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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