The Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque

The Tomb and Temple of the Mayan King Pakal the Great

Maya Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque
Maya Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque. VasenkoPhotography

The Temple of the Inscription at Palenque is probably one of the most famous monuments of the whole Maya area. The temple is located on the southern side of the main plaza of Palenque. It owes its name to the fact that its walls are covered with one of the longest carved inscription of the Maya area, including 617 glyphs. The construction of the temple began around AD 675, by the important king of Palenque K’inich Janaab’ Pakal or Pakal the Great and was completed by his son Kan Balam II to honor his father, who died in A.D.

683.

The temple sits atop a stepped pyramid of eight superimposed levels that reach a height of 21 meters (ca 68 feet). On its back wall, the pyramid is adjoined to a natural hill. The temple itself is composed by two passageways divided by a series of pillars, covered by a vaulted roof. The temple has five doorways, and the pillars that form the doorways are decorated with stucco images of Palenque’s main gods, Pakal’s mother, Lady Sak K’uk’, and Pakal’s son Kan Balam II. The roof of the temple is decorated with a roof comb, a construction element typical of Palenque’s architecture. Both the temple and pyramid were covered by a thick layer of stucco and painted, most likely painted red, as was common for many Maya buildings.

The Temple of the Inscriptions Today

Archaeologists agree that the temple had at least three construction phases, and all of them are visible today. The eight levels of the stepped pyramid, the temple, and the narrow stairway at its center correspond to the earliest construction phase, whereas the wider eight steps at the base of the pyramid, along with the nearby balustrade and platform were built during to a later phase.

In 1952, the Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, who was in charge of the excavation work, noticed that one of the slabs that covered the floor of the temple presented one hole at each corner that could be used to lift the stone. Lhuillier and his crew lifted the stone and encountered a steep stairway filled with rubble and stones that went many meters down into the pyramid.

Removing the backfill from the tunnel took almost two years, and, in the process, they encountered many offerings of jade, shell, and pottery that speak to the importance of the temple and pyramid.

The Royal Tomb of Pakal the Great

Lhuillier's stairway ended about 25 meters (82 feet) below the surface and at its end the archaeologists found a large stone box with the bodies of six sacrificed individuals. On the wall next to the box on the left side of the room, a large triangular slab covered the access to the funerary chamber of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, king of Palenque from AD 615 to 683.

The funerary chamber is a vaulted room of about 9 x 4 meters (ca 29 x 13 feet). At its center sits the large stone sarcophagus made out of a single limestone slab. The surface of the stone block was carved to house the body of the king and it was then covered by a stone slab. Both the stone slab and the sides of the sarcophagus are covered with carved images portraying human figures emerging from trees.

Pakal's Sarcophagus

The most famous part is the carved image represented on the top of the slab that covers the sarcophagus. Here, the three levels of the Maya world--the sky, the earth, and the underworld--are connected by a cross representing the tree of life, from which Pakal seems to emerge to new life.

This image has often been dubbed “the astronaut” by pseudoscientists, who tried to prove that this individual was not the Maya king but an extraterrestrial who reached the Maya area and shared his knowledge with the ancient inhabitants and for this reason was considered a deity.

A rich series of offerings accompanied the king in his travel to the afterlife. The sarcophagus lid was covered with jade and shell ornaments, elegant plates and vessels were disposed in front and around the walls of the chamber, and at its southern side was recovered the famous stucco head portraying Pakal.

Within the sarcophagus, the body of the king was adorned with the famous jade mask, along with jade and shell earplugs, pendants, necklaces, bracelets, and rings. In his right hand, Pakal held a squared piece of jade and in his left one a sphere of the same material.

Source

Martin Simon and Nikolai Grube, 2000, Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens, Thames and Hudson, London