The Sarcophagus of Pakal

The great Maya king's final resting place

Pyramid and Temple-of-the-Inscriptions, Palenque, Mexico, 7th century.
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In 683 A.D., Pakal, the great King of Palenque who had ruled for almost seventy years, died. Pakal's time had been one of great prosperity for his people, who honored him by entombing his body inside the Temple of the Inscriptions, a pyramid that Pakal himself had ordered built specifically to serve as his tomb. Pakal was buried in jade finery including a beautiful death mask, and placed over Pakal's tomb was a massive sarcophagus stone, laboriously carved with an image of Pakal himself being reborn as a god. Pakal's sarcophagus and its stone top are among the great all-time finds of archaeology.

Discovery of Pakal's Tomb

The Maya city of Palenque had risen to greatness in the seventh century A.D. only to mysteriously go into decline. By 900 A.D. or so the once-mighty city was largely abandoned and the local vegetation began to reclaim the ruins.  In 1949, Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier began an investigation at the ruined Maya city, specifically at the Temple of the Inscriptions, one of the more imposing structures in the city. He found a stairway leading deep into the temple and followed it, carefully breaking down walls and removing rocks and debris as he did so. By 1952 he had reached the end of the passageway and found a magnificent tomb, which had been sealed off for more than a thousand years. There are many treasures and important works of art in Pakal's tomb, but perhaps the most striking was the massive carved stone which covered Pakal's body.

The Great Sarcophagus Lid of Pakal

Pakal's sarcophagus lid is made of single stone. It is rectangular in shape, measuring between 245 and 290 millimeters (roughly 9-11.5 inches) thick in different places. It is 2.2 meters wide by 3.6 meters long (about 7 feet by 12 feet). The massive stone weighs seven tons. There are carvings on the top and sides. The massive stone would never have fit down the stairways from the top of the Temple of the Inscriptions; Pakal's tomb was sealed first and then the temple was built around it. When Ruz Lhuillier discovered the tomb, he and his men painstakingly lifted it with four jacks, raising it a little bit at a time while putting small pieces of wood in the gaps to hold it in place. The tomb remained open until late 2010 when the massive lid was painstakingly lowered once again, covering Pakal's remains, which had been returned to his tomb in 2009.

The carved edges of the sarcophagus lid narrate events from the life of Pakal and those of his royal forebears. The southern side records the date of his birth and the date of his death. The other sides mention several other lords of Palenque and the dates of their deaths. The northern side shows Pakal's parents, along with the dates of their deaths.

The Sides of the Sarcophagus

On the sides and ends of the sarcophagus itself, there are eight fascinating carvings of Pakal's ancestors being reborn as trees: this shows that the spirits of departed ancestors continue to nourish their descendants. The depictions of Pakal's ancestors and former rulers of Palenque include:

  • Two images of Pakal's father, K'an Mo' Hix, being reborn as a nance tree.
  • Two images of Pakal's mother, Sak K'uk', being reborn as a cacao tree.
  • Pakal's great-grandmother, Yohl Ik'nal, is shown twice, reborn as a zapote tree and an avocado tree.
  • Janahb' Pakal I, Pakal's grandfather, reborn as a guava tree
  • Kan B'ahlam I (ruler of Palenque 572-583), reborn as a zapote tree.
  • Kan Joy Chitam I (ruler of Palenque ca. 529-565 A.D.), reborn as an avocado tree.
  • Ahkal Mo' Nahb' I (ruler of Palenque ca. 501-524 A.D.), reborn as a guava tree.

The Top of the Sarcophagus Lid

The magnificent artistic carving on the top of the sarcophagus lid is one of the masterpieces of Maya art. It depicts Pakal being reborn. Pakal is on his back, wearing his jewels, headdress, and skirt. Pakal is shown in the center of the cosmos, being reborn into eternal life. He has become one with the god Unen-K'awill, who was associated with maize, fertility, and abundance. He is emerging from a maize seed held by the so-called Earth Monster whose enormous teeth are clearly shown. Pakal is emerging along with the cosmic tree, visible behind him. The tree will carry him to the sky, where the god Itzamnaaj, the Sky Dragon, is awaiting him in the form of a bird and two serpent heads on either side.

Importance of Pakal's Sarcophagus

Pakal's Sarcophagus lid is a priceless piece of Maya art and one of the most important archaeological finds of all time. The glyphs on the lid have helped mayanist scholars pinpoint dates, events and familial relationships over a thousand years old. The central image of Pakal being reborn as a god is one of the classic icons of Maya art and has been crucial to understanding how the ancient Maya viewed death and rebirth.

It should be noted that other interpretations of Pakal's headstone exist. The most notable one, perhaps, is the notion that when viewed from the side (with Pakal roughly upright and facing to the left) it can appear as if he is operating the machinery of some sort. This has led to the "Maya Astronaut" theory which states that the figure is not necessarily Pakal, but rather a Maya astronaut piloting a spaceship. As entertaining as this theory may be, it has been thoroughly debunked by those historians who have deigned to justify it with any consideration in the first place. 

Sources

Bernal Romero, Guillermo. "K'inich Jahahb' Pakal (Resplandente Escudo Ave-Janahb') (603-683 d.C) Arqueología Mexicana XIX-110 (July-August 2011) 40-45.

"Lapida de Pakal, Palenque, Chiapas." Arqueologia Mexicana Edicion Especial 44 (June 2012), 72.

Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo. Grandes Hallazgos de la Arqueología: De la Muerte a la Inmortalidad. Mexico: Tiempo de Memoria Tus Quets, 2013.

Schele, Linda, and David Freidel. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990.