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).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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 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 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).
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
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).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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.
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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