Category Archives: MEXICO

Identity of the Man Found in the Sarcophagus of Palenque

Presumably, in order to preserve the precious archaeological find in its original state, Dr. Alberto Ruz Lhuillier had not unsealed the unearthed sarcophagus for six months since it was discovered (My Gen 2021). And it took archaeologists an additional week of work before they eventually lifted the five-ton beautifully carved lid of the sarcophagus, on 28th November, in 1952 (Ibid.).

Mayan Matryoshka-style

Eventually, it turned out that the inside of the rectangular stone slab of the tomb had been additionally closed off with another smaller slab, attached by means of stone plugs in the holes (Quetzal Resistance 2011; My Gen 2021). The additional and strangely shaped lid ultimately uncovered the final resting place of the dead, whose long and beautifully attired skeleton was lying inside a similarly-shaped coffin (My Gen 2021). As a result, the whole tomb design slightly resembles a set of Matryoshka dolls, where one of a smaller size is placed inside a larger one.

Howard Carter examining the innermost coffin of Tutankhamun. On the whole, there were three coffins, decreasing in size. Exclusive to The Times – The New York Times photo archive, via their online store (1922). Public domain. Photo source: “Tutankhamun” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The interesting shape of the smaller coffin lid, sometimes compared to a body-shape, drew Graham Hancock’s attention (2016:158); he connects it with a specific type of Egyptian coffins with a widen bottom (Ibid.:158). It is a characteristic that also appears in the shape of the coffin under the Temple of the Inscriptions (Ibid.:158). Yet, the Egyptian caskets were made of wood and had wide bases as they were often placed vertically, as if they were standing (Ibid.:158). By comparison, Pakal’s coffin was carved out entirely of solid stone and was arranged horizontally (Ibid.:158). The author therefore wonders why the builders of the sarcophagus took more trouble extending its lower part since it had no practical application (Ibid.:158). Or maybe it was the shape itself, which really mattered? (Ibid.:158); it actually resembles the aforementioned keyhole symbol, but which is turned upside down and with a circle part squashed, looking slightly like an eclipse. Moreover, the Matryoshka-style of Palenque sarcophagus had been also applied in Egyptian royal coffins, such as the set of Tutankhamun’s three coffins, characterized each by a decreasing size (Tyldesley 2016).

Descendant of the race of giants

All the archaeological reports accordingly claim that in the sarcophagus in Palenque, there was found a skeleton of a tall man (My Gen 2021; Hancock 2016:158). Nevertheless, the same scientific sources never give any precise information about the exact measures of the skeleton (My Gen 2021). In my opinion, it is not sufficient to argue that some person is tall or not as such descriptions are quite subjective as they may be based on a personal judgement.

Anthropological Museum of Mexico City. Funerary dress and jewellery of king Pakal of Palenque, seventh century AD. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber – Own work (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, such a matter as the height of an individual should be given in detail. In spite of the information missing, some alternative researchers, however, keep trying to calculate an approximate skeleton’s height, basing on equally estimated measurements of the strangely shaped sarcophagus’ cut in stone, which was specially designed for the corpse (My Gen 2021). Such estimates can be only possible to obtain by means of the provided accurate measurements of the main, rectangular lid of the sarcophagus, which are the following: the square slab of the tomb is 30 centimetres (10 inches) thick, 90 centimetres (3 feet) wide and 3,7 metres (12,5 feet) long (Hancock 2016:159). As a result of a mathematical analysis, the skeleton would have belonged to a male measuring well over 2,2 metres in height (over 7,3 feet) (My Gen 2021).

Who was really buried in Pakal’s tomb?

Although the skeleton found inside the sarcophagus is usually recognized as the remains of the king Pakal, his identity has become repeatedly questioned (My Gen 2021; Von Däniken 1991:182).

First doubts arouse mainly due to the inconsistent date of 633 AD., which is the latest among those found on the sarcophagus and so it does not chronologically correspond to the conventional date of Pakal’s death (Von Däniken 1991:182). The doubts have deepened even more together with the results of interdisciplinary identification examination of the skeletal remains from the sarcophagus, which were presented at “a symposium organized by Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina for the Sixty-eighth Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archaeology in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in April 2003” (Wordtrade.com 2021). During the project directed by a specialist in Maya civilization remains, Prof. Vera Tiesler, a wide range of laboratory analyses had been used with comparative data, including archaeological, bioanthropological and epigraphical studies of the Maya culture (Ibid.). Age assessment of the individual was mainly carried out by means of morphological observations and histological methods, including even mathematical approaches applied by paleo-demographers (Ibid.).

Temple of the Foliated Cross in Palenque features mysterious openings in the shape of keyhole. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Yet, during the conference, there was no mention about results of radiocarbon dating of the bones or whether it had ever been conducted (My Gen 2021; see: Wordtrade.com 2021). It is only known that there was no DNA extraction, which Vera Tiesler explains by the fact of a very poor and fragmentary condition of the studied skeletal remains, which have been hardly preserved in seventy-five percent (Wordtrade.com 2021). As a result, even though the time of the individual’s death is relatively recent in comparison with other analysed skeletal remains from cultures existing before our era, the age determination and other analyses of Palenque skeletal remains may be erratic and inconsistent (Ibid.).

Inconsistent results

Particular results of one of the conducted examinations, however, seem quite reliable and they entirely put the identity of the individual found in the sarcophagus under question. Precisely, it was the analysis of wear on the skeleton’s teeth, which has placed the age of their owner at death as forty years old, which is simultaneously an average lifetime of the ancient Mayas (“Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal” 2021). Consequently, it means the skeleton must have belonged to a man forty years younger than Pakal at the moment of his death, when he was eighty years old (“Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal” 2021; Hancock 2016:158; My Gen 2021). Such a contradiction may have resulted either by a wrong interpretation of the dates ascribed to Pakal’s lifetime or the fact the skeletal remains do not belong to Pakal at all.

Despite such conflicting results, most scholars have no doubts about the identity of the skeletal remains in the sarcophagus in Palenque and so they reject any possibility it may not be the skeleton of the king Pakal (Wordtrade.com 2021). Probably, in order to achieve a compromise, they have accepted that at the moment of his death Pakal could be either in the low age range, estimated between forty and fifty years, or the highest estimated age of eighty years (Ibid.). But does it bring any final conclusion to the question of age of the skeletal remains and, indirectly, of dating the burial itself?

Temple of the Inscriptions, seen from the Palace side. It is built on the stepped pyramid with nine platforms. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Such a wide range of an acceptable age for the found skeleton is justified by scholars due to particular challenges in its precise age determination (Wordtrade.com 2021). After Prof. Vera Tiesler the human remains under question cause particular difficulties in their studies, not only because they are extensively fragmented, but also because of the age range of the individual (Ibid.). Skeletal specialists agree that it is highly difficult to precisely estimate skeletal age in case of the dead adults, especially those who were over fifty years old at the moment of their death (Ibid.). This is why the results cannot be more precise or consistent unless some novel and conclusive methods are applied in this context.

Which way leads to the afterlife?

If the conducted examinations of the found skeleton generally fail in determining the identity of the buried individual, is it possible to find out missing answers in the imagery of his sarcophagus? The latter is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating Mayan monuments and is still the subject of a fierce debate even today, which is especially about an intriguing relief on the lid. Despite different interpretations of the scene, scholars generally believe that it depicts a mythological image or the king’s journey into the world of the dead. For the Mayans of the Classic period, the afterlife was located in the underground world filled with water and so it was associated in the earthly world with actual water reservoirs or caves (Eberl 2013:311; see 😊). Accordingly, the dead body of the ruler was to rest in the burial chamber in the centre of the Temple of the Inscriptions, symbolizing an artificial cave and the king’s descent into the earth, by means of the steps leading down to the underworld (Ibid.:311). The stone lid of Pakal’s sarcophagus was therefore intended to recreate his journey to the afterlife (Ibid.:311).

But if this interpretation is correct, and the Mayan underworld was located underground, why does a small pipe of psychoduct led Pakal’s soul from the tomb back to the temple outside it?

The Tree of Life

Cosmological Mythology of the ancient Maya was recorded in the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, a Latin compilation of Mayan texts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Wagner 2013:288). The act of creation described there was preceded by the destruction of the world by the flood (Ibid.:288), also mentioned by numerous independent sources, such as the “Book of Genesis” in the Bible and the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh (see😊

Tablet of the cross restored from the Temple of the Cross. Photo by Ineuw (2017). Public domain. Photo source: “Tablet of the Cross restored” (2017). In: Wikipedia Commons.

As the story goes, the very centre of the created world inhabited by the Maya was graphically marked by the Tree of Life, connecting the zenith with the nadir (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Not without a surprise, such a motif also appears in the Celtic and Scandinavian cultures (see😊. In the Mayan iconography, the central motif of the panel in the Temple of the Cross is a symbolic representation of such a tree that grows from the sacrificial bowl (Wagner 2013:288; see😊 The image must be strongly stylized because it resembles more a cross rather than a tree. After experts, branches covered with flowers grow on its both sides, whereas the two-headed serpent hanging on it symbolizes the eternally green tree and the colour of the centre of the cosmos (Ibid.:288). Additionally, on its highest branch, the god Itzamna sits on the throne, dressed as blue birds (Ibid.:288).

Here I must admit to myself that if I interpreted the relief of the Temple of the Cross myself, I would never have noticed some of the described details without a professional help of specialists.

Hidden birds game

On the sarcophagus from Planeque there are hieroglyphs and more or less abstract images. Starting from the top of the lid positioned in a vertical position, there is found a central motif that was recreated with slight changes on the later and the aforementioned relief from the sanctuary of the Temple of the Cross (Dr. Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in: Von Däniken 1991:187; see😊. In the first place, it is easy to notice a kind of a cross just in the middle, whose arms divide the surface, and metaphorically the world into four parts, and at the same time indicate the four cardinal points with its arms (see: Eberl 2013:314; Von Däniken 1991:186).

A drawing of the lid of the tomb of Maya ruler Pacal the Great. Drawing by Madman2001 – Made it myself based on several drawings References for this description (or part of this) or for the depiction in the file are not provided (2008). CC BY-SA 2.0. Image modified. Photo and caption source :“Temple of the Inscriptions” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to experts having translated its imagery, a whole ornithological garden can be seen in the relief around the cross, including the Mayan bird Quetzal and the bird Moan, symbolising death (Von Däniken 1991:186-187; Wołek 2012:18). The latter was probably crouching just below the squatting anthropomorphic figure. Indeed, a strongly stylized outline of a pair of eyes and something that looks like a duck bake are visible there. Similar element also appears in the relief of the Temple of the Cross, but no one interprets it there as the bird Moan heralding death …

Furthermore, after a conventional interpretation of the relief from the Temple of the Cross, at the top of the Tree of Life sits the Mayan god Itzamna, depicted once again in the form of a bird (Wagner 2013:282). Its mirror image with small changes was also carved on earlier Pakal’s sarcophagus (see: Dr. Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in: Von Däniken 1991:187). For consistency of the both interpretations, it must be just the same bird in the both representations. But if Itzamna is sitting at the top of the cross, where is Quetzal? Apparently, it is crouching on the head of a man lying under the Tree of Life … (Von Däniken 1991:186). I need to admit that I cannot discern anything there except for elements looking like bird feathers, probably being a part of the lying man’s headgear … Dr. Ruz, in turn, sees Quetzal wearing the mask of Tlaloc and is one of miniature mythological creatures coming out from a two-headed dragon …  (Ibid.:187). Still nothing … I cannot see either the dragon or a creature wearing Tlaloc’s mask and jumping out of any head… Yet, according to translating the lid experts, a proper interpretations of the imagery is only possible when the lid is viewed from a horizontal position … (Von Däniken 1991:188; Wołek 2012:18)

Intricate complex of the Palace in Palenque, with courtyards, chambers and corridors, and four-levelled square tower, possibly used for observing astronomical events. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As a matter of fact, most scientists believe that the imagery on Pakal’s sarcophagus should only be interpreted in a horizontal arrangement (Von Däniken 1991:188; Wołek 2012:18). And here is another contradiction. The relief from the Temple of the Cross, which depicts the same main motif, can be only analysed in a vertical position, and the correct positioning of the relief is evidenced by two male figures standing on both sides of the Tree of Life, while it is depicted vertically.

Why is it so that the both images sharing exactly the same elements have been interpreted separately and so incoherently?

Academic and alternative interpretations of the image

Continuing the analysis of the sarcophagus lid from the vertical position, it can be noticed that under the Tree you can see the gaping mouth of the Earth Monster, which grins its teeth dangerously and threatens with its tusks (see: Von Däniken 1991:186-187). This element is missing in the later relief from the Temple of the Cross, likewise the main character of the scene on the sarcophagus. It is a male figure in a reclining position, situated just under the Tree of Life. Some experts claim it is Pakal who at the moment of his death falls into the mouth of the underworld, or of the Earth Monster armed with teeth, to be reborn like the god of corn (Von Däniken 1991:187; Eberl 2013:314).

The Tree of Life itself seems to grow out of the Earth-Monster between its tusks, and pierce the belly of the lying man with its roots. In addition, strange vines appear to grow from the man’s mouth and nose and on the back of his head. Maybe it is the Tree of Life that wants to consume the individual? Others argue that the “creepers” on the back of the king’s head are only part of an intricately pinned up hairstyle or headgear (Von Däniken 1991:187). As I mentioned earlier, some experts notice there the bird Quetzal, which would crouch on the king’s head (Ibid.:186).

‘Or maybe the ruler is inside a large skyrocket and goes into space?’, ask the proponents of the ancient astronaut theory, who support the thesis that ancient peoples around the world had contacts with representatives of a highly developed alien civilization, whom they consequently took for gods (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012).

And under the influence of such a hypothesis, the “creepers” or headdress ornaments, magically turn into double wires running inside the spacecraft (see: Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). Such a theory has been successfully instilled by a controversial researcher and author, Enrich von Däniken. By taking a closer look at the lid in an upright position, he has noticed that the figure depicted takes the position of today’s cosmonauts during the launch of a space rocket (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). You can also see that the ‘cosmonaut’ is touching some devices with his hands, which look like levers (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). His feet rest on some kind of pedals (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). And beneath it, you can see what resembles flames and not the teeth of an Earth Monster (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). Additionally, the king has something like a breathing apparatus in front of his face (Von Däniken 1991:188; Burns 2012). ‘This element is called’ giver of life ‘,explains Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, one of Däniken’s followers (Burns 2012). ‘So it seems logical that it could be oxygen. It is also logical that in space a man would need a similar breathing mask’, he says (Ibid.).

Following this interpretation of the sarcophagus lid, we may come to the conclusion that the picture presented in it proves the theory of the relationship between the Mayan rulers and aliens. So which interpretation is correct?

New definitions of old truths

Various representations of the bird Quetzal and the Mouth of the Underworld or the Earth Monster, are typical imagery features of the religion and mythology of the Mesoamerican peoples, and therefore also of their art (see😊. As we can see, a similar sarcophagus motif of the cross was also immortalized on a later relief from the Temple of the Cross. But was it meant as the Tree of Life for the Maya?

Temple of the Inscriptions in front of a mysterious hill, which apparently is not a natural formation. Intricate complex of the Palace in Palenque, with courtyards, chambers and corridors, and four-levelled square tower, possibly used for observing astronomical events. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

All such interpretations are found within a framework of modern speculations and guessing, likewise contemporarily invented names given to ancient cultures, their architectural structures and artifacts (Von Däniken 1991:175-176; Hancock 2016:156). The Temple encompassing Pakal’s sarcophagus certainly was not called the Temple of the Inscriptions by the Maya themselves (Ibid.:175-176). In turn, the Earth Monster was imagined as an anthropomorphic-zoomorphic figure mainly by the Aztecs, who worshiped it under the female name Tlaltecuhtli (see😊 The Aztecs, however, were one of the most recent cultures of Mesoamerica, whose development was only interrupted by the Spanish Conquest in the sixteenth century.

By applying the same known matrix of mythological interpretations to all discovered artifacts from the world of ancient cultures in Mesoamerica does not really add anything in determining the real meaning behind them. It only causes that we are stubbornly going around in circles, putting another painting into the same frames. According to archaeologists and art historians, the Maya could create metaphorical representations of nature, which they provided with divine features, as many other ancient cultures around the world did. Then the Earth Monster jaws would be a universal and metaphorical image of the underworld or the gateway to the underworld, in which the Mayans certainly believed and worshiped (see😊. By the time of the Aztecs, such an image could gradually evolve to finally adopt the image of the half human goddess Tlaltecuhtli.

Exclusivity for the truth

On the other hand, the image on the sarcophagus may not originally have been purely symbolic, but with time it took on just such a character; perhaps a Mayan artist initially tried to recreate a scene he had seen or heard about, but he dressed it in images that were understandable to his contemporaries, or to himself.

Temple of the Inscriptions is adjacent to Temple XIII, where another tomb of Palenque was found in 90s of the twentieth century by archaeologists. Yet, it is the sarcophagus from the pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions that still attracts most attention. Temple of the Inscriptions in front of a mysterious hill, which apparently is not a natural formation. Intricate complex of the Palace in Palenque, with courtyards, chambers and corridors, and four-levelled square tower, possibly used for observing astronomical events. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It did not necessarily have to be a spacecraft launch or the maw belonging to a monster that looks as if it had been taken alive from Mayan nightmares. It could have been an image of a phenomenon or truth that once terrified, but at the same time aroused a sort of respect among various inhabitants of Mesoamerica at the time. What was that? We do not know. And perhaps we will never know the truth. Besides, no one can claim exclusivity for the true understanding of the Mayan images, and no diploma or academic degree guarantees their correct interpretation. One would have to arrange a chat with an ancient Maya first. I wonder how the ancients would react to contemporary interpretations of scenes that they once created. Probably their jaw would drop …

The sculptor of the sarcophagus could actually have left a hieroglyphic inscription on its surface, which would identify the man imagined there (see: Von Däniken 1991:182,186). The problem is that some of the hieroglyphs found on the sarcophagus still cannot be deciphered (Von Däniken 1991:186; Hancock 2016:157).

In the Mouth of the Earth Monster

In the central part of  the Temple of the Inscriptions, suspended at the top of the stepped pyramid, there is a series of stairs steeply sloping down from enormous stone slabs of the floor (Hancock 2016:157). The sandstone steps are polished by the soles of millions of tourists visiting Palenque and are now quite slippery, also due to the tropical humidity hovering in the air (Ibid.:157). The stairs lead to the crypt. ‘The Earth Monster’s Mouth’ measures 7 metres in height and 9 metres in length (Ibid.:158). The burial chamber is now separated from the visitors by a heavy grating, and additionally, a usually foggy glass hinders the access to it together with a possibility of seeing the sarcophagus in detail (Von Däniken 1991:184).

Fortunately, in the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City, there is a replica of the sarcophagus, which I was able to successfully photograph, although the inability to use a flash significantly worsened the sharpness of the image (see: Von Däniken 1991:185). Thus you need to have much patience to make a successful shot of this famous and controversial monument. The image itself is also often reproduced in various forms by local Indians who sell them massively to tourists. You can then hang such a woven or painted picture on the wall, of course in a vertical position, and keep trying to solve its mystery for hours after returning home from Mexico.

Featured image: Temple of the Inscriptions is adjacent to Temple XIII, where another tomb of Palenque was found in 90s of the twentieth century by archaeologists. Yet, it is the sarcophagus from the pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions that still attracts most attention. Temple of the Inscriptions in front of a mysterious hill, which apparently is not a natural formation. Intricate complex of the Palace in Palenque, with courtyards, chambers and corridors, and four-levelled square tower, possibly used for observing astronomical events. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3wDUojb>. [Accessed on 18th June, 2021].

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Burns K. (2012). “The Mayan Conspiracy”. Ancient Aliens; Episode 1 (32); Season 4. Prometheus Entertainment.

Eberl M. (2013). ”Śmierć i koncepcje duszy”. Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

Hancock G. (2016). Ślady palców bogów. [Fingerprints of Gods]. Kołodziejczyk G. trans. Warszawa: Amber.

Hohmann-Vogrin A. (2013). ”Jedność w przestrzeni i czasie – architektura Majów.” Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

My Gen (2021). “In plain sight: Mayan – Lord Pakal’s Tomb”. In: My Generation; www.MyGen.com. Available at <https://bit.ly/2SH2RmT>. [Accessed on 17th June, 2021].

Quetzal Resistance (2011).”K’inich Janaab’ Pakal-Palenque Dynasty 603 – 683ad”. In Quetzal Resistance. Available at <https://bit.ly/3q7wA4S>. [Accessed on 17th June, 2021].

Tyldesley J. (2016). “8 things you (probably) didn’t know about Tutankhamun”. In: History Extra. The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed. Available at <https://bit.ly/3wUcU71>. [Accessed on 24th June, 2021].

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Wagner E. (2013). ”Mity kreacyjne Majów i kosmografia”. Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

Wołek I. (2012). “Dookoła świata: Tajemnice Majów. Jukatan – Meksyk”. In: Kurier Powiatowy. Available as PDF. Available at <https://bit.ly/2UipdeZ>. [Accessed on 19th June, 2021].

Wordtrade.com (2021). “Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences: Maya”. In: Wordtrade.com/American History. Available at <https://bit.ly/3cQRcZC>. [Accessed on 18th June, 2021].

The Dancing Parade in the Clouds

The morning light was slowly changing and with it also the aura of the ancient site. The sun was reaching higher, hammering its piercing rays into every corner of the city and the sunlight spilled onto the Main Plaza.

I was slowly walking between crumbling rocks, yet escaping from their still cool shade. I admitted to myself that Monte Alban had already made a huge impression on me. I did not know that it could surprise me even more with anything else. And yet! Wandering around in the vicinity of Building L, at the southeastern edge of the city, I suddenly stumbled upon a strange procession of naked stone creatures of an anthropomorphic shape (see: Hancock 2016:153). They were all carved in relief on a large number of stone monuments, which looked like irregular stelas, some of which were leaning loosely against the wall of the pyramid (Ibid.:153). A strange appearance of the figures intrigued and terrified at once. I was just standing there stupefied while looking at the earliest examples of the so-called Danzantes, standing in front of me. Yet a lot of them were also seen haunting throughout the whole Main Plaza of the city and in the nearby Monte Alban Site Museum (“Monte Albán” 2019).

Who were the Danzantes?

Depiction of a woman whose new born child may have just died or maybe she miscarried when she was pregnant. Was it due to epidemics? Museo de Sitio de Monte Albán. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A vast sophistication of the engineering methods applied, along with the large-scale astronomy built in the city’s layout, indicate that Monte Alban must have been constructed by equally advanced civilization (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Who were they and where did they come from?

Some clues are provided by the mysterious elements I had just encountered at Monte Alban – the Danzantes (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). These “are a series of [300] iconic reliefs featuring strange, morbid, rubbery [and naked] characters that appear to be diseased [or] deformed. Their message, and purpose, is a complete mystery and they are one of the many encrypted messages scattered around the city” (Ibid.). Still their style, along with the physical appearance of depicted characters seem analogous to representations left by the foremost civilization of Mesoamerica, usually called the Olmecs but also known as the Proto-Mayans. Yet the latter name is not fully correct, as at a certain stage, they developed parallel to the Maya (see:).

The Olmecs and Monte Alban

Mysterious on their own, the Olmecs had inhabited the lowlands of south-central Mexico (the present-day coastline of Veracruz and Tabasco states) as early as in 2000 BC and left their homeland roughly around 500 BC, that is around the time of Monte Alban’s beginnings on the stage of Mesoamerican history.

Is it just a coincidence?

Actually, it is theorised that the Olmecs migrated south (for unknown reasons) and established their new city in the Oaxaca Valley (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Moreover, yet before Monte Alban was constructed, the Olmecs and the people of San Jose Mogote were involved in mutual trade, by means of which, the farming community developed later into the Zapotec civilisation, who later became credited with monumental architecture, calendrics and the first known form of writing (Ibid.). One slab in Danzantes‘ style was actually found paved in the corridor at San Jose Magote (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). The building where it was found is dated to between 750 BC and 500 BC, when the community of San Jose Magote was about to disappear (Ibid.). The representation of an anthropomorphic character is accompanied there by two glyphs depicted between its legs, meaning Earth (or Motion) and One (in relation to the first day of a 20-day cycle) (Ibid.).

Artistic representations of the Olmecs, and the Danzantes from Monte Alban share, among all, one striking characteristic; they all depict figures of multiple races, namely Negroid, Asian and Caucasian (Childress 2007:14; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).

What is fascinating about this enigmatic civilisation to us modern viewers is how they represented themselves. In addition to [the] Negroid features [of the basalt colossal heads], many artefacts depict individuals who have Oriental or European features. It is therefore very interesting to pay close attention to how the figures are presented – how they dressed; the head gear they wore; the shape of their eyes, nose, ears and mouths; the way they held their hands; and the expressions on their faces. […] Who are these people? Where they isolated villagers or strangers from a faraway land?”

(Childress 2007:14)

The stelae’s representations would accordingly indicate both: solid evidence of an Olmec artistic influence depicted in the stelae of Monte Alban and so an international character of the Olmec civilisation (Childress 2007:14; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).

An academic science has found nothing extraordinary in this regard, although archaeologists have estimated that the reliefs are very old and date from between 1000 and 600 BC. As in many other cases of stone slabs and carvings, this time period was established due to an analysis of the organic matter accumulated in the reliefs, and not on the basis of studies of the granite steles themselves, which cannot be objectively dated (Hancock 2016:154). The slabs were either carved at Monte Alban (conceivably not by the Zapotecs) or brought there from the outside (probably by the Olmecs themselves) (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Such an assumption comes from the fact that, except for the single example of a similar piece of art found at San Jose Magote, such representations remain unknown in the Oaxaca Valley.

Slain captives or epidemic victims?

The Danzantes means in Spanish dancers in reference to the figures’ poses as they look as if caught in a dancing movement (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).

If they represent members of the Olmec civilization, and the stelae of Monte Alban are its legacy, it must have been a civilization of racial equality. Graham Hancock (2016:153) believes that the proud faces of the enormous heads of the so-called Olmecs from La Venta could not have depicted slaves or the images of slender and bearded men there showed no men with knees bowed to no one; their faces radiate with the dignity of great aristocrats (Ibid.:153).

It seems, however, that in Monte Alban someone has immortalized in stone the story of the Olmecs’ fall. Although the Oaxaca sculptors made portraits of the same civilization whose faces are visible in the Olmec homeland, it is no longer a work of the same character, which is indicated by the incomparably lower level of workmanship of the stelae and the lack of visible strength, power and life force in their iconography that once characterized the Olmecs (Hancock 2016:154). The figures of Monte Alban are naked, some huddled in a fetal position and others stretched limply on the ground, like corpses (Ibid.:154).

Stones of the Dancers, in the Plaza of the Dancers, next to Building L. Photo by Gengiskanhg (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Monte Albán” (2019) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

After the most prominent theory, the slabs symbolise death of slain captives (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Their closed eyes would actually indicate that they represent the human corpses (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). However, other characteristics, such as their nakedness, deformation of limps, positions displaying possibly an agonising death or the presence of female characters stay against that theory (Ibid.). Robin Heyworth (“Are the Danzantes …” 2014) points out that “with more than 300 anonymous gravestones of sickly looking humans, it would make more sense if they [represent] an epidemic.” Maybe the Olmecs were actually forced to leave their homeland around 500 BC due to some kind of epidemic spreading out and they deliberately abandoned their land for the isolated hilltop, just in the same way as other tribes in the Oaxaca Valley did (Ibid.). Likewise San Jose Magote, which also deserted in around 500 BC) (Ibid.).

Plague and Cloud People

Sitting on one of the blocks of stone crumbling in the center of the city. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

If the Olmecs had been the authors of Monte Alban, they must have chosen that exact site on purpose. Did they look for a shelter against the epidemic, which evidence would be the stelae commemorating people smashed by the disease? (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). In this context the stela from San Jose Magote may have been a warning of the spreading epidemic and the call for evacuation to the hilltop (Ibid.).

Or would Monte Alban be rather an answer to the celestial obsession of its builders and inhabitants? (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). The Olmecs may have been the architects of Monte Alban. However, as discussed above, they passed on their knowledge to the Zapotecs and also strongly influenced their culture. The latter referred to themselves as the Cloud People as they believed that their ancestors (?) descended from the sky and hence they may have used the city to communicate with them through celestial appearances (Ibid.).

Or maybe two of those factors overlapped and eventually resulted in establishing the city.

Here comes the Teotihuacan Culture!

On the other side, there are also theories on strong relations of Monte Alban with the enigmatic Teotihuacan city, especially in the span of the fourth century AD. (Heyworth “ A Brief History” 2014). For instance, it is believed that there was a small community of Zapotecs who inhabited Teotihuacan (Ibid.). On the other side, some later structures of Monte Alban may have been influenced by Teotihuacán architecture or even been dedicated to that city (Ibid.).

The figures of Monte Alban are naked, some huddled in a fetal position and others stretched limply on the ground, like corpses. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Interesting is also the fact that both cities simultaneously held their pivotal role in their regions until their dramatic downfall around the eight century AD. (Heyworth “ A Brief History” 2014). Since the origins of people who lived in Teotihuacán are shrouded in mystery (they are just called the Teotihuacan Culture), some authors again recognise the Olmecs as the founders of the city or at least that it was strongly influenced by their culture and architecture (Owen 2000;  Childress 2007:74; Delsol, 2010).

One mystery leads to another

We had already been wandering around the ancient city for two hours, taking notes. The cold had gone away. Now I felt a delicate warmth of sunshine but filled with streams of fresh air. Having climbed down another pyramidal construction, I sat on one of the crumbling blocks of stone. Then I took off my cardigan and put my face out to the sun. ‘What a great feeling to take part in the mystery, yet being so far away from it in time’, I thought.

Today we do not even know how the city was originally called by its architects. Hmm! We do not even know who they actually were: the Olmecs, Zapotecs, aka the Cloud People, the Teotihuacan Culture … ? Moreover, the origins of each of those civilizations themselves still remain unclear! One mystery leads to another …

One mystery leads to another … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Yet, the legacy of Monte Alban cannot be overestimated. Actually, “much of what we associate with Mesoamerica [today] appears to come from this ancient hilltop sanctuary […] in central Oaxaca” (Strom 2019). It was also in Monte Alban, where archaeologists had found hieroglyphic texts, which have not been deciphered yet (Hancock 2016:154). They are engraved on some of the stelae depicting the various races (Ibid.:154). The researchers considered them to be the oldest writing monuments so far uncovered in Mexico (Ibid.:154). Today, little is known about their authors (Ibid.:154). It is only believed that the people who created Monte Alban were excellent builders and professional astronomers (Ibid.:154).

Featured image: People dying in agony or slain captives? One of mysterious stelas in Monte Alban, representing anthropomorphic figures of intriguing features. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Monte Albán” (2019) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2VdZB13>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Childress, H. D. (2007) The Mystery of the Olmecs. Illinois: Adventures Unlimited Press.

Delsol, C. (2010) “Olmecs to Toltecs: Great ancient civilizations of Mexico” In: SFGate. Available at <https://bit.ly/2TbWPHj>. [Accessed on 23rd February, 2020].

Hancock G. (2016) Ślady palców bogów. [Fingerprints of Gods]. Kołodziejczyk G. trans. Warszawa: Amber.

Heyworth, R. (2014) “Monte Alban – Are the Danzantes Evidence for an Epidemic?” In: Uncovered History. Available at <https://bit.ly/37S1vHA>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Heyworth, R. (2014) “Monte Alban – Brief History.” In: Uncovered History. Available at <https://bit.ly/2vW9pSS>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Heyworth, R. (2014) “Monte Alban – The Encrypted City.” In: Uncovered History. Available at < https://bit.ly/2VdzQ11>. [Accessed on 22nd February, 2020].

Owen, B. (2000) “Mesoamerica: Olmecs and Teotihuacan.” In: World Prehistory: Class 17. Available at <https://bit.ly/2w0YreJ>. [Accessed on 23rd February, 2020].

Strom, C. (2019) “The Zapotecs of Monte Alban – The First Civilization in Western Mexico?” In: Ancient Origins. Available at <https://bit.ly/2HKlo8S>. [Accessed on 23rd February, 2020].

Inside the Pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions

Well-documented beliefs of ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica say that the Earth is a mass of land surrounded by waters (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). But the Mayan world was not simply limited to that land but also included a deep dark underworld beneath it and the blue vault of heavens above it (Ibid.:200). For this reason, the earthly world, where they lived, could itself be perceived as the Middle-World or Middle-Earth (Ibid.:200). Similarly, it was called by the peoples of the Dark Ages, in contemporary North-West Europe in the first millennium AD. (Bates 2002:13). A famous author, J.R.R. Tolkien likewise writes about this mythical world in his epic novel, The Lord of the Rings (Ibid.:13). Similar cosmological concepts found in the Maya culture also appear in other ancient cultures, like the Egyptian; the Heliopolitan creation myth goes that the landmass enclosed by waters was actually a mound that arose from the primordial waters of the god Nu, and was called the Benben stone, which was also related to the  Egyptian pyramidion and obelisk (“Benben” 2021).

‘You read too much and too quick’, I thought, smiling to myself. Such mythological concept-frequency comparisons I was making between different ancient cultures may seem far-reaching speculations. Nevertheless, I could not help finding ensuing similarities between civilisations that are said to have developed independently, in different time and in distant regions. I felt as if I had just crossed a forbidden line. Yet, I could not stop my thoughts from wandering.

Architecture of mystical dimensions

Mayan architecture of the city-states metaphorically repeats a representation of the Mayan mythical concept of the world with its overwhelming unity of time and space, reflected in expressly arranged man-made structures (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). The Mayan urban architecture is usually characterized by a group of buildings, concentrated around a courtyard, which recreate the palace complex on a monumental scale (Ibid.:200). Such an arrangement is also visible in Palenque (Ibid.:200).

The two inner pillars covered in stucco reliefs, from the Temple of the Inscriptions. Photo by Alejandro Linares Garcia. CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to scholars, the structures placed in this way resemble a natural environment of Mesoamerica, with mountains towering over green plains (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Such an interpretation is also confirmed by the hieroglyphic description of a tall building, defined as witz – a mountain, whose peaks may refer to stepped pyramids (Ibid.:200). In architecture, Mayan plazas and courtyards border each other in a different way, but the buildings, despite their frequent reconstructions, always remain in an architectural and astronomical relation to each other (Ibid.:200). Moreover, many of them are placed in a mythical landscape and so seem to be planned according to the points where the celestial bodies rise and set on specific days of the astronomical year (Ibid.:200; see: Discovered but Uncovered Palenque of the Ancient Maya). Accordingly, topography and solar orientations were essential for natural cycles and rituals in the net of Mayan city temples (Blankenbehler 2015).

The Temple of the Inscriptions

The so-called Temple of the Inscriptions is not an exception from the rule of specific architectural alignments in Palenque (see: Mystery of the Casas de Piedra in Palenque). It is located in the southwestern corner of the aforementioned Palace, right next to lonely buildings on tall terraced bases, which were later explored and consequently labelled as the Temples XIII and XII (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:178). The Temple’s wide body rises against a hill that archaeologists consider a natural tectonic formation (Von Däniken 1991:178). Erch von Däniken (1991:178) is yet of a different opinion; after him, the hill was artificially elevated and clearly divided into four terraces. Moreover, a temple and small clusters of ruins were discovered on its top (Ibid.:178). Their location indicates they may have been related to the Temple of the Inscriptions itself (Ibid.:178). It can be equally assumed that this inconspicuous mound contains even more archaeological puzzles than have been discovered so far (Ibid.:178).

Templo de las Inscripciones is perhaps the most famous Mayan pyramid of all. Although its comb roof is partially destroyed, the Temple seems very high as it rises at the top of a stepped pyramid consisting of nine platforms, and sixty-nine narrow and steep steps lead to its top. Photo by petrs (2014). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

The Temple of the Inscriptions, or Templo de las Inscripciones, is perhaps the most famous Mayan pyramid of all (Von Däniken 1991:178). Although its comb roof is partially destroyed, the Temple seems very high as it rises at the top of a stepped pyramid consisting of nine platforms, and sixty-nine narrow and steep steps lead to its top (Von Däniken 1991:178; Greene Robertson 2021). Curiously, the same number of years Pakal ruled as a king of Palenque before he died (Greene Robertson 2021). Is there any connection between these historical and architectural facts? The entire structure of the Temple is twenty-five meters high (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). There are five entrances leading inside it, each flanked by two pillars with rich stucco ornamentation (Von Däniken 1991:178-179; Greene Robertson 2021). Inside the whole Temple, there are relief plates with six hundred and seventeen inscriptions (Ibid.:179). Hence the name of the Temple (Ibid.:178).

Shaft leading down

The Temple of the Inscriptions became famous for yet another reason, which also became the greatest archaeological mystery of Mesoamerica in the twentieth century (Von Däniken 1991:179). Namely, it contains a richly decorated burial chamber and the sarcophagus of King Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). A similar discovery shows that the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica also used the pyramids for burial purposes, as it was during the Old and Middle Kingdom in ancient Egypt, and in ancient China. The discoverer and explorer of the tomb chamber was Dr. Albert Ruz Lhuillier (1906 – 1979), director of the Palenque excavation, appointed by the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179; Burns 2012). In 1949, the archaeologist found a shaft at the temple level with stairs leading down into the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179).

The Temple of the Inscriptions, towering from the stepped pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The shaft had been hidden below huge stone slabs provided with holes used for their lifting (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179; Burns 2012). The vaulted staircase turned out to be completely covered with dirt and rubbles so it took the archaeological team three years to clean it and descend deeper into the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:179; Burns 2012). Eventually, in 1952, the archaeologist reached the tomb crypt containing a megalithic sarcophagus (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Von Däniken 1991:180-181; Burns 2012). It is still the largest crypt found so far in the land of the Maya; it has dimensions of 4×10 metres, and its vault is 7 metres high (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). Before the archaeologist entered it, he had to descend flights of stairs, pass through one wall bonded with mortar, then a four-meter stone wall, and finally a triangular stone slab, which already gave a direct access to the proper burial chamber (Von Däniken 1991:180-181). On the way to the tomb, valuable jewellery, clay tablets and the remains of six dead, including one woman, were found (Ibid.:180-181).

Emergency exit for the soul

The burial chamber itself lies on the north-south axis (Von Däniken 1991:181). It is located at the end of the vaulted staircase, inside the terraced substructure and below the level of the Main Plaza in front of the temple, with its foundations reaching two meters below the base of the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202,204; Von Däniken 1991:181).

Today, it is still accessed by the same spiral stairs from the back room of the temple, which were unburied by the archaeologists in the 50s of the twenty century (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Eberl 2013:311). A cross-section plan of the temple clearly shows huge dimensions of the burial chamber, especially when it is compared with the temple building itself, erected at the top of the pyramid (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). The floor of the crypt is covered with one-stone slab weighing approximately nine tons (Von Däniken 1991:182). Stucco reliefs on its walls, show a procession of solemnly decorated priests passing along (Ibid.:182). Graham Hancock (2016:158) calls them the Lords of the Night, referring in this way to the ‘Ennead’, a group of nine ancient Egyptian deities, particularly worshiped at Heliopolis (see: “Ennead” 2021).

There are sixty-nine narrow and steep steps leading to the top of the pyramid with the Temple of the Inscriptions. Curiously, the same number of years Pakal ruled as a king of Palenque before he died. Does it confirm the identity of the buried man? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The sarcophagus was found under the mentioned stone slab and weighs twenty tons (Von Däniken 1991:182). It was carved from a single stone and was sealed with a five-ton stone lid (Von Däniken 1991:182; Hancock 2016:158; My Gen 2021). The sarcophagus contained a skeleton of a very tall male, wearing a jade death mask, composed of two hundred fragments (Von Däniken 1991:182; Monsieur Mictlan 2018; Hancock 2016:158). A similar green funeral mask but made of malachite pieces was also found attached to the front of the Red Queen’s skull in the Temple XIII, situated just on the right of the Temple of the Inscriptions (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). Yet, the Queen’s mask was additionally provided with a diadem made of flat circular jade beads (Ibid.). Like in the case of the Red Queen, next to the dead from the Temple of the Inscriptions, there were found, among others, pieces of jewellery, such as jade bracelets, rings and earrings with hieroglyphs engraved on them, a pearl and jade bead necklace and a jade statuette (Von Däniken 1991:182; Monsieur Mictlan 2018; Hancock 2016:159). For Graham Hancock (2016:159), the found figurine looked like a more ancient object than other tomb offerings and was similar to artifacts associated with a “multicultural” environment of the Olmecs from La Venta; namely, it represented an old Asian man with a goatee and a long flowing robe.

Additionally, from the sarcophagus a clay pipe was carried outside the crypt; it is known as the psychoduct, which is unique to Pakal’s tomb (Von Däniken 1991:182; “Palenque” 2021; Eberl 2013:311). As archaeologists say, it allowed the soul of the deceased to separate from the body and fly out of the tomb (Von Däniken 1991:182; Eberl 2013:311). Moreover, it was believed that on the way to the afterlife, the dead had to overcome many different obstacles (Eberl 2013:315). Even modern-day Mayas are still afraid of the ok-pixan, or soul thieves who, like Christian demons, can capture the human soul during its ascent to the afterlife (Ibid.:315). Therefore, in the past, living family members of the dead tried to make the journey of the soul easier (Ibid.:315). For this reason, special openings in the houses’ roofs were designed to serve as a hiding place or a soul’s escaping route. In the Tempel of the Inscriptions, it was probably the role of the mentioned psychoduct (Ibid.:315), “which leads from the tomb itself, up the stairway and through a hole in the stone, covering the entrance to the burial” (“Palenque” 2021).

Buried mystery in the heart of the pyramid

Most researchers believe that the sarcophagus contains the remains of Pakal, one of the most famous Mayan kings known today, who died in 683 AD. (Von Däniken 1991:182; Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202,204; Eberl 2013:315). After Palenque had been attacked and looted by the ruler of Calakmul, at the end of the Preclassical period, Pakal took over the power at a young age and rebuilt the city, restoring it to its glory in the so-called Classic Period (Burns 2012). During the almost seventy years of Pakal’s reign, the most significant inscriptions and monuments of the Mayan civilization were also created (Ibid.). Surely, such an outstanding ruler deserved a famous sarcophagus. According to archaeologists, the king designed his own tomb, which was completed together with the Temple of the Inscriptions around 690 AD., already during the reign of his son, Kan Balam the Second (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202,204).

One thing is certain: the tomb and the crypt were built first, and only then the successive steps of the pyramid were erected over it (Von Däniken 1991:190-191). Only as the final result of the construction was the temple overbuilt on top of the pyramid, which is actually a distinctive architectural design in all Mesoamerica. (Von Däniken 1991:190-191; Greene Robertson 2021). The stairs leading to the interior of the temple were being additionally raised and lengthened several times during the second phase of the building process (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). This part of the whole structure also remained inextricably linked to the tomb by means of the flies of stairs going deep down, which were finally covered up (Von Däniken 1991:179-181; Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). It is not known, however, when and why they were buried; was it a result of an unknown ritual, already at the time of the construction of the pyramid, or it was done much later, for generally unknown reasons?

The Temple of the Inscriptions, or Templo de las Inscripciones, is perhaps the most famous Mayan pyramid of all. It rises at the top of a stepped pyramid consisting of nine platforms, and sixty-nine narrow and steep steps lead to its top. Photo by k_tzito (2016). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

The assumed chronology of the construction of the Temple of the Inscriptions proves another fact (Von Däniken 1991:190). Since the pyramid with its temple were astronomically oriented, the very first step to such an arrangement must have been started by a proper placement of the twenty-ton sarcophagus and the five-ton stone lid of the tomb, long before the pyramid itself was erected (Ibid.:190). For this reason, the sarcophagus had always been to remain in the place chosen for it underworld; nobody was able to move it outside, climbing again up the steep and narrow stairs (Ibid.:190). As such, it was simultaneously the beginning and the centre of the astronomical mystery of the Temple of the Inscriptions, towering at the top of its stepped pyramid (Ibid.:190).

Or perhaps, the crypt itself had existed hundreds of years before the pyramid was built over it and so the tomb did not belong to the king Pakal … (Ibid.:182;190). Who was then buried in the crypt?

Inconvenient dates

With nearly two hundred hieroglyphic inscriptions, Palenque is one of the most important inscription sites throughout the Mayan territory (Prager, Grube 2013:447). Calendar inscriptions read at Palenque refer, among other things, to the rulers of the Classic period (Von Däniken 1991:182). Pakal was born in 603 AD. and reportedly he was twelve when he ascended the throne and had ruled until his death for nearly seventy years, that is, until 683 AD. (Ibid.:182). So he was about eighty at the time of his death, which after Erich von Däniken (1991:182) seems quite odd considering the average Mayan lifetime in ancient times was only thirty-five.

Beside the Palace with the Temple of the Inscription in the foreground. Mayan architecture of the city-states metaphorically repeats a representation of the Mayan mythical concept of the world with its overwhelming unity of time and space, reflected in expressly arranged man-made structures. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the basis of the Mayan hieroglyphic cycles in Palenque, not only the dates of Pakal’s reign (603-683 AD.) were read, but also the date of the fall of the city (Von Däniken 1991:177,182). The last hieroglyph points to the year of 780 AD. (Ibid.:177). It has also been assumed that the oldest known date for the beginning of the Mayan chronology is 3114 BC. (Ibid.:177). However, the world-renowned archaeologist and historian of art, Herbert J. Spinden (1879–1967) found among the Mayan inscriptions a date going even further back in the past, namely to 3373 BC., whereas in the described before Temple of the Cross at Palenque, he discovered a date going as far back as to 3379 BC. (Ibid.:177; see😊 The problem is that at the time defined by such dates the ancient Maya had not existed yet . (Ibid.:177). Besides, there are so many various dates scattered around the city of Palenque that specialists sometimes get confused while deciphering the hieroglyphs to ascribe them to a proper time in the Mayan history (Ibid.:177). Among them the oldest dates, over which archaeologists usually spread their hands helplessly, are particularly intriguing (Ibid.:177-178,182).

Despite all this inconsistency, the puzzling set of dates in Mayan cities covering the millennia cannot give any foundations for the hypothesis of fictitious dating by the Maya, of which experts often accuse them (Von Däniken 1991:178). In addition, relatively little progress has been made in deciphering other hieroglyphs since the Mayan dates were decoded (Hancock 2016:156). Moreover, although astronomical cycles of dates have been deciphered at Palenque, these are often cycles so long that they probably have little to do with human history (Von Däniken 1991:178). As Erich von Däniken (1996:) writes, dates of thousands and millions of years should be ultimately reserved for gods.

At the back wall of the Temple of the Inscriptions there are carved in rows tangled anthropomorphic and zoomorphic features (Hancock 2016:156). They are a mixture of puzzling hieroglyphs and phonetic symbols that have not been read so far (Ibid.:157). Graham Hancock (2016:157) writes that it is only known that their number, which is six hundred and twenty, refers to the thousands of years of past epochs and their content may stand for a history of gods and people who played a role in those events.

Epitaph fifty years before death

Calendar inscriptions are also depicted on the Palenque sarcophagus (Von Däniken 1991:182,186). They run along its stone-lid and on its side edges (Ibid.:186). So far, only some hieroglyphs standing for dates and astronomical signs, such as of the Venus, Sun, North Star and the Moon have been successfully deciphered (Ibid.:182,186). After Dr. Ruz, among the inscriptions on the tomb, there is ultimately information about the cycles of dates, and the last date on the sarcophagus is 633 AD., that is to say, fifty years before the conventional date of Pakal’s death, which is 683 AD. (Ibid.:182). Probably due to this unmatching date on the sarcophagus, some scholars have suggested that the image on the lid is not really an image of the famous king, but symbolically represents mankind or the Mayan god of corn, Yum Kox (Ibid.:182).

Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico. Photo by Kwamikagami – English Wikipedia (2004). Public domain. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Maya script” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

And where can one turn to for advice? Apparently, any interpretation of the main character of the show depends on an interpreter and their independent but subjective approach to the subject.

Asking geologists

Another question, which is related to the identity of the skeletal remains and to the inconsistency of the most recent date on the sarcophagus, is when the crypt under the Temple of the Inscriptions was actually sealed. The only witnesses who could have revealed the secret were stalactites and stalagmites growing in the crypt (Von Däniken 1991:181). Unfortunately, whereas some may have been accidentally knocked down by the researchers while they were opening the stone slab leading to the tomb, others were probably destroyed during their further archaeological works in situ (Ibid.:181).

Dr. Ruz mentions the geological formations while describing the crypt as:

“[…] an enormous room that appeared to be graven in ice, a kind of grotto whose walls and roof seemed to have been planned in perfect surfaces, or an abandoned chapel whose cupola was draped with curtains of stalactites, and from whose floor arose thick stalagmites like the dripping of a candle.”

(Hancock 2001:163).

As the archaeologist refers to them as “thick” and looking “like the dripping of a candle”, they must have already been quite long and large at the moment of uncovering the crypt, in 1952.

Cavern full of stalactites and stalagmites in Metro Cave / Te Ananui Cave. Photo by Pseudopanax. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Stalaktyt” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Stalactites are icicle-shaped mineral formation that hangs from the ceiling and their equivalent formations growing up from the floor are known as stalagmites (PWN 2021). They are formed by the precipitation of calcium carbonate crystals from water dripping from rock fractures and their maximum increment per year is from approximately 0.25 mm to 3 mm (Ibid.). Still, such formations can grow faster in an area rich in limestone, which is actually characteristic of the building substance of Mayan pyramids, including the stepped pyramid with the Temple of the Inscriptions (Von Däniken 1991:181).

According to the provided dates for Pakal’s death, the tomb stayed sealed for 1 300 years till it was discovered (My Gen 2021), whereas according to the latest date found in Palenque, it had been neglected for around 1 172 years (Von Däniken 1991:177,181). Since the Maya abandoned Palenque at the turn of the ninth century AD., the water of heavy rains must have penetrated deep into the building of the Temple and greatly influenced the growing process of the geological formations inside it (Ibid.:181). The dry months that followed the rains brought in turn severe heat, which, like humidity, also had an impact on the growth rate of the stalactites inside the crypt (Ibid.:181).

How much could they grow in such conditions? If at least one of them had been preserved, it would be possible for geologists to calculate how many years had passed since the crypt was sealed (Von Däniken 1991:181). After Erich von Däniken (1991:181) it could be a starting point for understanding all the puzzling dates in the Mayan chronology.

Another intact sarcophagus

Just before our descent into the deep belly of the Temple of the Inscriptions, we first directed our steps to another tomb, which was found much later in the adjacent Temple XIII, in the spring of 1994 (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). The discovery was accidently made by a young Mexican archaeologist, Fanny López Jiménez (Ibid.).

Like a team of archaeologists twenty years ago, we climbed into a narrow passageway, leading inside the pyramid with three chambers vaulted by stone ceilings, one of which contained a tomb of the so-called Red Queen, once accompanied by human remains belonging to a young man and an older woman (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). Such a nickname of the female skeleton found inside the sarcophagus was chosen due to the fact that her skeletal remains with the funeral collection of various objects were covered in a red powder, made of grounded cinnabar (the ore of mercury), which was once used as a pigment (Ibid.). The sarcophagus was dated back to the times of Pakal, between 600 and 700 AD. and the age of the buried woman was estimated at around sixty years old (Ibid.). The archaeologists first thought it was Pakal’s mother but then they eventually decided it was rather Ix Tz’akbu Ajaw, the king Pakal’s wife (Ibid.). Nevertheless, her identity has never been surely confirmed (Ibid.).

Further questions about Pakal’s identity

Scientifics have greatly progressed in studies over the remains of the Red Queen and her possible identity by means of precise results of a series of the skeleton’s analyses, which primarily included radiocarbon and DNA tests, supported by facial reconstructions studies (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021). Such a state of facts, however, poses many questions about Pakal’s skeletal analyses. Even though the Red Queen had presumably lived in the times of Pakal’s rule and her remains were also buried in Palnque, thus in the exactly same conditions as in the case of Pakal’s skeletal remains, and both tombs were sealed and intact till they were discovered, the comparative analyses of both cases have significantly differed.

The Pyramid of the Inscriptions is on the left of the smaller Temple XIII, situated just next to it to the right. There is a characteristic entrance to the inside of the pyramid leading to the burial chamber of the Red Queen. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Whereas in the case of the Red Queen, there was a successfully extracted sample of DNA (“Tomb of the Red Queen” 2021), such an examination was claimed to be impossible in the case of Pakal’s skeletal remains (Wordtrade.com 2021). Moreover, in the analyses of the latter, there are no known results of any radiocarbon tests … (Ibid.; see:).

Why such scientific methods, as radiocarbon dating or DNA examinations, were not conducted to determine the identity of the said Pakal’s skeletal remains?

Featured image: The Temple of the Inscriptions became a place of the most fascinating discovery of the 50s of the twentieth century in Mesoamerica. Namely, inside the stepped pyramid of the Temple, the first tomb of Palenque was found in 1952, where a famous sarcophagus was revealed by a group of archaeologists. It is commonly said to contain the king Pakal’s skeletal remains. Besides that, the Temple is one of the crucial architectural elements in a mystical alignment of the city of Palenque. It is located in the southwestern corner of the Palace, from where the picture is taken. Photo by Dezalb (2015). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Benben” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3gOXsUb>. [Accessed on 23rd June, 2021].

“Ennead” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2U99A9v>. [Accessed on 17th June, 2021].

“Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3wDUojb>. [Accessed on 18th June, 2021].

“Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bulXTA>. [Accessed on 14th May, 2021].

“Stalaktyt” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3zVy7PK>. [Accessed on 24th June, 2021].

“Temple of the Inscriptions” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3gRGiFr>. [Accessed on 14th May, 2021].

“Tomb of the Red Queen” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3jdoFBg>. [Accessed on 23rd June, 2021].

Bates B. (2002). Magia, Mity i Tajemnice Średniowiecza. [The Real Middle-Earth. Magic and Mystery in the Dark Ages]. Prokopiuk J. trans. Warszawa: Dom Wydawniczy Bellona.

Blankenbehler B. (2015). “Palenque: Ritual Architecture Of Ancient Mayans”. In: Architecture Revived. Available at <https://bit.ly/3577hWZ>. [Accessed on 6th June, 2021].

Burns K. (2012). “The Mayan Conspiracy”. Ancient Aliens; Episode 1 (32); Season 4. Prometheus Entertainment.

Eberl M. (2013). ”Śmierć i koncepcje duszy”. Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

Free images at Pixabay. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fTQX0u>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2021].

Greene Robertson M. (2021). “Structures. The Temple of the Inscriptions”. In: Palenque Resources. Available at <https://bit.ly/3q2HF77>. [Accessed on 17th June, 2021].

Hancock G. (2016) Ślady palców bogów. [Fingerprints of Gods]. Kołodziejczyk G. trans. Warszawa: Amber.

Hancock G. (2021). Fingerprints of the Gods. The Quest Continues. The edition first published in 1996 by Mandarin Paperbacks. Reprinted in Century Books. The Random House Group Limited.

Hohmann-Vogrin A. (2013). ”Jedność w przestrzeni i czasie – architektura Majów.” Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

My Gen (2021). “In plain sight: Mayan – Lord Pakal’s Tomb”. In: My Generation; www.MyGen.com. Available at <https://bit.ly/2SH2RmT>. [Accessed on 17th June, 2021].

Prager Ch., Grube N. (2013). ”Najważniejsze zabytkowe stanowiska Majów.” Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

PWN (2021). “Stalaktyty”. In: Encyklopedia PWN. Available at <https://bit.ly/3vKo1hC>. [Accessed on 18th June, 2021].

Von Daniken E. (1991). Dzień, w którym przybyli bogowie. 11 sierpnia 3114 roku prz. Chr. [Der Tag, and em die Gotter kamen. 11. August 3114 v. Chr.]. Serafińska T. trans. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Prokop.

Wordtrade.com (2021). “Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences: Maya”. In: Wordtrade.com/American History. Available at <https://bit.ly/3cQRcZC>. [Accessed on 18th June, 2021].

Yucatan ‘Mountains Filled with Water’ in the Maya’s Underground

We landed at the Cancún airport a day ago and I felt as if I had been in Mexico for at least a week. In one day, loads of impressions, images, stories, information and guesses summoned up in my head. That would be enough for a whole month; my continuously analyzing mind was just making a trip through the Yucatan and its pre-Columbian Mayan and Toltec cities. Unfortunately, my time in Mexico was limited and so was my stay at archaeological sites.

Something good for everyone

‘One day is far not enough for Chichén Itzá’, I said with well heard regret in my voice. I was sorry to get out of there, as soon as I finally started understanding the city plan and entering its mysterious nooks and crannies more confidently.

The Ik Kil cenote, close to Chichén Itzá, México. Photo by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Cenote” (Polish) (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

‘We only have two weeks to stay in Mexico’ said my friend. ‘Then we have to go back to Poland, and what is worse, to winter!’ Then, she added: ‘Besides, you have promised not to explore ‘your’ rocks all the time long. You know, I can’t get along here alone. I don’t speak the language.’

Yes, I knew that and I promised … I also understood that my friend flew here mainly to the warm sea of ​​the Gulf of Mexico to take a break from work and February frosts. She loved swimming and diving. Me too … But for me, taking holidays meant breaking through a stone forest of abandoned ruins, stumbling over stones sticking out of the ground and climbing the narrow steps of pyramidal structures. Well, there must be something good for everyone…

Longing for archaeology

If only I had not needed to work full-time during my studies in a boring office, I would have spent a few months excavating, preferably deep in the jungles of the Chiapas region. On the other hand, I read in one of Daniken’s books (1991:189) that it is not easy at all to start archaeological excavations in Mexico, even if there are sufficient funds. According to the author, digs would be willingly continued by archaeologists in Chichén Itzá, in Palenque, or in other Mayan city-states, but such efforts often fail due to the resistance of local Indians, who thus defend their still holy ancient centres (Von Daniken 1991:189). And when the excavation eventually takes place, only Indians work there (ibid.:189). Anyway, at that time, I was only on vacation in Mexico, which I could only afford because of my ‘boring job’.

After a while of lingering around, I reluctantly left the incredible archaeological site and followed another tourist attraction that my companion was waiting impatiently for.

Strange and amazing Yucatan

As a Polish traveller, Elżbieta Dzikowska (2013:201) writes, the Yucatan Peninsula is a strange place, where about eight thousand rivers flow underground. How is it possible? The Yucatan bed is made of limestone rocks through which rainwater is filtered (Tuszyńska 2007:50). Rocky ground absorbs water that collects and flows underground (Ibid.:50). Such underground rivers run through many picturesque caves (Dzikowska 2013:201). Many of them are formed exteriorly on the ground, like in the case of the Loltún Cave, of which one of larger chambers features natural openings, which appeared after the ceiling collapsed (Dzikowska 2013:201; Brady 2013:297). The Maya possibly believed that such openings in the ground unite the world above with the underworld (Brady 2013:297). The Loltún Cave is located today south of the city of Mérida and its name means ‘Stone Flower’ in the Mayan language (Tuszyńska 2007:36). The Mayans used it for about two thousand years (Ibid.:36).

Cenotes and caves

The waters of underground rivers also rise to the surface in the form of cenotes, deep and borderland wells (Dzikowska 2013:201).

Cenote at Bolonchén, Mexico, used as source of water. Lithography by Frederick Catherwood (1842). Published in “Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan” (1844). Via web copy at Cenote Xtacumbilxunan, at Bolonchen, Yucatan. Public domain. Photo source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

They are either open to the sky or occur inside deep caves and thus some of them can only be reached through underground corridors. (Tuszyńska 2007:50). Densely scattered around the northern part of the Yucatan karst area, cenotes were formed due to the collapse of the top layers of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; “Cenote” 2020). A such, the cenote is a natural deep pit, or sinkhole, filled with groundwater (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; “Cenote” 2020).

John Lloyd Stephens (1805 – 1852) and Frederick Catherwood (1799 – 1854) introduced the subject of caves and cenotes at the beginning of studies dedicated to the Mayan history, in the 1840s (Brady 2013:297). At that time, however, only practical functions of such formations were considered, and not their religious significance in the Maya cult, which turned out to be actually the case (Ibid.:297). Catherwood’s famous lithograph, showing the wooden stairs in the village of Bolonchén, in Yucatan, focused on illustrating the scale of difficulties related to the use of caves by the local population; a powerful constructed staircase leads down from the side entrance to a small lake in the middle of the cenote. In some cases, difficult access to these natural formations has kept the treasures of the Mayan caves as a secret for centuries (Ibid.:297).

Altépetl

The name cenote originated from the Mayan word tz’ono’ot, meaning a ‘depth’, ‘an abyss’, or ‘a cave with a water reservoir’ (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; Tuszyńska 2007:50). In the pre-Columbian times, cenotes, had ‘a decisive influence on the choice of a Mayan city location, such as in the case of Chichén Itzá, Dzibilchaltún or Mayapán (Ibid.:429). In northern Yucatan, where there are no surface rivers or lakes, cenotes and underground water reservoirs hidden in the abyss of caves guaranteed access to fresh water for local residents (Grube et al. eds. 2013:429; Brady 2013:297). But practical functions of cenotes were not the main reason for establishing a city in their proximity; the water from cenotes and caves was primarily used for ritual purposes (Brady 2013:297). Ethnohistoric records of founding rituals from all over Mesoamerica, prove that when establishing settlements, ancient people looked for specific geographic features, although they did not often choose environmentally rich areas, if they did not have a specific landscape necessary by contemporary beliefs and religious traditions (Ibid.:297-298).

Glyphs representing Texcoco, Tenochtitlan, and Tlacopan, the three primary altépetl of the Aztec Empire. Codex Osuna Triple Alliance. Published in 2006. Public domain. Image source: “Altepetl” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to researchers like Angel Julián García Zambrano, founding a city implied in many cultures imitating the creation of the world (Brady 2013:297-299). At the core of Mayan beliefs is a deity called the Lord of the Earth, whose name Tzuultaq’a translates as ‘hill-valley’, which may sound like a dichotomy at first (Ibid.:297-299). However, according to Mayan beliefs, the Lord of the Earth does not personify the opposite, but unites both dimensions into a single being (Ibid.:297-299). In many Mayan languages, cave means ‘stone house’ because it was believed that the Lord of the Earth lived with his entourage (animals and goods) in a cave located in a sacred mountain (Ibid.:297-299). That in turn, according to the same beliefs, was empty (Ibid.:297-299).

Drawing of the Maya hieroglyphic sign for ‘cenote.’ From Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting. Drawing by Marc Zender. Drawing source: James Doyle (2018). “Into the Centipede’s Jaws: Sumptuous Offerings from the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá”, Fig. 2. In: The Metropolitan Museum (The MET).

García Zambrano believes that another element constituting the whole of the mythical landscape was to be a source of fresh water, that is to say, the mountain should have a cave and springs at its core, and ideally it was to be surrounded by lower hills (Brady 2013:298). This form of such a landscape is best reflected in the hieroglyphs of geographical names in the Mayan inscriptions (Ibid.:298-299). According to it, the inhabitants of Mesoamerica have long considered the ideal landscape to be a holy mountain rising from the waters of the underground world (Ibid.:298-299). This imagery is also the basis of the Aztec concept of ‘city-state’ – altépetl, which literally translates as a ‘water mountain’ or ‘mountain filled with water’, and is well illustrated by a glyph showing a mountain with a cave at its foundation (Ibid.:298-299). If there was no natural cave formation on-site, it was replaced by an artificial one, usually placed beneath the foundations of pyramids (Ibid.:298299,302-303). Such openings, ritually dedicated to deities, became an important centers of established city-states (Ibid.:298299,302-303).

Recreation of the holy landscape

Assuming that the Mayan temple pyramids were referred to as witz – ‘hills’ or ‘mountains’, it can be concluded that they represented sacred mountains, and respectively the doors to the sanctuaries erected at the top were considered entrances to symbolic caves (Brady 2013:298).

Entrance to Dos Ojos Cenote, near Tulúm in Mexico. Photo by Dag Lindgren (2007). CC BY-SA 3.0. Image cropped. Photo source: “Sistema Dos Ojos“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

According to the researchers, it is clearly shown in the facades of these temples, which are to represent the open mouth of the Earth Monster – the symbol of the cave, and so the underworld (Ibid.:298; see Face of the Fifth Sun). Similarly to caves, mountains and pyramids were the basic elements of Mayan religious life, and it can be observed that they all were part of one supreme cult of the Earth (Ibid.:298) . A Mesoamerican archaeologist, ethnohistorian, epigrapher and a great expert in the Maya, Sir John Eric Sidney Thompson (1898 -1975) was first who thoroughly studied a relationship between those elements of the Maya cult (Ibid.:297). He assumed that along with the mountains and temples built on pyramids, one of the most important elements of Mayan religious life were actually caves and cenotes (Ibid.:297).

Geological cutaway of Cenote Ik Kil. Drawing by Editorcharly (2020). CC BY-SA 4.0. Drawing source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Such natural formations were obviously considered as holy by the Maya; inside them life was born, and there were the legendary places of origin of tribes or dynasties (Tuszyńska 2007:37,49; Dzikowska 2013:201). Cenotes themselves, like deep caves, were treated as places of worship and pilgrimage (Tuszyńska 2007:37,49; Brady 2013:305; Dzikowska 2013:201). It was because Mesoamerica’s pre-Columbian pilgrimage sites were generally associated with deities of water and rain, and by all accounts, each Mayan deity lives in the underworld, where the rain is born (Brady 2013:305).

Destinations of Mayan pilgrimages

There are descriptions of ceremonies held in caves and by cenotes, related to both, the life-cycle and the calendar (Brady 2013:307). The most important Mayan ceremony connected to pilgrimage, is still celebrated throughout Mesoamerica (Ibid.:305). It takes place in early May, just before the rain season begins (Ibid.:305). Entire villages then go to local caves or cenotes to plead with the Lord of Earth, Ixchel or Chaak for rainfall and bountiful harvests (Brady 2013:305; Tuszyńska 2007:36,50). Cenotes themselves were closely related to the cult of fertility, and their crystal-clear water was used for ceremonial purifications preceding numerous rituals (Tuszyńska 2007:49). In the proximity of the natural wells, temples dedicated to rain and fertility deities were erected (Ibid.:49). One of the famous was the rain god, Chaak, is usually represented with features typical of water creatures, such as reptiles; it is hence covered with scales, has got a curved nose, two snakes protruding from the corners of its mouth and a large shell hanging from its pierced ear (Ibid.:49). Such rain deities are believed to have lived in cenotes and so offerings for them were thrown directly to the water of the wells (Ibid.:49-50). During the Mayan rule in the Yucatan, additional bloody rituals could be performed in emergency situations, such as drought or plague, which were understood as the discontent of the gods (Brady 2013:305).

Cenote Ik Kil; to get to a swimming platform with the wooden stairs, there is a carved stone stairway that leads down. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it is underlined above, the concept of good and evil does not create a strong dichotomy in Mesoamerican cosmology; the earth considered a source of rain, fertility and life itself, simultaneously is regarded as the main cause of disease (Brady 2013:307). All the illnesses have been believed to arise from winds emanating from caves and from cenote wells (Ibid.:307). And when someone falls ill, the ceremony of healing has been usually combined with the rituals celebrated in these natural formations (Ibid.:307).

Cenote Ik Kil;; luckily, when we got on-site, there were not so many people swimming in the cenote. one can either walk down in the water using the wooden stairs or jump down from the platform above (on the right up) and dive in. The water was really fresh, crystal-clear and chilly, which gave a cooling relief from Mexican sunshine. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The act of pilgrimage itself seems to have been very significant to the Maya; entrances to the deepest chambers of the caves being pilgrimage sites were modified in such a way to make an access to their interiors more difficult for common people (Brady 2013:305). It suggests that only chosen visitors could enter the deepest, most hidden, and so most secret and holiest areas of a given cave (Ibid.:305). Studies of such places in Mesoamerica also confirm that pilgrimage sites were located away from inhabited centers (Ibid.:307). Nevertheless, the presence of an important pilgrimage temple within the city borders has always been considered a sign of favour with supernatural powers and a reason for great pride, as it was in the case of the Cenote of Chichén Itzá (Ibid.:305).

Cenote Sagrado of Chichén Itzá

Similarly to caves, cenotes as sacred wells played very important role in the Mayan mythology and religion (Tuszyńska 2007:142). Cenote Sagrado (Sacred) located in the archaeological zone of Chichén Itzá was a particularly important site in the late Classic Period of Maya culture, that is to say, between the years of 600–900 AD. (Ibid.:142). At that time, the city of Chichén Itzá experienced a heyday, becoming the most powerful Mayan center in the Yucatan (Ibid.:142). And so the Cenote Sagrado did (Ibid.:142). First, it was a center of religious rituals, and in the post-classical period (850-fifteenth century AD.), it became in turn a famous destination of pilgrimage for the faithful from the areas of today’s Mexico and Guatemala, but also from lands as distant as Costa Rica and Panama or even the south-western areas of today’s United States (Ibid.:142).

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, Mexico. “Cenote de los Sacrificios” at Chichén Itzá, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. A karst lake, reflecting the karst’s water table. Photo by Ekehnel (Emil Kehnel) (2008). CC BY 3.0. Drawing source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Diego de Landa (1524-1579), Spanish bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatán, mentioned the great importance of the holy well at Chichén Itzá (Tuszyńska 2007:142). He describes pilgrimages of the faithful with various offerings, still taking place in the sixteenth century (Brady 2013:305). The cenote has a diameter of 60 meters, its depth reaches 13.5 meters, and the water level is about 22 meters below the ground (Tuszyńska 2007:142). The cenote‘s round eye might have been reminiscent of a mirror, which the Mayans used for prophecy and foretelling the future (Ibid.:142).

Venturing out into the earth

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Edward Herbert Thompson (1857 – 1935) an American consul to Yucatan and archaeologist, verifying De Landa’s written records, excavated many artifacts from the bottom of the natural well; here and in other cenotes in Yucatan, there were numerous artifacts of gold, jade, obsidian, rock crystal, shells, flint, wood, clay, gold, hematite, animal bones and tombac, and even scraps of fabric (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:305-307). Among the artifacts found in the Cenote of Chichén Itzá, there are beautiful discs made of turquoise, pyrite, coral and shells (Tuszyńska 2007:142). Sacrificial objects, along with ceremonial instruments were also found in other hard-to-reach places underground as caves; they were, as in the case of votives in the Catholic Church, offered for various intentions or for gratitude (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:307). Such archaeological finds also testify to the religious determination of the Maya, who were able to venture out into the earth to sixteen kilometres deep, in the search of their gods, lighting their way just with torches (Brady 2013:307).

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza with a temple dedicated to rain deities beside. Photo by Salhedine (2005). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source:“Sacred Cenote“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the whole. Edward Thompson’s archaeological work confirmed the importance of the sacred cenote at Chichén Itzá as a place of pilgrimage for many generations (Tuszyńska 2007:142; Brady 2013:305). These and other studies have equally proved that religion was one of the most important institutions in the ancient Mayan society, and it was strongly related to such natural formations as caves or cenotes (Brady 2013:278,305-307).

Modern tourist attractions

Filtered through the limestone deposits in cenotes, the water in such natural wells is still crystal-clear (Dzikowska 2013:201). This is why, these days private and public cenotes greatly attract swimming and snorkelling tourists, along with cavern and cave divers (“Cenote” 2020). Some areas with such natural wells are also considered as National Natural Parks (Ibid.). Nothing surprising. While exploring cenotes “[great] care should be taken to avoid spoiling [their] fragile ecosystem” (Ibid.). Top recommended cenotes for tourists include but not limited to Cenote San Lorenzo Oxman, La Noria, Dos Ojos Cenote (Sistema Dos Ojos), Cenote Multum Ha, Cenote Choo-Ha, Cenote Azul, the Seven Cenotes of San Gerónimo, Hacienda Mucuyché, Tulum’s ‘Car Wash’, Dos Ojos Cenote (Sistema Dos Ojos), and Cenote Chichi de los Lagos, Homun (private cenote) (BeFree and Travel 2017; Spechler 2020).

Featured image: One of numerous cenotes on Yucatan Peninsula. Photo by MarcTran (2019). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2L9bXVb>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].

“Altepetl” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2MqX1mc>. [Accessed on 2nd January, 2021].

“Cenote” (Polish) (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3hCDjzp>. [Accessed on 2nd January, 2021].

“Sacred Cenote“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3pLHKuH>. [Accessed on 2nd January, 2021].

BeFree and Travel (2017). “8 Top Cenotes”. In: BeFree and Travel. Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/2KOe5BZ>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].

Brady J. E. (2013). ”Odkrywanie ciemnych sekretów – archeolodzy w jaskiniach Majów.” Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

Doyle J. (2018). “Into the Centipede’s Jaws: Sumptuous Offerings from the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá”. In: The Metropolitan Museum (The MET). Available at <http://bit.ly/38Wkvae>. [Accessed on 1st January, 2021].

Dzikowska E. (2013). Tam, gdzie byłam. Meksyk. Ameryka Środkowa. Karaiby. Wydawnictwo Bernardinum.

Free photos at “Cenotes Pictures” (2020). In: Unsplash Photos for Everyone. Available at <http://bit.ly/3n5EYP1>. [Accessed on 2nd January, 2021].

Free images at Pixabay. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fTQX0u>. [Accessed on 30th June, 2021].

Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. (2013). ”Słowniczek.”Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Göttkonige im Regenwald]. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

Spechler D. (2020). “Visit these breathtaking underwater caves in the Yucatán Peninsula. From Maya temples to a makeshift car wash, these four cenotes offer outdoor adventure, fascinating history, and traditional culture”. In: Travel. National Geographic. Available at <http://on.natgeo.com/3n4lqud>. [Accessed on 30th December, 2020].

Tuszyńska B. (2007). Mitologie świata: Majowie. In: Rzeczpospolita. Kraków: Drukarnia Narodowa SA.

Von Daniken E. (1991). Dzień, w którym przybyli bogowie. 11 sierpnia 3114 roku prz. Chr. [Der Tag, and em die Gotter kamen. 11. August 3114 v. Chr.]. Serafińska T. trans. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Prokop.

Discovered but Uncovered Palenque of the Ancient Maya

Having entered the Mayan city of Palenque, I left a group of colleagues slightly behind to plunge into the labyrinth of the Palace complex. From there, the facade of the Temple of the Inscriptions kept proudly looking at me, while holding its mystery intact. For a moment, I was slowly walking among the jagged ruins, passing by their openings of strange shapes and of unknown functions, and, as if without a plan, I groped among the contradictory theories put forward on Palenque over the years by various researchers. On the other hand, the accumulation of such conflicting hypotheses forces a deeper reflection and a closer look at debatable structures and artifacts. Or maybe it is worth taking a general look at the Mayan culture and their city first and then going into details? But sultry Palenque still remains a mystery.

Outstanding rulers of Palenque and their city running out of food …?

The oldest traces of settlement in the area of Palenque are dated back to the third century AD., but most of the buildings and facade decorations go back to the Classic Period, the time when the city flourished between 600 and 800 AD. (Prager, Grube 2013:447; Von Däniken 1991:163).

K’inich Kan B’alam II, one of the many rulers of Palenque. Detail from the Temple XVII Tablet. Photo by Mdcarrasco – Own work (2007). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Palenque, Chiapas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

It was then, under the rule of the most significant of the local rulers: K’inich Janaab Pakal, his son Kan Balam II (684-702) and K’an Joy Chitam (702-711) (Ibid.:447). This dynasty was interrupted by the capture of K’an Joy Chitam around 711 by the hostile city of Tonina, but its rule was continued by K’inch Ahkal Mo ‘Naab III (721-736), coming from the adjacent line of the family who eventually commissioned the construction of the Temple XIX (Ibid.:447).

While the city was certainly one of the main centres of the Maya people, this fact is quite surprising to some scholars, as Mark Van Stone, PhD. (Burns 2012). For in the jungle the soil that could be cultivated was unusually thin and so could not provide enough food with such a large urban centre (Ibid.). What makes it even more astonishing is that Palneque was one of the most populated cities of the Maya, even twenty times more than it is observed in the region today (Ibid.).

Complex sewage system

Ancient Palenque rises high above the plains of Usumacinta, at the foot of the Tumbalá Mountains, in the Mexican state of Chiapas (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202; Burns 2012; Von Däniken 1991:173). The ritual centre itself is situated on hills and artificial terraces, which perfectly fit into the natural terrain (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202). The terraces themselves are separated in turn by the Otolum stream into the western and eastern parts (Von Däniken 1991:173). Its natural bed was directed by an artificial and wide underground network, so that in some places the Otolum waters still flow through the city by means of vaulted canals (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202; Von Däniken 1991:173; Burns 2012).

Palenque Center, Chiapas, Mexico; view from the Temple of the Cross on the palace complex. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Based on the research to date, it is also known that the inhabitants of Palenque additionally developed a complicated system of aqueducts, and obtained water pressure by leading the artificial channels from the main riverbed (David Hatcher Childress in: Burns 2012). In the past, this sophisticated sewage system also took over streams of rainwater flowing from the roofs of temples, then led through aqueducts and underground channels to the structure, known commonly as the Palace (Von Däniken 1991:173). For Erich von Däniken, who often followed in the footsteps of archaeologists by asking them a series of uncomfortable questions, the similar sewage system in Palenque is already a cause for amazement (Ibid.:173).

What experts claim

Mesoamerican culture experts believe that Mayan construction techniques primarily determined the need to drain water as quickly as possibly during heavy rainfall, especially in dense jungle areas, and the need to take appropriate steps to store it for later use (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Free-standing courtyards with houses on platforms, arranged at different levels and perhaps surrounded by gardens, were perfectly suited to these requirements (Ibid.:200). The water could flow in any direction and be stored in domestic cisterns or huge tanks (Ibid.:200). The same rule was applied in case of monumental buildings, such as palaces and temple architecture (Ibid.:200). Stucco-covered courtyards or large squares, and in some cases causeways, were probably designed to channel and store water (Ibid.:200).

Palace complex seen from the base of the Temple of the Inscriptions. . Outside the Palace, on the west and north sides, there are impressive entrance stairs and cloisters. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Moreover, largely due to the tropical climate, very few enclosed and covered rooms were built in the area (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Most of the activities, public and private, could be performed outdoors or under a light roof (Ibid.:200). Therefore, it seems logical, as specialists claim, to focus on Mayan cities’ open spaces when analysing their complex architecture (Ibid.:200).

Successive excavations and discoveries

Although excavations in the city of Palenque began in the 1940s, the ruins of the city itself have still not been sufficiently explored (Prager, Grube 2013:447; Burns 2012). The archaeological site measures 1780 hectares, including nine major recorded areas with 1400 buildings (UNESCO 2021). On the whole, the archaeological research carried out so far covers around 10% of the whole area (UNESCO 2021; Prager, Grube 2013:447; Burns 2012). Moreover, due to the rainy season, excavation work is usually limited to four months of the year (Von Däniken 1991:179). Since so far the greatest discovery in Palenque, which was revealed in  the Temple of the Inscriptions, another Temple of the city, labelled as the Temple XIII, has unveiled the tomb of the so-called Red Queen (1994) and a stone throne has also been discovered in the Temple XIX (1999) (Prager, Grube 2013:447). And there was yet uncovered another burial in the Temple XXI (2013) (Ibid.:447). Therefore, new important archaeological finds may hopefully come to light soon (Ibid.:447).

Wealth of architectural elements and details

A breath-taking architecture of the city, such as the so-called Temple of the Inscriptions, the Palace complex, the Ceremonial Courtyard, and several smaller temples and residential districts around it, all constitute the essential centre of Palenque (Prager, Grube 2013:447).

A bas-relief in the Palenque museum that depicts Upakal K’inich, the son of K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Naab III. Photo by Soerfm (2018). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo and caption source: “Palenque, Chiapas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

All buildings in the city were once decorated with rich stucco reliefs and colourful wall paintings (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202). They even appear in the vaulted sections found at the rear of the edifices, which similarly to their facades and stair ramps, also contain the remains of beautiful stucco reliefs (Ibid.:203). In turn, inside the buildings, there have been preserved large and artistic wall reliefs, made of particularly fine-grained limestone (Ibid.:203). Like Mayan hieroglyphic inscriptions, such reliefs often refer to complex figural scenes (Ibid.:203). The so-called roof combs at gable ridges are typical of the Mayan architecture; also in Palenque, if preserved, these peculiar crests still crown the central part of the roof of the temples (Ibid.:203-204). Since the roof combs are filigree structures, they feature multiple openings, and so together with the temple they give a whole compact blocks of architectural pyramids a specific lightness (Ibid.:203-204). In the past, they were additionally decorated with colourful painted surfaces and stucco (Ibid.:203-204). Roof combs, which seem to have been intended for the gable ridges of more important sacred buildings, also gave the structures an impression of height and monumentality (Ibid.:199).

Temple of the Sun with an intricate roof comb. Photo by Éclusette – Own work (2009). CC BY 3.0. Photo source: “Temple of the Cross Complex” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Moreover, the door openings reached almost to the level where the corbelled vaults began and were topped with stone lintels or stone beams (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199). In turn, numerous vaults in Palenque reveal unusual leaf-shaped trefoil, and mysterious keyhole arches appear in the city’s niches, window openings and doorways (Ibid.:203). Did they serve merely as a decoration or did they evoke a symbolic meaning?

Significance of the keyhole

Window openings and arches in the form of a keyhole appear all over the city of Palenque, where they feature some buildings of the Palace complex and, particularly, the Temple of the Foliated Cross (Burns 2020).

Surprisingly, they do not occur in architecture of any other Mayan cities. A similar symbol had been, however, used in sacred and sepulchral architecture of many ancient cultures around the world (Ibid.). The keyhole form is, among all, observed in the shape of burial mounds in Japan and Algeria, geoglyphs in Saudi Arabia, sacral-astronomical structures in Peru, in the United States, on the Italian island of Sardinia and in India (Ibid.). Some of them are so huge that their shape can be recognized only from the bird’s eye view (Ibid.). As an Arabic legend goes, a similar symbol also adorned the so-called Seal of the biblical King Solomon, which served him as a tool for subjugating demons and so using them to build a Temple for the Ark of the Covenant (Ibid.).

Temple of the Foliated Cross with mysterious window openings in the form of a keyhole. Rob Young from United Kingdom – Temple of the Foliated Cross (2012). CC BY 2.0. “Temple of the Cross Complex” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In ancient Egypt, the so-called menat necklace was worn with a heavy pendant at the back, in the form of a keyhole, used as its counterbalance; it was mainly associated with the goddess Hathor, who was also called Meant, and with the Moon god, Chonsu, who was a guardian of the invisible worlds (Burns 2020; “Menat” 2020). “His name means ‘traveller’, and this may relate to the perceived nightly travel of the Moon across the sky” (“Khonsu” 2021). In ancient Egyptian iconography, the meant is often passed down by gods to members of the aristocracy (Burns 2020). What is even more intriguing, a similar symbol was an attribute of another lunar deity, the Phoenician goddess Tanit (Ibid.). Moreover, a mysterious well-like structure in the shape of a keyhole in Sardinia was also architecturally associated with the Moon; namely, its dome was apparently designed to observe the Moon at its highest stage, that it to say, at the moment of the so-called lunar standstill (Ibid.). A similar structure built in India also refers to the same astronomical phenomena, which is the lunar cycle that lasts eighteen years (Ibid.). For this reason, some researchers have suggested the keyhole symbol is associated with celestial bodies such as the Earth and the Moon, and therefore, with our planet’s relations with the sky (Ibid.). Did the keyhole openings in Palenque use to have a similar function?

An elaborate menat necklace depicted in a relief at the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, Egypt. Photo by Olaf Tausch – Own work (2011). CC BY 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Menat” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Today, it is still a mystery why so many ancient cultures in different and distant corners of the world, including the Maya, used to illustrate such a symbol in their architecture or sacral objects (Burns 2020). Keys and locks have existed since ancient times, serving indirectly to open gates and doors (Ibid.). As such, the keyhole may have had a ritual significance in opening symbolic gates (Ibid.). But what did they open to?  And what is the key to those gates, matching the keyhole? The origin of the symbol still remains a mystery, but whatever inspired its shape, it had to be quite significant to our ancestors (Ibid.).

Corbelled vault and its key functions

While major elements of Mayan architecture were relatively simple, they developed into quite rich and varied forms (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199). Between the Preclassic and Early Classic periods, there were observed some changes in building techniques; specialists note that the walls of contemporary Mayan buildings were built of more precisely cut stones, which made the layer of lime plaster applied to them much thinner (Ibid.:198). The use of a corbelled (cantilever) vault, the method used to build a roof using stones and mortar, had also increased at that time (Ibid.:199;. see: Mystery of the Casas de Piedra in Palenque).

Fragment of one of the long corridors of the Palace seen from the inside of the complex. The building feature strange openings in the shape of the letter T and of a keyhole (on the left). Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In a corbelled vault, also referred to as a false vault, horizontal blocks of stone protrude further inwards in individual layers, getting closer to each other, and thus connect two supporting walls (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199). The vault was eventually closed by means of a flat stone slab (Ibid.:199).

Other solutions in vaulting the roof

In the Early Classic Period, most of the burial chambers in the deeper layers were cut off and closed with a corbelled vault (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199).

K’inich K’an B’alam II (“Chan Bahlam II”). Photo by Sergio~commonswiki (2006). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Palenque, Chiapas” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

False vaults had been widely used in many buildings from Late Classic centres, such as Palenque, although there were also vaults composed of rubble and ceilings with wooden beams covered with a layer of stucco (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199199). The latter were widespread in the Mayan lowlands in the Late Classic and Postclassic periods (Ibid.:199). They had the advantage of covering large room spaces (Ibid.:199). At the same time, they were quite unstable (Ibid.:199). In order to prevent water from penetrating into the building, especially in the rainy season, new layers of stucco had to be constantly applied (Ibid.:199). In turn, vaults made of rubble was a system, where the stones protruding from the wall structure in a false vault were replaced with a mixture of mortar and stone, in such a way that the vault stones visible from the below were nothing but a clever illusion (Ibid.:199).

More intricate constructions

The use of a corbelled vault allowed a construction of long houses with several entrances and two or three rows of vaulted rooms, placed one above the other, and providing the building with subsequent levels, to which the entrance led with separate stairs (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199).

The city of Palenque rises on terraces in the northernmost part of the Chiapas Mountains above the wide, once densely forested plains of the Gulf of Mexico. The Palace seen from the Temple of the Cross. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The vaulted rooms were placed either alternately or one above the other (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:199). The facades of buildings were clearly divided into a horizontal wall and a fragment filled with vaults, often with the base between the terrace level and the upper edge of the floor inside the building (Ibid.:199). These areas were usually separated by sills (Ibid.:199). An example of such a multi-storey complex in Palenque is the so-called Palace.

Analysis of the Mayan architectural functions within a city-state

An accessibility, location and connection system of Mayan building complexes within a given city state indicate whether the area was used for private or public functions (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200).

Religious ceremonies were believed to have been held in centrally located buildings, not easily accessible, but well recognizable (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Limited access to the complexes erected on elevations, most often on several levels, near large, open squares, proves that they were used as palaces, as much as it is present in Palenque, whose Palace is placed just in the center (Ibid.:200). “The plan [of the city itself] follows a pin-wheel arrangement, as well as a gridded system. [Already its early] explorers [had] noted stunning similarities in the design of [its] stone structures and their apparent use.” (Blankenbehler 2015).

The Palace is one of the greatest Mayan structures of its kind and the largest architectural complex in Palenque. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Depending on the location within the whole city layout, separate areas were used for representative purposes or domestic functions (Ibid.:200). In many regions of the central lowlands, ball fields, which are most typical urban features of the Pre-Columbian cities, are usually located in front of the palace complex (Ibid.:200). This location is different in Palenque, where the remains of an area interpreted as a ball field are located in the northern part of the city complex. In turn, in the north of the lowlands, separate parts of buildings considered as Mayan palaces, such as residential, representative and administrative parts, were housed in distinct building complexes (Ibid.:200).

In Palenque, the said Palace complex was located in one single, though intricate complex, which would be indicative at once of its private, administrative and representative function. At the same time, along with the nearby temples erected on stepped pyramids, it would accordingly perform ceremonial functions.

El Palacio

The Palace of Palenque was discovered at the end of the eighteenth century by the Spanish (Burns 2012). It is one of the greatest Mayan structures of its kind and the largest architectural complex in Palenque at all (Ibid.). The palace complex is located in front of the Temple of the Inscriptions, just in the middle of the ancient city (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:202). According to archaeologists, it had been changed and rebuilt many times (Ibid.:202). In its present form, it contains several extremely varied courtyards located on a common platform together with internal stairs (Ibid.:202). Outside the Palace, on the west and north sides, there are impressive entrance stairs and cloisters (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203).

The architecture of Palenque is impressive not only because of its impressive size, but also because of its elegance and simplicity. El Palacio seen from the Temple of the Cross. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The huge edifice of the complex is divided into three floors, one above the other (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:173). The platform on which the palace complex stands is ten meters high (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203). Its space (80×100 meters), in turn, is divided into many smaller and larger courtyards lying on different levels (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:173). Today they are referred to as the Main Courtyard, West Courtyard, East Courtyard and the Tower Courtyard (Von Däniken 1991:173). The lower part of the Palace on the south side is called Subterraneum (Ibid.:173). In the East Courtyard, a stone slab (2.4 x 2.6 meters) has additionally been found; it is decorated with two hundred and sixty-two Mayan engravings, including mythological scenes, heads of gods, figures of people and animals, and calendar hieroglyphs (Ibid.:173).

At first glance, El Palacio gives the impression of a labyrinth-like structure, because its complex is so confusing that tourists sometimes lose their orientation while walking among its walls (Von Däniken 1991:173). There are also rooms of various sizes (Ibid.:173). A number of elongated buildings have double barrel vaults (Ibid.:173). Their corbelled, vaulted ceilings slant back and, like many other buildings, they are equally adorned with stucco decorations (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203).

Astonishing finds in the corridors of the Palace

A system of sewage pipes and stone toilets were discovered in the Palace, including a small room with a toilet (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174). All of them were placed in strategic points of the building and they were cleaned with water, which carried the waste underground (Von Däniken 1991:174).

The squared tower is an important structure within the Palace complex, which stands out significantly against the background of the maze of corridors, rooms and courtyards. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The presence of toilets convinced archaeologists of the secular character of the complex (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203). Additionally, there was probably a ventilation system that supplied air also to the underground parts of the building, where long corridors also ran next to the rooms (Ibid.:174). One of the longest reaches twenty meters and ends with a flight of stairs leading up to the centre of the complex (Ibid.:174). As the corridors are intricately decorated with reliefs, researchers believe that important rituals must have taken place there, possibly related to the underworld (Ibid.:174). For others, however, these corridors are not anything special, even despite their truly unique decorations (Ibid.:174-175). The western, elongated facade of the Palace is dominated by five two meters thick square columns, which are all covered with stucco reliefs (Ibid.:173).

Erich Von Däniken (1991:173) recognizes in one of them a Mayan fighter skating on rollers! (Ibid.:173). Other interesting features of the Palace are T-shaped openings, which are  in the walls; they are sometimes interpreted as symbolic attribution of the sun or wind god, but were apparently used for observing the sky (Burns 2012). Likewise, many buildings in Mayan cities were designed to provide favourable conditions for astronomical observations (Ibid.).

Modern names of the buildings and their original purpose

Such a majestic building must have had an important purpose at the time of the Maya, but what was it? (Von Däniken 1991:173). El Palacio is just a modern name of the building as it was claimed that it was the royal palace (Ibid.:173). Later it was also considered a convent for women or dwellings of priests (Ibid.:173).

Temple of the Cross during the primary stages of excavation. Photo by Unknown author or not provided – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Created: between circa 1871 and circa 1907. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Temple of the Cross Complex” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Däniken’s local Indian guide suggests, however, that it was once a famous university in the region (Von Däniken 1991:173-174). After him, the history of the Maya people was taught on the ground floor, chemistry and nature were taught on the first floor, and mathematics and astronomy on the second floor (Ibid.:174). Thus, various interpretations of archaeologists and nomenclature is rather conventional, as it is based on very uncertain foundations (Ibid.:174).

Other terms used for buildings in Palenque and elsewhere in Mesoamerica, such as the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Temple of the Sun, or the Temple of the Foliated Cross, are just modern names and so not given by their builders themselves (Von Däniken 1991:175-176). Hence, one cannot be sure about the purpose of these buildings (Ibid.:175-176).

Squared tower of the Palace

The very thesis about the Palace as a Mayan university can be supported by another important structure within the complex, which stands out significantly against the background of the maze of corridors, rooms and courtyards; it is a fifteen-meter tower rising on a huge pedestal with a base of 7×7.5 meters, above the south-west courtyard of the Palace, known as the Courtyard with the Tower (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174).

Today, researchers believe that Palenque kings and priests watched the stars from that squared construction. Accordingly, it was a Mayan astronomical observatory. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The similar structure of the tower remains unique in Mayan architecture and is believed to have been added as the last element of the palace during the reign of the penultimate Palenque ruler, K’uk ‘Balam the First (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174). The tower was previously thought to be a viewing point or a watchtower, although the Mayan cities were not fortified but open on all sides (Von Däniken 1991:174). Today, researchers believe that Palenque kings and priests watched the stars from that squared construction (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174). Similar function of the tower is supported by the hieroglyph found there and identified as symbolizing the planet Venus or a star (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203; Von Däniken 1991:174). This hieroglyph was apparently painted as part of the date of the patron of the month of yax, in 1516 (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:203). The tower could have therefore been an observatory that served once Palenque elite and theoretically university students to study astronomical phenomena in the sky (Von Däniken 1991:174). Certainly, this activity was facilitated by large windows, placed on all sides of the tall building (Von Däniken 1991:174; Burns 2012). What’s more, there was no entrance to the first floor in the tower, and its narrow stairs led directly to the second and third floors (Ibid.:174).

Obsession with astronomy

The observatory and T-shaped windows of the Palace are not the only testimonies of the Mayan fascination with astronomy in Palenque (Burns 2012). The city’s temples were also associated with particular times of the day and year (Ibid.). The main ones are the equinoxes and solstices (Ibid.).

The Temple of the Sun on the left, further the Temple XIV and the ruins of the Temple XV on the right. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

According to the echoes of many ancient myths, including the Egyptian and Mayan, while disappearing in the west, the Sun takes a journey by entering the underworld and then reappearing in the east at dawn (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Similar beliefs also translate the four astronomical events, the solstices and equinoxes (Ibid.:200). When the Sun rises and sets down at the summer and winter solstices, it moves between the extreme points on the horizon (Ibid.:200). In turn, at the beginning of spring and autumn, on the days of the equinoxes, the Sun rises and sets halfway between these points (Ibid.:200). Additionally, the Maya believed that the lines connecting the Sun’s four turning points correspond to the four sides of the world, each associated with a different colour and different characteristics (Ibid.:200).

Such astronomical phenomena, like the solstices and equinoxes, had been carefully observed by various ancient civilisations, and accordingly reflected in their architectural layouts (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:200). Everywhere in the Mayan world, there is evidence of how the Mayans’ knowledge of astronomy was reflected in their structures, which were unmistakably linked to the observation of the astronomical year (Burns 2012). Linda Schele (1942-1998) an American archaeologist and an expert in the field of Maya epigraphy and iconography, noted that on the winter solstice the sun sets exactly “inside” the Temple of the Inscriptions, a phenomenon that repeats itself in reverse phase in the day of the vernal equinox, when the sun rises “from within” the Temple of the Inscriptions (Burns 2012; “Linda Schele” 2021).

The whole phenomenon in both cases can be easily observed from the roof of the Temple of the Sun, which is located east of the Temple of the Inscriptions (Burns 2012). Thus, the layout of the buildings in Palenque (as in other ancient Mesoamerican cities) is not a matter of coincidence (Ibid.). The Temple of the Sun itself was set on the plinth of a four-level pyramid, so it is more than two times lower than the pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions (Von Däniken 1991:176; Burns 2012). Such a design of buildings and their arrangement in the city space must have had a great impact on the general perception of the above-described astronomical phenomena (Burns 2012).

The Temple of the Sun

The Temple of the Sun has a square base (23×23 meters) and positioned on the stepped pyramid it is nineteen meters high, up to the comb roof of the temple (Von Däniken 1991:176). The Temple’s front crest is decorated with refined reliefs in stucco as much as the side walls of the building (Ibid.:176). There are three entrances to the Sanctuary of the Temple (Ibid.:176).

On both sides of the central entrance, the walls are covered with stucco reliefs, depicting two figures of natural height with elaborate clothing decorations (Von Däniken 1991:176). Between them, there is an entrance leading to a small room with the so-called Sanctuary Tablet or Tablet of the Sun, from which the Temple possibly has taken its name (Ibid.:176). The tablet itself is a well-preserved relief depicting a shield on which two spears decorated with feathers intersect (Ibid.:176-177). The shield is positioned between two male figures, probably priests. Apparently, the image on it symbolizes the Sun of Jaguar (Ibid.:177).

Right next to the Temple of the Sun, there are the ruins of two minor temples, labelled as Temples XIV and XV.

Complex of the three temples

The Temple of the Sun, along with the Temple of the Foliage Cross and the Temple of the Cross all constitute a group of the three temples that were built during the reign of King Kan Balam in 692 AD., so ten years after Pakal’s death (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). Like other temples in Palenque, this trio was also set on substructures in the shape of stepped pyramids (Ibid.:204).

The Temple of the Cross is the greatest of the complex composed of the three temples, built on the stepped pyramids. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The so-called Temple of the Cross is extremely important among the three temples, also in the context of this article. It is located on a large elevated square in the eastern part of the city (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). The other two temples, the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Foliage Cross, are much lower than the Temple of the Cross itself, which definitely towers over the entire ensemble of three pyramids (Ibid.:204). It is distinguished not only by proportions, but also by a preserved, magnificent comb in the middle of the roof, originally decorated with figures and stucco (Ibid.:204).

The Temple of the Cross and its Tablet

Like the other two temples of the complex, the Temple of the Cross contains a sanctuary, called by the Maya pib naah, which stands for the birthplace of the gods (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). The walls of the sanctuary, on the other hand, are decorated with Mayan stone reliefs, which are one of the most outstanding examples of Mayan sculptures of possibly deep religious significance (Ibid.:204). A limestone relief on the back wall of the sanctuary, in turn, became the source of the name for the temple itself (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Wagner 2013:282).

Entrance to the Temple of the Cross, which features on its roof a beautifully decorated crest, a typical element of the Mayan architecture. On the right of the entrance, there is another keyhole opening. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Namely, the very central motif on the sculpted tablet is in the form of a cross (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204; Wagner 2013:282). Actually, it is believed to be in fact a highly stylized representation of the Tree of Life or the Tree of the World, growing from a sacrificial vessel, atop which an exotic bird sits (Wagner 2013:282). The latter is actually the god Itzamna, who is a Mayan sky deity, represented there in its zoomorphic form (Ibid.:282). According to archaeologists, the scene tells about the creation of the world and the birth of the tutelary deity of Palenque (Hohmann-Vogrin 2013:204). The tree in the form of a cross itself is believed to mark the centre of the sky, as demonstrated by the heavenly belt on which it stands; the location of the Temple of the Cross accordingly marks the northern quarter of the cosmos assigned to the sky (Wagner 2013:282).

Tablet of the cross restored from the Temple of the Cross. Photo by Ineuw (2017). Public domain. Photo source: “Tablet of the Cross restored” (2017). In: Wikipedia Commons.

An identical cross motif with a strongly stylized exotic bird on its top, as depicted on the Tablet of the Cross, also appears on a much older relief adorning a highly controversial sarcophagus from the Temple of the Inscriptions. Are there any relations between these two representations at all, as it seems? If so, why are not they compared together but interpreted separately or even contradictory?

Featured image: The squared tower of the Palace complex in Palenque. It is believed to have served as an astronomical observatory. Photo by Dezalb (2015). Image cropped and modified. Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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Von Daniken E. (1991). Dzień, w którym przybyli bogowie. 11 sierpnia 3114 roku prz. Chr. [Der Tag, and em die Gotter kamen. 11. August 3114 v. Chr.]. Serafińska T. trans. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Prokop.

Wagner E. (2013). ”Mity kreacyjne Majów i kosmografia”. Jawińska M. trans. In Majowie. Niezwykła cywilizacja. [Maya. Gottkonige im Regenwald]. Grube N., Eggenbrecht E., Seidl M. eds. Warszawa: Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal.

Eagle’s Wings Spread over the Round Face of the Earth

Unlike the present prevailing idea of linearly running time, many ancient peoples around the world have thought of time as cyclic, which was particularly common in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (Gillan 2019). “The Aztecs, among other groups, [such as the Mayans], believed in a succession of world ages and they depicted those ages on [the Calendar Stone]” (Andrews 1998:21).

Cyclic time

Representation of the Aztec glyph for Nahui Ollin (4 Movement), showing an eye (ixtli) in the center of the Ollin element, replaced by the god’s face on the Calendar Stone. Illustration from the Codex Borbonicus. Photo: “Figure 3. A standard presentation of the hieroglyph for Nahui Olin (Four Movement), showing an eye (ixtli) in the center of the Olin element. From the Codex Borbonicus”. Source: David Stuart (2016). In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment.

According to one version of the story, which is also analogous to the Mayan understanding of time, the Calendar Stone of the the Aztecs represents four ended eras or suns and the fifth one that is lasting now in the middle (George 2004:25; McDonald 2013). Each of the four rectangles standing for the four eras/suns additionally includes a number 4 in the forms of 4 dots or beads, which is quite significant while reading the glyphs (Aztekayolokalli 2018). Accordingly, 4 (as there are four dots) Jaguar is the oldest era of creation, supposedly between 956-280 BC (McDonald 2013). Giants who populated the Earth in that era were devoured by jaguars as they had not performed their duties to the gods (Andrews 1998:21; McDonald 2013). The next era – 4 Wind, ruled by the god Ehecatl – lasted for 364 years and it had monkey men in some versions, who were carried away and destroyed by hurricanes (Ibid.). 4 Rain was ruled by a water deity, Tlaloc, and it ended when its denizens, who were near human beings, were destroyed by the rain and fire (probably a volcano eruption) and supposedly eaten by turkeys (Ibid.). The last date – 4 Water – was the era ruled by the goddess Chalchihuiticue and destroyed by a 52-year flood and within which men drowned and maybe turned into fish (Ibid.).

Center of the Sun Stone with Nahui Ollin and five eras or suns: four destroyed and one that still exists (Painting by R. S. Flandes. Source: Source: O’Connell (2020).

The present creation (the fifth era) began on 4 Movement/Earthquake in around 1195 AD (McDonald 2013). Tonatiuh, the sun god and Tlaltecuhtli, the Earth Monster, were both created for this era by means of their own bloody sacrifice (McDonald 2013; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). This current creation was meant to be stable on the condition that the blood sacrifice was continuously made to the gods and it could probably last forever (Ibid.). Constant penitent sacrifice of human blood was therefore required for this era so the symbolism shown in the Sunstone is apparently all about the Aztec current world (Ibid.). By means of the Sunstone it was foretold that if the blood sacrifices had ceased, the world would have ended in earthquakes (Andrews 1998:21; McDonald 2013). These are some pretty vivid and scarily specific cataclysms responsible for the final destruction of the following eras but the most significant is the very central part of the Calendar Stone, as it stands for the current world and possible circumstances of its end (McDonald 2013).

If it is the Earth, where is the Sun?

Although the central face of the Calendar Stone may not represent Tonatiuh (see: Faces of the Fifth Sun in the World of the Aztecs) the image of the Sun is very present in the Calendar Stone (Aztekayolokalli 2018). The Sun is, however, hidden for those who do not want to see it (Ibid.).

The Calendar Stone represents four ended eras or suns and the fifth one that is lasting now in the middle. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Justin Me (2018). In Youtube.

In artistic representation of Tonatiuh, where he is wearing eagle feathers, there are direct connections between the Sun and an eagle (Aztekayolokalli 2018; “Tōnatiuh” 2020). It is “relating to the belief that an eagle is a reference to the ascending and descending eagle talons, a visual metaphor for capturing the heart or life force of a person. This particular form of symbolism points to ritual of human sacrifice, which was associated with Tonatiuh and his devouring of the hearts of victims” (“Tōnatiuh” 2020). Hence the sacrifice of human heart offered to the Sun was called the Eagle Cactus Fruit (McDonald 2013). Tonatiuh‘s symbolic association with the eagle [also] alludes to the Aztec belief of his journey as the Sun, […] travelling across the sky each day, where he descended in the west and ascended in the east” (“Tōnatiuh” 2020).

Accordingly, Tonatiuh may have been represented in the Calendar Stone in its zoomorphic disguise (Aztekayolokalli 2018). If so, where is it? Just in the center, caught in its flight (Ibid.).

Eagle representation as the symbol of the sun god, Tonatiuh, hidden within the complex image of Calendar Stone. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Justin Me (2018). In Youtube.

In order to discern it, one should look beyond the both elements building up its picture, the goddess Tlaltecuhtli and the Nahui-Ollin glyph (Aztekayolokalli 2018). There is the eagle’s beak sticking out of the Earth and pointing up to the sky, in the direction of the date of 13 Reed (Ibid.). There are its talons being at once Tlaltecuhtli’s claws grasping human hearts and tail feathers, just below the round Face of the Earth (Ibid.). The eagle’s wings are in turn shaped by the four “wings’ of the cosmic Butterfly, and outspread to four corners of the universe (Ibid.).

The three superimposed images create Nahui Ollin glyph (4 Movement) within the Calendar Stone. Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Shot from the lecture by Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018). Source: Justin Me (2018). In Youtube.

The Sun is then superimposed over the shape of the Butterfly, and subsequently, they are both superimposed over the Face of Earth – astronomical event that takes place every year on July 26th, when the Sun is directly above Mexico City, in its zenith (Aztekayolokalli 2018).

Combined worlds

In the deeply carved background of the ring surrounding 4 Movement glyph, there are a few smaller date glyphs (McDonald 2013). On the right of the pointer at the top, there is the date 1 Flint Knife (Ibid.). On the left, there is a headdress glyph (Ibid.), which is interpreted as the name of Montezuma (Stuart 2016).

Four other Aztec glyphs adjacent to the Nahui Olin sign. On top in blue, there is a hairdress on the left , and 1 Flint on the right. At the bottom, there are 7 Monkey on the right and 1 Rain on the left. Drawing by E. Umberger: “Figure 4. The two principal hieroglyphs (in blue) adjacent to the Nahui Olin sign. To the left is the name of Moteuczoma II, to the right is 1 Flint, the likely calendar name of Huitzilopochtli”. Source: David Stuart (2016). “The Face of the Calendar Stone: A New Interpretation”. In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment.

Hence, some scholars ascribe the Calendar Stone to the last emperor of the Aztecs (McDonald 2013). At the bottom of the same field, adjacent to the Nahui-Oliln glyph, there are also 7 Monkey (on the right) and 1 Rain (on the left) (Stuart 2016; McDonald 2013). These dates may refer to actual historical milestones in Aztec history (Ibid.). For instant, 1 Flint is likely to be the calendar name of Huitzilopochtli (Stuart 2016). As the god is the patron of the Aztecs’ city of Tenochtitlan, it may refer to the date when the Mexica tribe left their homeland, a legendary Aztlan, to found their new capital, which is now Mexico City (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, the Calendar Stone would also contain historic records (Ibid.).

Xiuhpohualli and Tōnalpōhualli

The Mesoamerican “calendar consisted of a 365-day calendar cycle called Xiuhpohualli (year count) and a 260-day ritual cycle called Tōnalpōhualli (day count). These two cycles together formed a 52-year calendar round. The Xiuhpohualli is considered to be the agricultural calendar, since it is based on the Sun” (Gillan 2019), whereas Tōnalpōhualli is regarded more in a sacred dimension of time counting (Ibid.).

Some scholars see the reference to Xiuhpohualli in the Calendar Stone, representing 20 days of each of 18 months of the Aztec year in its second ring, whereas additional 5 days of the year are said to be found as 5 stone bosses around the Nahui-Ollin glyph. Photo: “Figure 1. Photograph of the sculpted face of the Aztec Calendar Stone, or Piedra del Sol. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City.” Source: David Stuart (2016). “The Face of the Calendar Stone: A New Interpretation”. In: Nahui Ollin. Maya Decipherment.

“[The] Aztecs divided their year into 18 months of 20 days plus 5 days at the end” (Noble 2009:51). Some scholars see the reference to Xiuhpohualli in the Calendar Stone, representing 20 days of each of 18 months of the Aztec year in its second ring, whereas additional 5 days of the year are said to be found as 5 stone bosses around the Nahui-Ollin glyph (Noble 2009:51; see Gillan 2019; “Aztec Calendar” 2020). However, according to others, these 5 signs refer to the five suns; the four gone and the one, which is currently lasting in the current era (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Although the same sings may have got a double meaning, it is probable that only one of the two significant Mesoamerican calendars has been depicted by the Aztecs in the Sunstone (Ibid.). It is Tōnalpōhualli (day count).

Tōnalpōhualli (day count)

A ring of 20-day names circles the key image of the central creation in the Calendar Stone (McDonald 2013). The cycle starts slightly to the left of the pointer above the central face; so the cycle begins with the glyph of a Crocodile and ends with the glyph of a Flower (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Accordingly, the first day is represented by a Crocodile or an Alligator (McDonald 2013). The next to the left is Wind (Ibid.). After that a House, Lizard, Serpent, Death, Deer, Rabbit, Water, Dog, Monkey, Grass, Reed, Jaguar, Eagle, Vulture, Movement (Earthquake), Flint knife, Rain and finally a Flower (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018; “Aztec Calendar” 2020). To the right, the glyphs representing the Movement and Flint knife are depicted in miniature, compared to their larger characters around the central face (McDonald 2013). Additionally, “each of the day signs also bears an association with one of the four cardinal directions” (“Aztec Calendar” 2020).

A representation of the Tonalpohualli – ‘Counting of the Days’ 260-day calendar used by ancient Mesoamerican cultures. Two systems ran simultaneously with a group of 13 numbered days combined with a group of 20 name days. Thus, each day had a unique combination of day and number. Illustration by Richard Graeber (2016). Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia.

That cycle of 20-day names consisted of a 260-day period (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018), which “was recorded in 13-day cycles” (“Aztec Calendar” 2020). It means that “each day [was] signified by a combination of a number from 1 to 13 and one of the twenty day signs. With each new day, both the number and day sign would be incremented: 1 Crocodile is followed by 2 Wind, 3 House, 4 Lizard, and so forth up to 13 Reed, after which the cycle of numbers would restart (though the twenty day signs had not yet been exhausted) resulting in 1 Jaguar, 2 Eagle, and so on, as the days immediately following 13 Reed. This cycle of number and day signs would continue similarly until the [twentieth] week, which would start on 1 Rabbit, and end on 13 Flower. It would take a full 260 [20×13] days for the two cycles, [where twenty day signs are multiplied by thirteen numbers] to realign and repeat the sequence back on 1 Crocodile” (Ibid.). Accordingly, the whole cycle “was broken up into 20 periods, [or 20-day names] of 13 days each, which was reflected in two interlocking wheels in this 260-day ritual calendar” (Gillan 2019).

This round of days was not meant by the Aztecs to depict an actual date but rather to represent the counting of time itself (McDonald 2013). The 260-day ritual calendar was an important characteristic of all Mesoamerican pre-Colombian cultures (Ibid.). Apparently, “it originated by ancient peoples observing that the [Sun] crossed a certain zenith point near the Mayan city of Copan, every 260 days” (Gillan 2019). Yet for the Aztecs it was not related to any solar or astronomical calendar features as it seems (McDonald 2013). Most likely it could have been related to the length of pregnancy (9 months) in correlation with the period of the earth’s translation around the Sun in a 365.25 days of the solar year (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2012; “Aztec Calendar” 2019). This idea is confirmed by the fact that Mesoamerican peoples named their children after the day name of their birth in this ritual calendar (McDonald 2013). “When the child was born he or she was given the name and number of that particular 24 hour piece of time. The ancestors could identify the potential, qualities and capabilities that existed in that space of time, and this was the basis of his/her responsibility to everybody and everything that surrounded them. [In this context], mother and father were responsible for insuring their child grew up recognizing and knowing its potential and capacities and thus its responsibilities by maintaining the rhythm in which it was born” (Aztekayolokalli 2012).

Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl

The next ring of carvings consists of a repeated design of 5 dots, called quincunx, which are inscribed in little squares (McDonald 2013). After scholars they seem to represent preciousness or maybe jadeite (Ibid.). An archaeologist, Nicoletta Maestri (2019) writes they represent the five-day Aztec week in each square. Aztekayolokalli (2018), however, interprets that symbol differently. He claims that 5-dot symbol represents the five movements of Venus around the Sun in a period of eight years (Ibid.). The last number comes from 8 triangular signs set upon the ring of quincunx, which can be interpreted as rays of the Sun (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018; Maestri 2019).

Tlāhuizcalpantecuhtli, as depicted on page 14 of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis. The sign above him is the year 1 Reed in the Aztec Calendar. The god manifested the dual aspect of the planet Venus. Painting by an unknown author – Codex Telleriano-Remensis. Public domain. Source: “Tlāhuizcalpantecuhtli” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“Known to the Mesoamericans as a bright star, […] Venus was especially important in [their] religious and agricultural calendar with its average 584-day cycle being carefully observed and precisely calculated. Even the architectural layout of [important Mesoamerican cities] were built and aligned in accordance with the appearance of Venus at particular moments during its cycle. […] Mesoamerican astronomers recorded that the planet appears for 236 days as the morning star in the east, then sinks below the horizon for 90 days, and reappears for 250 days as the evening star in the west before disappearing again for 8 days before restarting the cycle over again. In actual fact, Venus can be seen with the naked eye for approximately 263 days in each spell, and it is not known quite why or how the ancient astronomers had arrived at their particular calculations” (Cartwright 2017). And it is probably a coincidence that this number of days when Venus is visible also overlaps with the 260-day ritual calendar. However, there is no evidence confirming that the Mesoamerican day count, Tōnalpōhualli, was related in any way to the appearance of Venus.

As the morning star, Venus was described as the Beginning of the Daylight, and as the evening star – it was named the Companion of the Sun (Aztekayolokalli 2018). “Each aspect of Venus – morning and evening – was manifested in the form of two ancient Mesoamerican gods: the feathered-serpent Quetzalcoatl and his canine companion Xolotl. Quetzalcoatl represented Venus as the morning star, and Xolotl represented it as the evening star” (Cartwright 2017; see Aztekayolokalli 2018). Simultaneously, another Mesoamerican deity, “Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli manifested the dual aspect of the planet Venus (Ibid.). As the twin brother of Xolotl and the avatar of Quetzalcoatl, he was imagined as both and so represented the morning and evening star aspects of Venus (Ibid.).

The Moon

Going outwards, the next string or band of images in the Calendar Stone is obscure to scholars (Mc Donald 2013).

“The image above reproduces the Coyolxauhqui Stone, showing the Aztec goddess of the Moon. The giant monolith was found at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan. Image courtesy of the Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico. Source: National Earth Science Teachers Association (2020). “Coyolxauhqui”. In: Windows to the Universe.

There may be some representations of feathers, beads and blood drops but it is really not clear (Mc Donald 2013). Aztekayolokalli  (2018) believes the ring represents kernels of corn. There are 10 such kernels between each of the 8 sun-rays (or triangles pointing outside the center), which create a pattern looking like a lace decorating the ring (Ibid.). Additional 3 grains of corn are visible on top of the square, sticking out in the middle of the “corn lace” (Ibid.) Consequently there are 13 grains of corn altogether, and the number 13 represents the number of the Moon rises in a year cycle (Ibid.). What is more, the Moon also moves 13 degrees per day around the Earth (Ibid.).

Two encircling dragons

The final, encircling ring consists of two thick fire serpents or dragons, called Xiuhcoatl (McDonald 2013). Such imagery points to the fact that symbols of serpents are significant in Mesoamerican cultures (Ibid.). The fire serpents’ tails are at the very top with their pointed ends framing the date of 13 Reed (Ibid.).

Ballcourt marker from the Postclassic site of Mixco Viejo in Guatemala. This sculpture depicts Kukulkan (Quetzacoatl) with a human head sticking out of its jaws agape. Some scholars define it as the head of a human warrior emerging from the serpent’s maw. In the Calendar Stone such images are identified with divine beings. Photo by Simon Burchell. Photo: “Ballcourt marker at Mixco Viejo” by Simon Burchell (2005). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Kukulkan” (2020) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Their bodies are divided into squared segments that have butterfly symbols (Nahui-Ollin glyphs) inside them and the serpents encircle the whole disc only to end with their open moss at the bottom of the Stone (McDonald 2013). These rather nasty looking serpent faces have noses or perhaps tongues that curl up and back (Ibid.). They are probably adorned by star signs (Ibid.). Revealed in the dragons’ mouths are two more deities, represented as two anthropomorphic heads sticking out of the animal bulks (Ibid.). Such imagery is typical of the Mayan god, Kukulcan (the equivalent of Quetzacoatl), who has been similarly represented among others in Chichen Itza (Mexico) or Mixco Viejo (Guatemala) as a feathered serpent with a human head protruding out of its open jaws. Yet the gods on the Calendar Stone are identified by archaeologists as other deities. The left god is probably the Sun god and one on the right is the fire god, Xiuhtecuhtli (Ibid.). One interesting thing about more or less human looking faces of the deities on this stone is that they all look quite ferocious (Ibid.). They have got open mouths as if screaming or biting in a hostile and aggressive manner (Ibid.).

In the margin of the Circle

But It is not the end of the mysteries of the Stone (McDonald 2013). The ragged looking edges of the Calendar Stone have some meaning as well (Ibid.).

Depiction of Itzpapalotl, Queen of the Tzitzimimeh, known as Aztec star demons. Illustration from the Codex Borgia. Painting: “A drawing of Itzpapalotl, one of the deities described in the Codex Borgio”. By an Unknown author. Public domain. Source: “Tzitzimitl” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

These unfinished looking side areas depict the constellations or, as the Aztecs called them Tzitzimimeh, which means star demons (McDonald 2013; “Tzitzimitl” 2020). They were “associated with the stars and especially the stars that can be seen around the Sun during a solar eclipse. This was interpreted as the Tzitzimimeh attacking the Sun, thus causing the belief that during a solar eclipse, the tzitzimime would descend to the earth and possess men” (“Tzitzimitl” 2020). These demonic beings were terrifying to the Aztecs as they were responsible for the eclipse of the Sun and by extension for the death of the Sun and the Earth (McDonald 2013). Eclipses were the moments of terror for the populace of the Aztecs and the only thing they could do to keep the Sun moving in the sky was to feed it human hearts and blood, as much as the gods once sacrificed themselves in order to create the Sun, the Earth and the Moon (Ibid.).

The Queen observing the ceremony of offering human sacrifice at the top of the pyramid. Shot from the film Apocalypto (2006), directed by Mel Gibson, with the Queen played by Diana Botello. Photo: “Sophisticated culture … Apocalypto”. Source: Alex Von Tunzelmann (2008) In: “Apocalypto and the end of the wrong civilisation”. In: The Guardian.

Star demons were part of the Mesoamerican cosmic mythology but it does not mean that the Aztecs did not understand the eclipse phenomenon. Such an assumption would be rather peculiar, providing that Mesoamerican cultures used to reflect important astronomical events not only through their art but also in layouts of their whole cities. The Calendar Stone itself is a complex mechanism combining the Aztec multi-dimensional understanding of time with particular dates and astronomical events. And even though the Aztecs dressed most celestial bodies and events in colourful mythical costumes, they held the essential knowledge of the universe and its cosmic scheme. It is probable, however, that such knowledge was ultimately reserved for the Aztec elite, namely emperors and priests, in order to keep control over the peoples within the Empire and to threaten their enemies.

Fragment from Apocalypto (2006): Director: Mel Gibson; Writer: Farhad Safinia Stars: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Gerardo Taracena; Network: Touchstone Pictures. Icon Productions.
Although the film tells the story of the Mayas, it looks more like a portrayal of the Aztec Empire just in the eve of the Spanish Conquest (see: Von Tunzelmann A. (2008). The fragment shows the solar eclipse and the reason of the Aztec dominance due to their astronomical knowledge. Source: vsprlnd25 (2012). In: vsprlnd25 Youtube Channel.

Such an idea has been well represented in one of the scenes from the film Apocalypto, directed by Mel Gibson (2006). Although the director has meant to represent the culture of the Maya, its interpretation rather fits the Aztecs and their ceremony of massive human sacrifice in the city of Tenochtitlan. In the scene, when the eclipse of the Sun takes place, darkness falls down on the crowd at the foot of the pyramid. It looks as if the end of the world was coming. People are terrified, the next victim is stretched over the altar and waiting for cruel death. But the emperor and the High Priest are not afraid. They exchange a knowing look as if they knew what is going to happen. Another religious attendant is theatrically entering into trance, while the High Priest is assuring the gathered faithful that the gods have been sated by the offered sacrifice; hence they will spare the Sun and life. Finally, he turns to the gods asking them to let the Sun shine again. And after a while, the Sun reappears in the sky. The crowd is cheering. The Aztec elite has once again legitimized their power and right to intermediate between people and the deities.

The Stone of Tizoc

Apart from the Sunstone, probably the best and most interesting example of other Aztec stones to look at is the Stone of Tizoc (McDonald 2013). This is also because it may shed some light on the meaning on the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). By comparing both monuments, it can be seen what a masterpiece and a great accomplishment the Sunstone is (Ibid.).

The Stone of Tizoc. The sun-disk and band of stars on top represent the heavens. National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City; Central Mexico room. Photo: “The sun-disk and band of stars on top represent the heavens”. Source: George Grant MacCurdy, An Aztec “Calendar Stone” in Yale University Museum, American Anthropologist, (Oct. – Dec., 1910), pp. 481-496.

The Stone of Tizoc was found buried in the Zocalo just a year after the Calendar Stone was found, namely in 1791 (McDonald 2013). Tizoc was the Aztec tlatoani (1481-1486) who came just after Axayacatl (1469-1481) (Ibid.). He was not a very successful emperor and so he did not reign very long, just about six years (Ibid.). Yet his stone is a masterwork of propaganda and cosmic imagery (Ibid.). It is proportionally thicker than the Calendar Stone but has a much simpler design on its topmost surface (Ibid.). The image there is probably meant to be a solar disc and it is very similar to the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). Although much simplified (Ibid.). There is also a carved depression in its center, which was meant to hold the blood and hearts of sacrificed warriors (McDonald 2013; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). Hence it is likely that this stone was used as Cuauhxicalli for holy sacrifices (McDonald 2013).

Tom sides of the Stone of Tizoc represent historical, though mythologized scenes. Its size is impressive while observed beside the Museum visitors. National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City; Central Mexico room. Photo: “Piedra de Tízoc original. Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City” (2006). No machine-readable author provided. GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The most interesting part of the Stone of Tizoc is actually represented on its tom sides (McDonald 2013). First of all, there are fifteen repeated images of Tizoc carved in very sharp cut but fairly shallow relief on the surface (Ibid.). Tizoc is not shown as himself but rather in the guise of the god Tetzcatlipoca, known as the Smoking Mirror, or Huitzilopotchtli – the patron deity of the Aztecs (Ibid.). The scenes depict Tizoc conquering neighbouring places in the repetitive motif in which the emperor-god grasps the hair of the personified town (Ibid.) (likewise pharaohs are represented in Egypt while fighting back their enemies). In reality Tizoc had a reputation of a coward and an unsuccessful ruler (Ibid.). But the interesting thing about the Tizoc monument is that it combines historical events and places with the cosmic ones, just like the Calendar Stone (Ibid.). As such, they both serve at once as a historical document and a religious one (Ibid.). Tizoc has been shown conquering or rather claiming to have conquered real places, like Xochimilco (Ibid.). On the other hand, he has got a divine mission (Ibid.). On the surface of the sacrificial stone there is probably depicted the Sun, on the underside – the Earth Monster; in such a context, Tizoc is depicted just between them, metaphorically holding apart the Sun from the Earth (Ibid.). So this device gives a ruler the central role, not only in military expansion but in cosmic terms, just like in the Maya world, or elsewhere in other ancient cultures beyond America (Ibid.).

The Stone of Tizoc (detail). The scenes depict Tizoc
conquering neighbouring places in the repetitive motif
in which the emperor-god grasps the hair of the
personified town. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Calendar Stone is similar in its meaning to the Stone of Tizoc but even more significant (McDonald 2013). As it seems, It functions at several levels at the same time (Ibid.). It combines some historical dates with the cosmic scheme of creation and destruction of the previous worlds/eras or the suns (Ibid.). And it commands in a sense a continuation of sacrifices to the gods through its imagery and places all these variables in the mandala like scheme of really great complexity (Ibid.).

Definition of the Disc

Not all is still understood about the Calendar Stone (McDonald 2013). So great is the content and the information depicted (Ibid.). Whatever the final and exact interpretation of the Sunstone is, it gives some interesting knowledge about Mesoamerican cultures and their relation to the cosmic scheme of the universe and their deities (Ibid.). The Calendar Disc also contains “millennia of accumulated astronomical knowledge and wisdom” (Aztekayolokalli 2012). It combines historical and mythological worlds and translates their truths through various understandings of the time. “It was not just a way to keep time – it was a complete philosophy of time in which every day had a religious significance. [The Aztecs] also believed that time went in cycles – ultimately in the repeated destruction and recreation of the world” (Gillan 2019).

The Calendar Stone combines historical and mythological worlds and translates their truths through various understandings of the time. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As Dr McDonald (2013) also believes the enormous sculpture of the Calendar Stone not only has encoded a message about the cataclysm and cosmic destruction but also the warlike imagery of the Aztec nation itself. It must have been an imposing and threatening message to those who saw it (Ibid.). There was serious intimidation going on there and cooperation must have been coerced through the art (Ibid.). The very shape of the stone itself calls to mind the ultimate human sacrifice of blood and hearts (Ibid.). This was the kind of monument which reminded the populace of Tenochtitlan and of the peripheral provinces of the Empire of the power of the gods and of the rulers and state itself (Ibid.). The destruction of the Sun and the universe hung in the balance, so obviously obeying the authorities was the best course to follow for survival (Ibid.).

Featured image: Calendar Aztec Stone in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City. Photo by Dezalb (2018). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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Mystery of the Casas de Piedra in Palenque

Campeche is a city in the Mexican Gulf, founded in 1540 by Spanish conquistadors as San Francisco de Campeche. Additionally, it was located on the site of the former Mayan city called Canpech or Kimpech (“Campeche” 2021).

The two illuminated towers of the Baroque Cathedral, towering over the Plaza del Zócalo of the city of Campeche, Mexico. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

This old town used to have thousands of different buildings, of which, as a result of its turbulent history, unfortunately not many traces have remained to this day (“Campeche” 2021)

Even though our minibus arrived at Campeche in the evening, we still managed to see many colourful colonial houses and massive fortifications that had once defended the city from pirates, albeit not always with success (“Campeche” 2021). At the end of our trip, we were seen off by the two illuminated towers of the Baroque Cathedral, towering over the central square of the city, known locally as the Zócalo. The next morning, however, we left this charming place behind and moved south, towards the Mexican state of Chiapas, going back in time to the times of the Maya and their stepped pyramids and temples.

Towards the heart of the Maya territory

So far we had seen Mayan sites in the north of Yucatan, including Mayan-Toltec cities of Chichen Itza and Uxmal. Nevertheless, those city-states had developed mostly in the Late Classical Period and were therefore much later than Mayan sites in the south of the country. This is why, we could say that we were heading off to the very heart of the Mayan land. Paolo Sutter, a Swiss guide in Palenque, who also accompanied Enrich von Däniken in his journey through the ruins, claims that this Mayan heart once beat in Tikal (Guatemala) (Von Däniken 1991:184). After him, Tikal was once located just in the centre of the Mayan culture, which becomes especially visible if one inserts a compass needle into a city point on the map and draws circles of the correct radius around it; these will include the Mayan settlements even at the edge of their world, in the farthest corners of the north, south, west and east (Ibid.:184). ‘It was from Tikal’, the guide says, ‘that the Mayan empire began to expand in all directions’ (Ibid.:184).

Accordingly to the proposed thesis, the Mayan territory was not in fact limited to the country of Mexico itself but stretched southwards, far beyond its political borders. Precisely, “[the] Maya civilization developed in the area that today comprises southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador” (“Maya civilization” 2021). Consequently, Mayan city-states were scattered in the area of Mexican state of Chiapas, including Sierra Madre de Chiapas, southern Guatemala, El Salvador, and the southern lowlands of the Pacific littoral plain, and then they also expanded in the regions of the northern lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula, from where we started our study trip throughout Mexico (Ibid.).

The Maya and their development

Ancient Maya peoples, although today they exist as a separate cultural group, had probably never felt “a sense of common identity or political unity” (“Maya civilization” 2021; see “Majowie” 2021). Nevertheless, they dominated Mesoamerica for thousands years (Grube 2013:14-16). To our knowledge, they did not use metal tools, a wheel, and did not have pack animals (Burns 2012).

In front of the Temple of the Inscriptions, one of the most intriguing and significant buildings of the city, situated in the center. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Despite their lack of the humanity’s basic inventions, such as iron and the wheel, scientists today consider the Maya as one of the most advanced civilizations in Pre-Columbian America (Burns 2012). This is because the Maya had many achievements in the fields of agriculture, engineering, and astronomy: they developed hieroglyphics and the vigilant number system, made astronomical observations, and used precise timing systems (ibid.). They also had a complex mythology, language and religious rites (Ibid.). The Maya are equally known for their civilization achievements in the field of architecture and so their cities are characterized by high architectural precision, especially in terms of astronomical phenomena (“Majowie” 2021).  They built monumental spatial complexes, consisting of temples on high stepped pyramids, palaces, terraces, courtyards and stone fields for ball games (“Majowie” 2021; Burns 2012). In the field of art, they created stucco ornaments, vibrant wall paintings, sculptures and bas-reliefs of stucco, stone, wood and bone, polychrome ceramics and refined objects of goldsmithery (“Majowie” 2021).

Where did they come from?

Scientists claim that the Mayan ancestors came from Asia to the American continent via the Bering Strait during the last Ice Age (Grube 2013:14). Like many, Paolo Sutter takes a different view (Von Däniken 1991:183-184). After him, people never voluntarily put themselves in danger, especially if they do not have a clearly defined aim of taking a risk (Ibid.:183). And the people of that time certainly did not know what awaited them after crossing the frozen Bering Strait, if such a feat was possible for them at all, with frosts as low as minus 70 degrees Celsius (Ibid.:183).

The row of temples along the southern edge of the Main Plaza in the western part of the city: the Temple of the Inscriptions on the left, then on the right, the Temple XIII (of the Red Queen), and the Temple XII. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the other side, opponents of the Bering Strait theory usually propose a different solution instead; namely, they believe that the people of Asia did indeed reach Mesoamerica, but by crossing the waters of the Pacific Ocean, travelling on ships (Ibid.:183). Enrich von Däniken (1991:184), however, doubts if they came from Asia at all; the newcomers from Asia would have known the wheel and would certainly have used it widely also in Mesoamerica. Even if the Mesoamerican peoples, such as the Olmecs and the Mayans, knew the wheel, as evidenced by some artifacts, they did not use it in their everyday life, like other ancient cultures did elsewhere.

There are also some legends ascribed to the Mayan culture, containing a story of how the ancient Mayans came to Mesoamerica from an unidentifiable eastern land that had been destroyed, possibly by an unknown cataclysm (Hart 2017:150). As a writer, Will Hart (2017:150) admits, these types of accounts may sound like romantic myths and be just a result of a vivid imagination, but when one walks around an ancient archaeological site of Palenque, amidst its extensive ruins, they start to wonder if such myths of lost continents may contain a grain of truth.

From the Archaic Period to the Late Preclassic

Regardless of where the Mayans came from and how they did it, visiting hunters and collectors first settled in mainly three regions of Mesoamerica: the Pacific coast, the mountains, and the lowlands (Grube 2013:14).

Inside one of the corridors of the Palace in the central part of Palenque. Photo by Leon Petrosyan (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo modified. Photo source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Little information is known about the Archaic period of Mayan culture, but it is dated back to the second millennium BC., when settlements in villages had already developed (Grube 2013:14). Although this slow process was uneven in the inhabited area, it is the time when agriculture and maize cultivation began (Ibid.:14). Pottery, which is attributed to the Mayan culture, could also have originated in this period (Ibid.:14).

The Corbel arch seen in a hallway at the Palace. Photo by Ricraider – Own work (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

A conventional period from 2000 BC. until 300 BC. is called by archaeologists the Preclassic Period, including the Early (2000-900 BC), Middle (900-300 BC) and Late (300 BC-250 AD) periods within it (Grube 2013:14). While the first agricultural settlements were built at the earliest stage, the social hierarchy was formed in the following phases, and the cities were formed along with them, along with examples of Mayan monumental architecture, including ornamental tombs and stone monuments with images of dignitaries, but yet without inscriptions (Ibid.:14). Similar achievements show that the Mayan culture developed in parallel with the so-called Olmec culture from the Gulf of Mexico (Ibid.:14). Therefore, it is not truly correct to describe the Olmecs as a proto-Mayan culture (Ibid.:14). The Olmecs had probably just influenced it as much as the culture of Teotihuacan did.

Self-supporting and false vaults

In the Late Preclassic Period, social differences in the Mayan culture deepened and a privileged group strongly emerged, including the royal families and priests (Grube 2013:14). Monumental buildings decorated with huge stucco masks of gods were still erected; these were mainly temples in the form of stepped pyramids with temples on top and the so-called royal palaces (Ibid.:14). Stone self-supporting original vaults with a keystone (a capstone) are also dated to this period! (Ibid.:14). It is supported by the discovery of such a vault in the city of Calakmul. At the same time, it is quite surprising that in the Classic Period cantilever vaults, known more often as the corbelled or false vaults, were commonly used by the Mayans (Ibid.:14). Such constructional element as corbel vaults and arches are actually typical features of the pre-Columbian architecture, both monumental and urban (Ibid.:14).

The Temple of the Inscriptions became a place of the most fascinating discovery of the 90s of the twentieth century in Mesoamerica. Photo by Dezalb (2015). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

Complex writing system

The first stone monuments with hieroglyphic inscriptions, the so-called steles, also appeared in the same period (Grube 2013:15). Oddly enough, these oldest texts reveal examples of writings so uniform and complex that the Maya writing system from the Late Preclassic Period must have developed earlier (Ibid.:15). For archaeologists, there are two possible explanations for this puzzle: either the older forms of writing have not survived due to the perishable material used, or they have not yet been discovered (Ibid.:15).

Classic Period of the Maya

The end of the Preclassic Period brought subsequent climate changes, natural disasters and migrations of people, often resulting in armed conflicts, which caused many cities of the period deserted (Grube 2013:15).

Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico. Photo by Kwamikagami – English Wikipedia (2004). Public domain. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Maya script” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Recognition of the year 250 AD. as the ending moment of the Preclassic Period and the beginning of the Classic one is purely conventional (Grube 2013:15). This was a gradual process and did not occur simultaneously for the entire territory of Mesoamerica occupied by the Mayans (Ibid.:15). Moreover, it should also be understood that the Classic Period is just another stage in the long history of Mayan culture (Ibid.:15). Material inheritances from both the Preclassic and Classic Periods are also quite comparable (Ibid.:15), and sometimes even earlier monuments and artifacts are more advanced in terms of a technique used than those created in the classical period (e.g. a self-supporting vault).

The Palace as seen from the main courtyard (Main Plaza). Photo by Ricraider – Own work (2012). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Classic Period can be further broken down into two major blocks: the Early Classic Period (250-550 AD.) and the Late Classic Period (550-900 AD.) (Grube 2013:15). Additionally, one can also distinguish in the latter the s-called Declining Period, that is to say, the last hundred years of the Late Classic Period (800-900 AD.) (Ibid.:15). In the Classic Period, the lowlands were divided by growing influences of notably four struggling big city-states (Ibid.:15). Edwin Barnhart, PhD, the Archaeologist Director in Maya Exploration Center, says that many texts mention four Maya cities that were associated with four corners of the world (Edwin Barnhart, PhD. in: Burns 2012). Among them was Palenque, depicted as the capital of the Mayan world of the west, the capital of the south was Copan, in the east, there was Tikal, and in the capital of the north was Calakmul (Ibid.). Each was headed by a king who was descended from ancient gods, and so he was seen as an intermediary between the world of gods and people (Grube 2013:15).

A description of a presented expedition will mainly concern the Late Calssic Period of Palenque.

Relations with Teotihuacan and wars between the Mayan city-states

In addition to extravagant architecture and luxurious works of art, an element of the culture of the aristocracy of the Classic Period of the Maya was their hieroglyphic writing, densely covering stone steles, altars, relief panels, pottery and jewellery (Grube 2013:15). They all tell a tale about royal families, lavish feasts, wars and alliances (Ibid.:15). On the other hand, the Mayan hieroglyphs has allowed not only to recreate the political events of the Classic Period, but also have given a valuable insight into the Mayan intellectual culture, including their astronomy and myths (Ibid.:15).

By the side of the so-called Palace, located in the center of Palenque. Behind the Temple of the Inscriptions, situated at the top of the stepped pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By means of Mayan writing and artifacts, it is also known that the Early Classic Period was marked by contacts with the mysterious city of Teotihuacan, the largest city in the cultural area of ​​Mesoamerica, inhabited then by unidentifiable culture (Grube 2013:16). At the same time, conflicts developed between the urban powers of the Classic Period, mainly between Tikal and Calakmul, which, in turn, had sparked hostilities already on the verge of the Late Classic Period (Ibid.:16). The final collapse of the Mayan classic culture was intensified by environmental disasters and overpopulation (Ibid.:16). Consequently, at the turn of the ninth and tenth centuries AD., more Mayan cities emptied in the region (Ibid.:16).

Postclassic Period and the Spanish Conquest

Simultaneously, “[the] Postclassic period [of the Maya, which] saw the rise of Chichen Itza in the north [of Yucatan]” (“Maya civilization” 2021), is usually regarded as a time of decadence, characterized by a gradual decline of the status of the elite and their monumental architecture (Grube 2013:16). This period is also broken down into successive stages, ending with the Spanish conquest and the fall of the last Mayan state of Itzá, with their capital Nojpetén, in 1697 (Ibid.:16).

Modern Mayans of Yucatan, Mexico. Photo by I, Henrique Matos (2007). CC BY 2.5. Photo source: “Majowie” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

After the Spanish Conquest, the Mayan civilization completely collapsed (Grube 2013:16). The Mayans, however, have survived to modern times, thankfully retaining much of their culture (Ibid.:16). During the colonial period, as well as after Mexico and other countries in America gained their autonomy in the early nineteenth century, the Maya also made many local armed efforts to regain political independence (Grube 2013:16; “Maya civilization” 2021). “Today, their descendants, known collectively as the Maya, number well over [six] million individuals, speak more than twenty-eight surviving Mayan languages, and reside in nearly the same area as their ancestors ” (“Maya civilization” 2021). Although for centuries they were usually treated as second-class residents on their own lands, today they are still actively fighting for their political and cultural rights (Grube 2013:16).

Gateway to Palenque

The stepped pyramid of the Temple of the Inscriptions. Photo taken from the side of the Temple XIII, where the second famous burial of Palenque was discovered. It belongs to the so-called Red Queen. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As we were approaching Palenque archaeological site after around five hours spent in the bus, I suddenly noticed a huge carved head rising up just in the middle of the roundabout (see: Von Däniken 1991:183). It belongs to perhaps the most famous Mayan king, Kʼinich Janaab Pakal the First, who reigned in Palenque in the Late Classic Period and who, more than one thousand three hundred years after his death, triggered much interest and even confusion in the modern world of archaeology. It was mainly because of his multi-ton sarcophagus hidden in one of the temples in Palenque. In this way, the king has probably deserved that his image carved in the stone is now welcoming visitors on the way to his wonderful but lost kingdom.

How did the Mayans call their city?

The Mayan ruins of Palenque are located around ten kilometres away from a small town of Santo Domingo de Palenque, where you can also stay at one of its hotels of a various standard if you wish to stay and study the ruins longer (Von Däniken 1991:176,183). This settlement close to the ancient city was founded by a Spanish missionary, Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada, the first European who saw Palenque (Von Däniken 1991:175-176; Dzikowska 2013:239; “Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada” 2021). In 1567, he founded a village, first called Santo Domingo, and it was not until around twenty years later that it was named Santo Domingo de Palenque (Von Däniken 1991:175-176; Dzikowska 2013:239; “Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada” 2021).

An intricate complex of El Palacio with its outstanding tower, located in the center of the ancient city of Palenque. Photo taken from the Temple of the Cross in the south-east of the city. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is believed that Palenque was “also anciently known as Lakamha (literally: ‘Big Water’) (“Palenque” 2021). Yet, there are other hypothesis about the modern name of the city. In Spanish, the word ‘palenque’ means ‘fence’, ‘tournament square’ or ‘palisade site’. Of course, the sixteenth-century village of Santo Domingo had nothing to do with ‘tournament square’ (Von Däniken 1991:176). One of the local Mayans claims that his ancestors from the sixteenth century still remembered that the nearby jungle ruins were actually called Palatquapi by ancient Mayans; according to their accounts, it was the place where Mayan gods, known as the Kachina, once lived (Ibid.:176).

Mysterious tower, possibly used as an astronomical observatory, belonging to the complex, called El Palacio. Photo by Anna_Travel_Guru (Anna Che) (2015). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

The sixteenth century Mayans may have provided the Spanish settlers with the original name of the city, which was, however, misspelled by the Spanish and consequently changed into the known today name ‘Palenque’, and then Santo Domingo was successively named itself after the ruins (Ibid.:176). As a matter of fact, Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada studied the ruined city and then published its first description, in which he also named it ‘Palenque’ (Von Däniken 1991:175-176; Dzikowska 2013:239; “Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada” 2021). The Mayan city was thus named almost two hundred years before its ruins started to be more explored since the eighteenth century (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Prager, Grube 2013:447).

From ‘casas de piedra’ to their regular exploration

Of all the Mayan sites of the Classic Period, Palenque enjoyed considerable interest, but it was difficult to spark it at first among contemporary explorers (Eggebrecht 2013:408-411; Von Däniken 1991:163-171; Dzikowska 2013:239-241). From the beginning of the eighteenth century, the inhabitants of Tumbula, the largest city closest to the ruins, knew of the so-called casas de piedra (stone houses), near the settlement of Santo Domingo (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:163).

Even at the beginning of the nineteenth century, they described the ruined buildings engulfed by the steamy jungle of Chiapas, which was once inhabited by their Mayan ancestors (Eggebrecht 2013:408). In the 1870s, information about these stone houses spread quickly; it reached the ears of a priest in Ciudad Real, Ramona Ordonez, whose account finally reached the Royal Commission of Audiencia in Guatemala (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:163). Only a decade later, on the recommendation of the representative of the Spanish crown, Jose Estacheri, the first excavations in the area of ​​Palenque finally began (Eggebrecht 2013:408). They were led by the royal architect Antonio Bernasconi, whose drawings and reports reached Spain many years later (Ibid.:408). As early as in 1786, Jose Estacheri received further instructions to retrieve the artifacts from Palenque and undertake further excavations on site (Ibid.:408).

It was the time of the very first steps of archaeology, though completely different from how it is understood today; it was more likely a hunt for lost treasures than systematic studies of ancient cultures (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:164).

Detail of a relief at the Palace drawn by Ricardo Almendáriz during the Del Rio expedition in 1787. Ricardo Almendáriz – Library of Congress (1787). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Audiencia consequently instructed the officer, Antonio del Rio, and the cartoonist, Ricardo Almendariz, to go to the site and explore the ruins (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:163). Unfortunately, contemporary “research methods” of pioneers in archaeology left much to be desired, not only in Mesoamerica but everywhere in the world; after breaking through the dense tangle of the forest, Antonio del Rio ripped away some of the city’s architectural sculptures and artifacts from, using axes, pickaxes, and hand-picked spikes (Eggebrecht 2013:408; Von Däniken 1991:164). In this way, thirty-two items, including the so-called Madrid Stela, were handed over to the Audiencia along with the drawings and accounts (Eggebrecht 2013:409; Von Däniken 1991:164). In Spain, however, no one took any interest in such acquired treasures and the results of the expedition were not even published (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:164). It was only in 1882 that an inexplicable copy of the original Antonio del Rio’s accounts was translated into English and published in the form of a small booklet in London (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:164). Although it did not arouse much interest at first, it was this position that much later attracted the ruins’ greatest American explorers, John Llyod Stephens and Frederick Catherwood (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:164-165).

Successive amateurs of the ruins

In the meantime, further research continued at Palenque (Eggebrecht 2013:410). The site itself had attracted many fascinating characters, including travellers and explorers (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:165).

Johann Friedrich von Waldeck, Foto von Charles Reutlinger 1873. Public domain. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Johann Friedrich von Waldeck” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Among them, there were Guillermo Dupaix (1746-1818), following the orders of the King of Spain, and cartoonist Jose Luciano Castagnada (Eggebrecht 2013:410). They came to Palenque in 1807, just before the riots that led to the independence of Mexico and other parts of Central America in 1820 (Ibid.:410). However, further studies conducted by the researchers had long been kept in a drawer in the Mexican capital before being published in Europe in the 1830s (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:164-165). During this time, however, yet many travellers visited Palenque; those were Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who came there in 1816, and Colonel Juan Galindo (1802-1840) (really John of Ireland), who was a governor of the Guatemalan province of Petan (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:165). In addition, the latter was a passionate adventurer, traveller and archaeologist, and the London Literary Gazette even described the Colonel in 1831 as an actual discoverer of Palenque (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:169).

A new dweller of casas de piedra

However, the decisive role in the history of the discoveries of the Maya city was primarily played by a brilliant character, Jean-Frédéric Waldeck (1766-1875), who was said to have been a French count, an antiquarian painter and draftsman (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:165). Considered mad in many circles, Von Waldeck was possibly associated with a self-proclaimed group of early Americanists who argued that Mesoamerican culture had stemmed from the ancient East, spanning from Egypt to India (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:165).

The so-called Temple of the Count, located in the north of Palenque, beside the North Group of temples. The temple was called after Palenque’s explorer, Johann Friedrich von Waldeck (1766-1875), who was known as a French count. He worked and lived in Palenque for over a decade. The Temple had become his dwelling in the city. Photo by Bernard DUPONT (2020). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo modified. Photo source: “Palenque” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In 1821, the count met the English publisher of the above-mentioned Captain del Rio, who asked Waldeck to illustrate the book (Von Däniken 1991:164-165). The presented records completely captured Waldeck’s imagination, and in 1822 he went to Mexico, whose government gave him permission to conduct research in Palenque (Ibid.:165). Since the ancient Mayans left, he had probably been the first man, and certainly the first European, who inhabited one of the casas de piedra of Palenque (Ibid.:167). Today, his dwelling on site is jokingly called the ‘temple of the count’ (Ibid.:167). During his two-year stay among the ruins, Von Waldeck dedicated Palenque not only all his time, talent as a draftsman and researcher, but also his fortune and health (Ibid.:167-168). He was constantly fighting with the tropical climate, the stuffiness and the threat of malaria, including clouds of mosquitoes actually causing it (Ibid.:167-168). During this period, he defended his fortress against both looters and curious tourists (Ibid.:167-168).

Maya ruins of Palenque, Chiapas, in 1840, by Frederick Catherwood. Palenque had always appealed to the imagination of adventurers. Catherwood’s lithographs, although they show architectural elements in a romantic perspective, yet they reflect the Mayan city with remarkable precision and accuracy. The Palace. Lithograph from drawings by Frederick Catherwood at Palenque, Chiapas, 1840. Uploaded by Infrogmation (2019). Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Catherwood Palenque Palace Courtyard” (2021). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Nevertheless, he himself was eventually accused by the Mexican government of stealing national treasures (Von Däniken 1991:168). Disappointed, the count left his beloved city and in 1838 published Voyage pittoresque et archéologique dans la province du Yucatan pendant les années 1834 et 1836, as a result of his studies (Ibid.:168).

Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood

Finally, among the next Palenque enthusiasts, there were other contemporary globetrotters, John Lloyd Stephens, and a cartoonist, Frederick Catherwood (Eggebrecht 2013:410; Von Däniken 1991:168-169). In 1839, they both set off on a journey to Mexico and its ruins, about which Dupaix, Galindo and Von Waldeck had so enthusiastically written so far (Von Däniken 1991:169). The researchers wanted to know what kind of culture could have been the author of similar ruins lost in the jungle (Ibid.:169). At first, they did not think that the monumental palaces were the product of ancient ancestors of the Indians living in Mesoamerica (Ibid.:169). Moreover, at a time when Stephens and Catherwood were researching this mysterious culture, neither its writing nor its calendar was known yet, and there was no idea of ​​its unique character, typical of the cultures of the studied region (Ibid.:171).

Catherwood Palace Palenque Interior. Lithograph from drawings by Frederick Catherwood at Palenque, Chiapas, 1840. Uploaded by Infrogmation (talk | contribs) (2019). Public domain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

Eventually, Stephens recognized Palenque as an impressive legacy of people who without any outside contacts or without foreign teachers, allowed their culture to flourish in its uniqueness (Von Däniken 1991:171). During two long and adventurous journeys, the both researchers visited forty-four ruined cities, and their on-site drawings, including sixty pages on Palenque, were published between 1841 and 1843 and gained great popularity both among ordinary readers and in the world of science (Ibid.:170). Moreover, due to his four-volume publication, Incident of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843), John Lloyd Stephens not only laid the foundations for a systematic study of the past, but also provided a picture of the Mayan life of mid-nineteenth century, which to this day remains unparalleled (Eggebrecht 2013:411).

Palenque then and now

What former travellers and explorers found in Palenque had long gone with them. Today, a tourist driving up to the restored ruins of the city by an air-conditioned coach or a taxi has no idea of terrible hardships and dangers that ancient explorers, like Stephens and Catherwood, had to face among the ruins centuries ago (Von Däniken 1991:170). The virgin dense forest was then full of moisture and was steaming; casas de piedra seemed completely lost in a thick and marshy jungle (Ibid.:170). With time, dense coils of vegetation had revealed a scrap of secrets of the city, and the ruins were gradually released from their envious embrace.

Currently, the center is restored and made available to visitors. Although it is still surrounded by a tropical forest, which all the time makes a great impression on tourists with its micro-climate flora, it is much thinned out and the wilderness has been visibly tamed with well-arranged paths and alleys for visitors, strolling around the site. The region itself has been dominated by a rather agricultural landscape; as a result, where there was once a dense jungle yet in the mid-twentieth century, now there are vast pastures and farmlands (Ibid.:183).

Wandering for clues

Beauties of the tropical forest can be still experienced along the way through Palenque archaeological site with its suburb ruins plunged into the foliage, and further on the path leading to a small museum nearby, called the Museo de Sitio de Palenque “Alberto Ruz Lhuillier”. The museum itself is worth seeing, as there are both replicas and genuine artifacts from the site, provided that many finds from the region have been taken to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City (Lonely Planet 2021; Monsieur Mictlan 2018).

It was already long after my tour of the Mayan city, where I could plunge into the shadow of the jungle to feel at least a bit of the atmosphere experienced once by the nineteenth century’s explorers.

It was also a good moment to analyse my “finds”, collect them and revise by their proper arrangement in my head. Referring in my thoughts to what I had heard and read about the site and the Maya themselves, it turned out to be a rather difficult task to put all the elements together in a coherent way. Suddenly, I got an uncomfortable feeling that a holistic view and logic were out of this game.

Featured image: View of the two smaller temples of the Mayan city of Palenque; the Temple of the Sun on the left and the fragments of the Temple XIV on the right. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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Catherwood F. (1840). “Catherwood Palace Palenque Interior”. Lithograph from drawings by Frederick Catherwood at Palenque, Chiapas, 1840. Uploaded by Infrogmation (talk | contribs) (2019). Public domain. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fSbtP5>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2021].

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Dwarfs Dwell in the Maw of ‘Cenotes’

We were on the way to Cenote Ik Kil, located in the northern centre of the Yucatán Peninsula and about five minutes (3,2 km) south from Chichén Itzá (“Ik Kil” 2020). Today, it is part of the Ik Kil Archaeological Park and is publicly accessed for swimming and cliff diving (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). Its water level is about 26 metres (85 ft) below ground level; It has got about 60 metres (200 ft) in diameter and is about 48 metres (157 ft) deep (“Ik Kil” 2020).

Cenote Ik Kil, located in the northern centre of the Yucatán Peninsula and about five minutes (3,2 km) south from Chichén Itzá. Today, it is part of the Ik Kil Archaeological Park and is publicly accessed for swimming and cliff diving. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Swimming in cenotes is always at one’s own risk; there are no lifeguards, and only life vests are available (David 2020). This is why one needs to feel really comfortable swimming out of their depth to enjoy this experience (Ibid.).

Cenote Ik Kil

Around the cenote, there is a well organised tourist infrastructure with two restaurants serving typical Mexican food, changing rooms with lockers and showers, shady areas for relaxing, conveniently placed viewing areas of the cenote, and even cottages for hire to stay overnight (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). To get to a swimming platform with the wooden stairs, there is a carved stone stairway that leads down (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). Still there are three diving platforms beside the pool as well (David 2020). The cenote is open to the sky so visitors are not enclosed, like in cave cenotes, which yet gives another invaluable experience (“Ik Kil” 2020; David 2020). To avoid doing any harm to the cenote ecosystem, the visitors intending to swim must first take a shower to remove all the cream and dirt off of their skin (David 2020). It is not either allowed to touch stones or tree roots around the well (Ibid.).

Ik Kil Cenote seen from the upper viewing area of the well. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Luckily, when we got on-site, there were not so many people swimming in the cenote. The water was really fresh, crystal-clear and chilly, which gave a cooling relief from Mexican sunshine (David 2020), even in February. From time to time, I felt tiny fishes nicely nibbling my skin. I swam to the centre of the water circle and I looked up into the open roof section. The view was breathtaking with all those plant strings and tree roots cascading down from the roof edges into the water (Ibid.), and the foliage covering the damp stones of the well just intensified the effect of swimming in the jungle.

Maw of the underworld that holds the underground waters

I dived in to the abyss of the well and I found myself in a completely different world once again. Echoes of people’s voices heard above suddenly fell silent and I felt alone, as if on the threshold to the unknown, underwater realm, existing – as the Maya believed – parallel to the real one (Prager 2013:279).

The view from the well of Kil Cenote is breathtaking with all those plant strings and tree roots cascading down from the roof edges into the water, and the foliage covering the damp stones just intensified the effect of swimming in the jungle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It was ruled by dangerous deities, such as the rain Mayan god Chaak (Aztec’s Tlaloc), and dwelled by various mythical creatures being the gods’ helpers (Prager 2013:279; Brady 2013:299; Tuszyńska 2007:62-63; “Xibalba” 2020). Some of them personified significant forms of the landscape: mountains, caves and cenotes (Brady 2013:299). In Mayan inscriptions, scholars identify wide-open jaws of Centipede (Sak Baak Chapaata), symbolizing cenotes as the ‘maw of the underworld (or of the Earth Monster) that holds the underground waters’ (Ibid.:299; also see the drawing a: “Maw of the underworld from Pakal’s sarcophagous”. In: Schele and Mathews (1998). Drawing source: Ramos Ponciano M. E., Ball J. W. (2017). Not only cenotes, but also underwater lakes in caves, are the natural models of this mythical place, inhabited by both, animals, such as frogs, lizards, water snakes, scorpions, and more grotesque creatures, like gnomes, souls of the forest and short people, dwarfs (Prager 2013:279).

Divine dwarfs in cenotes

Dwarfs not only performed various administrative functions and entertained the ruler at pre-Columbian royal courts, but also played an important role in the mythology of the Maya, who believed in the classical and post-classical periods that the four dwarfs were tasked with raising the vault of heavens.

Cenote Ik Kil is one of main tourist attractions of Yucatan Peninsula. Photo by Matias Cruz (2014). Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

The Olmecs also knew of the image of the four dwarfs supporting the sky, where dwarfs were equally pictured, like stone atlases, supporting the structure of the altar, possibly representing the vault of heavens (Prager 2013:278-279). The Maya even saw two dwarfs in the firmament, symbolizing undiscovered constellations (Ibid.:279). Midgets, as much as hunchbacks, cripples and albinos were viewed by the Maya and other pre-Colombian cultures as supernatural beings through their physical infirmities (Ibid.:278). They were all also regarded, like Maya rulers were, as messengers of the divine world and a means of contact with it (Ibid.:278). As such, the dwarfs are often depicted as companions of gods, including the sun and maize deities (Ibid.:279). This explains why in art, the Mayan kings considered divine, were also depicted in the company of midgets; the ruler performing religious rituals imitated the gods and became the center of the real world and the underworld (Ibid.:278).

Ruler attended by court dwarf. A photograph of a colorful ceramic vessel; origin unknown; late classical period, 600-900 AD; private collection (Kerr 1453). Court dwarfs performed many functions at the ruler’s court. In the depiction, one of them is kneeling in front of the ruler, holding a mirror, while another one below checks the quality of the food in the vessels and jugs or examines if it is not poisoned (Prager 2013:278). Photo source: Latin American Studies (2020) “Maya Dwarfs”. In: The Maya. Latin American Studies.

Mayans thus believed that dwarfs come from outside the real world and actually are divine and supernatural beings (Prager 2013:279). They dwell in the underworld or ‘place of fright’, Xibalbà, which is as much sacred as dangerous (Tuszyńska 2007:34,36; “Xibalba” 2020). In the Maya’s opinion, the boundaries and the portals to this world can be found in overgrown holes in the forest, dark caves, deep ravines, and also in shimmering water mirrors overgrown with dark green water lilies, or just in deep cenotes, like this one I was just swimming in (Tuszyńska 2007:36; Prager 2013:279). Such wells were perceived as symbolical corridors between the earthly land and underworld (Tuszyńska 2007:37).

More about dwarfs

The history of the Mayan dwarfs, however, does not end here; I have also read that among the Maya’s offerings found in the caves, there have been also found querns for producing corn flour, which was possibly related to the Mayan belief that the first world was inhabited by dwarfs, saiyam unicoob, who built the first stone cities (Tuszyńska 2007:26; Brady 2013:305). The first world was deprived of the Sun (Tuszyńska 2007:26). When it was finally created and shone for the first time, it turned the dwarfs into stone, and their images can now be seen in many ruins (Ibid.:26). The donors probably wanted to pay tribute to them by similar offerings (Brady 2013:305).

After the Maya, dwarfs took part in “a rite of passage in which [they] assist the soul of the [privileged] deceased into the domain of the dead, [the underworld], from which it would eventually be reborn in the royal lineage, [just as the maize god died in the underworld and resurrected. Similarly,] maize sprouts again in the cycle of nature’s renewal” Art (Institute Chicago 2020). This is possibly why dwarfs are often seen in art while accompanying the maize god (Prager 2013:279; Institute Chicago 2020).

Crunchy nachos and human bones

After one hour of swimming in the underworld, I woke up from a daydream, as if revitalized. I was sitting in one of the on-site restaurants. The waiter has just brought a basket full of crunchy nachos and a saucier of juicy guacamole. It was a pleasant feeling to join archaeology and mythology with a tourist attraction and delicious Mexican food.

‘Why did not you tell me?!’, my friend asked reproachfully, sitting at my table, and pulling a wicker basket with nachos towards her.

‘About what?’, I asked surprised.

‘That THEY pulled people down HERE in the water to sacrifice them!’, she explained. ‘But it is better I have found it out not earlier than I got into the water’, she added without waiting for my explanation.

The Samulá Cenote in Valladolid, Yucatán, Mexico. Photo by dronepicr (2015). CC BY 2.0. Photo source: “Cenote” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Indeed, the research of archaeologists confirmed the thesis that the Maya offerings were not only composed of products made of jade, shells, flint and ceramics, but there were also sacrifices of humans (Tuszyńska 2007:37; Brady 2013:305; Dzikowska 2013:201). Diego de Landa also mentions human offerings given by the pilgrims to the Cenote Sagrado in Chichén Itzá (Brady 2013:305). Since the arrival of the Conquistadors, stories have circulated about human sacrifice practiced by the Maya (Tuszyńska 2007:37). Chroniclers of that time mention that children and young women were thrown into the water (Tuszyńska 2007:37; Brady 2013:305). However, according to the researchers, the excavated human remains do not always indicate sacrifices (Tuszyńska 2007:37). In many cases it turned out that in most cases humans were thrown into the water after their death, and this concerned both men and women of a different age (Ibid.:37). It supports a hypothesis that the remains of ancestors and important personalities were thrown into the waters of the cenotes, because they symbolized the primeval ocean in the moment of the creation of the world (Ibid.:37). In this way, the dead were reborn to a new life (Ibid.:37).

Burials or human sacrifice?

There are many other hypotheses about human skeletons found in cenotes (Tuszyńska 2007:37). One of them states that they could be burial places (Ibid.:37). The best example of such a water cemetery is the Cenote Tankah (Quintana Roo), where the walls were marked by the Maya with glyphs of darkness and the planet Venus (Ibid.:37). Both glyphs are associated with night and death, but also with life and rebirth (Ibid.:37). Assuming that the cenotes were symbolic entrances to the world of the dead, Xibalbà, the hypothesis of natural burial chambers in cenotes is justified (Ibid.:37).