the city experienced a construction boom and extended the road network; meanwhile, relations declined with the Peten region and increased with the Gulf coast. By the Postclassic, the city’s hegemony was on the wane and it fell under the influence of more ‘Mexicanised’ groups. The existing buildings were remodelled in the new ‘East Coast’ architectural style, which became the common denominator of coastal sites such as El Rey, Xelha, Tulum, Xcaret, etc.

Site description

Coba group.

This large group of buildings, the oldest in the city, is situated between two lakes and several sacbeob leading off in various directions.

The acropolis, which comprises numerous buildings and superimpositions, must have been the most important complex for hundreds of years. Although only a small part of it has been explored and is open to visitors, there are several notable constructions. The iglesia (‘Church’) stands 24 m high and is the second tallest construction at the site. It comprises nine rounded tiers and has been altered and added to on several occasions over the years, for example by stairways which cover earlier versions, terraces with rooms along the sides, etc. Its earliest construction phase dates from the Early Classic, while the latest addition corresponds to a Postclassic adoratorium at the top of the structure. At the foot of the building, opposite the stairway, is a fragment of the upper part of Stela 11 and a round altar in front of it. Although most of the carving has been eroded, it is still possible to distinguish a few square panels which corresponded to glyphs. Opposite the Iglesia, a little to one side of it, are two courtyards formed by elongated buildings which in their day must have had vaulted roofs. A long seating area culminating in a vaulted stairway leads to the two courtyards. The stairway may also have been used for watching important events in the main plaza of the group. Its steps were decorated with modelled stucco and painted in bright colours. Fragments of Stela 12 stand at the south end of the seating area, and one of the two Ball Courts at Coba is situated alongside the Acropolis.

The ball court comprises two parallel volumes open at the ends and with sloping walls rising from a long bench that delimits the narrow playing area. There are two rings jutting from the top of the volumes. Embedded above the slope of the west volume are two panels depicting prisoners, and on the opposite side a panel and a stone plaque at the centre. The two Ball Court volumes are different: the one on the east side has two stairways leading to vaulted rooms at the top, while the west volume appears to have been surmounted by a construction made of organic material. Behind this volume are the fragments of two stelae, erected during the Postclassic when the Ball Court was no longer used. The Maya ball game was a ritual symbolising the struggle between life and death, the struggle between two opposing forces. It often took the form of a divine trial for settling disputes, and occasionally was staged merely for entertainment purposes. Situated opposite the Ball Court is the

Kan stairway, named after the kan glyphs visible on the some of the steps. It is flanked by two human skulls.

Group D.

Of this large group situated between sacbeob 4 and 8, the Paintings Group, the Ball Court, Sacbe I and the Xaibe are open to visitors. This group contains numerous constructions dating from the Postclassic, the last period of occupation.

Paintings group. The group takes its name from the traces of murals found on the walls of two structures.

Building 1 is the tallest and is surmounted by a small vaulted temple with traces of a mural depicting farming rituals. At its foot, mounted on the stairways, stands structure 2 ; part of the vault has collapsed and inside is a fragment of Stela 27.

Structure 3 is an elongated chamber with columns that must once have supported a wood and straw roof; opposite them are 13 small altars on which the incense burners used for rituals would have been placed. Alongside Structure 1 stands

Structure 6, whose function has not yet been confirmed. It consists of two chambers, nowadays minus their roof, abutted to a square platform. Further west, almost at the centre of the group, is

Structure 4, a low platform with sloping walls and a wide frieze around the perimeter. Stela 26 stands on one side of the structure; although nowadays greatly eroded, it represents a richly garbed personage holding a ceremonial staff and standing above a group of prisoners, framed by glyphs. A little further west stands

Structure 5, an example of the talud-y-tablero (‘slope-and-panel’) style of architecture, and adjoining it a long, stepped platform culminating in a small room with columns. At the top of the stairway is Stela 28 which depicts a scene very like that of Stela 26.

Ball court. This is very similar to the Ball Court in the Coba Group, displaying common traits such as rings on each section and panels depicting prisoners embedded in the slopes. However, in this case there are various unique features, including markers above the court used for scoring points during the game. The central marker represents a human skull, beneath which a rich offering was found, while the one at the end is a disc featuring the image of a decapitated jaguar. The most important feature of all is the enormous hieroglyphic tablet at the centre of the slope on the north volume. The 74 glyph cartouches it contains make reference to two historical moments in the city’s existence, and there are three mentions of the name ko-ba-a, the toponym of the ancient city. Next to the building are the replicas of two panels that once adorned the construction, although the exact place is not known. One of the panels represents a ball game player holding a cruciform object.

Sacbe 1

As you head towards the Nohoch Mul Group, you will pass alongside the beginning of Sacbe I, 100 km long, which leads north-west to Yaxuna, an ancient Maya city not far from Chichén Itzá. This is the longest of all the causeways found at Coba.


This unusual building from the Classic period which the archaeologists have named xaibe (‘crossroads’) is situated very close to the point where several sacbeob converge. It adopts the shape of an apse, with four sloping tiers culminating in a cornice. In the Postclassic it gained a small stairway leading to the landing between the first and second tiers and a fragment of stela, delimited on each side by a low wall, lending it the impression of a shrine. The tiers are inset into the main body of the building, simulating a stairway, but it is obvious from their dimensions that they could not have been used for this purpose. Although there is general tendency to ascribe an observatory function to all round buildings, no evidence has been found to support that hypothesis in this case. Its function therefore remains to be confirmed.

Nohoch Mul group

This group consists of numerous buildings, but only three of them have been excavated and are open to visitors. Nohoch Mul means ‘large mound’ in Maya, and the name is a reference to

Structure 1 which stands 42 m high and is not only the largest of this group but also the tallest such structure in northern Yucatan. This grand building has two stairways at the front; one rises to the temple at the top while the other one runs in parallel to the former but stops at a lower level. The construction consists of a seven-tier platform with rounded corners and a temple at the top in the typical Postclassic architecture: inset lintel and a frieze with simple moulding and niches containing scenes of a diving god, once painted in red and blue. Inside the temple, a bench occupies half of the space. The parallel stairway leads to a vaulted room where a stela fragment embedded in the floor was found, with carvings on the front and back. Next to the main stairway, two rooms adjoin the large platform but at different levels – one at ground level and the other at the height of the first tier. Only the front and part of the sides of this large building have been excavated. In the vast plaza associated with this group stands

Structure 10, a platform with rounded corners and the remains of a construction with two rooms at the top; the vault that covered them has collapsed and only part of the walls are still standing. Stela 12, the best preserved of all such monuments found at Coba to date, stands opposite the stairway. It depicts an elegantly attired dignitary holding a large staff with both hands. The feet rest on the backs of two prisoners, while two more prisoners flank the scene. The date mentioned in the glyphs is 30 November 780 of the Common Era, the latest date recorded on the monuments at Coba. Situated in the same plaza is

Structure 12, a low platform with a sloping wall, opposite which stands Stela 21. A chamber was found inside the structure, possibly to accommodate a tomb, but to date only small offering without any human remains has been found.

Macanxoc group

This group of buildings is reached via Sacbe 9, the widest causeway found at Coba. The group sits on a large terrace and comprises constructions of varying dimensions, most with ceremonial functions. There are 8 stelae in the group and 23 altars associated with constructions that vary in size and shape. Most of the stelae are greatly eroded and it is difficult to make out the scenes they depict. However, they all share the same theme: a richly attired personage in the middle, holding a large ceremonial staff or sceptre against his breast, with prisoners at his feet and/or sides.

Monuments and ceramics

Stela l

Sculpted on all four sides, this is the first such monument you come across when you reach the latter group. It stands on a platform with stairways on all four sides and contains 313 glyphs that make reference to four dates related to our calendar: 29 January 653, 29 June 672, 28 August 682 and 21 December 2012, the latter date corresponding to a winter solstice. The first three denote important events that happened in Coba in the 7th century AD, while the last one refers to a date yet to come.

Stela 4

This is situated inside a small vaulted shrine on the stairway of one of the largest buildings of this group. The text is composed of 132 glyphs that mention the date 19 March 623, coinciding with the vernal equinox. The Maya would erect these large blocks of stone to record the names of governors, important events, births, alliances, deaths, accessions to power, conquests, etc., but also major astronomical events.

Stela 8

Situated inside a small shrine, only the lower section has survived. Its dates corresponds to 12 October 652. In front of it are several small square altars.

Stela 3

The structure opposite which this stela stands denotes several construction phases. The small temple at the top, with entrances on all four sides, is the first construction the stela was associated with. Judging from its morphology and size, it must have had a ceremonial function. The final construction phase is represented by the benches at the front, where the stela stands. In front of it are two altars – a circular one from the Classic period and a smaller, square one from the Postclassic. The stela comprises 160 blocks of glyphs arranged in nine columns. The date inscription corresponds to 25 January 633.

Stela 2

This stands opposite Structure 7, which had three construction phases. The first phase is represented by a platform with sloping walls and rounded corners, visible on the rear of the building, which subsequently gained two rooms. The final phase covered the two earlier and constitutes a small adoratorium and altar at the top of the structure. The structure corresponds to the Late Classic but continued to be used as a shrine during the Postclassic. The stela depicts the central personage standing on the back of a prisoner with his hands tied, lying face down – the only one in this position on the stelae that have been found to date. The date inscription on this monument is 4 December 642.

Stela 5

This is situated at the foot of the stairway of Structure 3 and displays carvings on all four sides. The back and front show high-ranking dignitaries, slaves and glyphs, while the sides only have glyphs. The date of the monument is 21 August 662. Opposite stand two altars: a circular one from the Classic period and a square one from the Postclassic.

Stela 6

This is situated inside a small shrine. The date is the oldest one recorded on the stelae at Coba and corresponds to 10 May 613. The occupational sequence covers a long interval of time beginning in the Late Preclassic. The ceramics from this period denote connections with the ceramic traditions of the Peten region and Belize, as well as the northeastern section of the Yucatan Peninsula and Yaxuna. The ceramics from the Early Classic are associated with those of the north-eastern part of the Yucatan Peninsula and the River Belize region. In the Middle Classic, when Coba attained the status of city, the ceramic connections spread to various parts of the Maya area, while the local ceramics derived from the Peten style spread within the region to other coastal sites such as Xelha and Xcaret. The ceramics from the Late Classic show a greater connection to the northern Maya area, giving rise to local variations that set them apart from the ceramics produced in the inland. In the Postclassic, ceramic manufacturing was interrupted or greatly influenced by the style that characterised the ceramics of the north-eastern region, specifically with sites in the west such as Mayapan. The ceramics from the eastern part of the Yucatan Peninsula – greatly abundant on the east coast during this period – are virtually non-existent at Coba, denoting the tenuous connections that existed at the time with other sites in the region.

Maria Jose Con Uribe

From: ‘The Maya: an architectural and landscape guide’, produced jointly by the Junta de Andulacia and the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, 2010, pp427-433.



1. Coba Group; 2. Group D; 3. Paintings Group; 4. Ball Court; 5. Xaibe; 6. Sacbe 1; 7. Nonoch Mui Group; 8. Macanxoc Group; 9. Chumuc Mui Group.  

Getting there:

From Tulum. A combi leaves the corner of Calle Osaris Norte and Av Tulum at 10.00 – possibly not on Sundays. It will drop you off at the entrance to the site at Coba. Cost M$80.

If this is too late a start (which it probably is) then you could try doing the journey in stages with more local combis to the villages along the road to Coba.

Getting information about the return can be problematic. Probably the quickest, if not necessarily the cheapest, is to flag down a collective taxi leaving the village, almost certainly going to Tulum.


20d 29’29” N

87d 44’09” W



Once inside it’s well worth considering whether to hire a bike or not. The buildings are spread out over a wide area and a bike, either powered by yourself or paying for a bike taxi, will save a lot of time. There are hundreds of bikes for rent and tens of bike taxis.

Rent of bike:

M$65 for the length of your stay in the site.

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