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 ( 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.


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