Temple Could Shed Light on Ancient Maya City
Clues Among the Ruins
P A L E N Q U E, Mexico, Aug. 20 — Archaeologists
have wracked their brains over a black hole
spanning more than three decades in what is
known about the ancient Maya city of Palenque.
Perhaps some tyrant’s traces were erased by vengeful
peons when he died. Perhaps the ruling dynasty was briefly
kicked out of power by an unidentified invader. Or did
archaeologists with their spades just fail to dig up clues from
the missing years?
Now Mexican officials think they may have solved the
riddle of the only unknown period in the 1,200 years that
Palenque’s pyramids held sway over a sizable chunk of the
Maya world, which in its heyday spread from southern
Mexico to where Honduras now lies.
At the end of July, a team of experts stumbled onto a
temple buried in the jungle and discovered hieroglyphics,
ceramics and inscriptions that could finally reveal what
happened and who ruled between A.D. 732 and 764.
The highlight of the find in the mist-shrouded ruins of what
was one of the most powerful cities in the Americas is an
exceptionally detailed stucco figure of a king who may have
been Palenque’s only leader not yet identified.
“We think this is going to help us fill a hole in the history of
Palenque,” Alfonso Morales Cleveland, who heads the dig on
behalf of Mexico’s National Anthropology and History
Institute, told Reuters Television.
Gap in 8th Century
“We know the history of Palenque because we can read the
inscriptions. But we have been faced with an empty space in
time during which we do not know who ruled or what he was
like or whether there was a new ruling dynasty. Fortunately,
this (new) discovery dates back to this dark period of
The intricately sculptured pyramids and terraces of
Palenque, one of Mexico’s top tourist destinations, are
scattered over 14 square miles of lush, tropical hills in the
state of Chiapas, some 500 miles southeast of Mexico City.
Only a fifth of the site has been explored so far. But the
hieroglyphics on the “Temple of Inscriptions” and other
buildings, like windows on the past, have allowed
archaeologists to identify all but one of the city’s rulers
between 400 B.C. and A.D. 800. The only gap was the 32
years in the 8th century, which have long been the focus of
spirited academic debate.
Morales said the figure found in the buried temple could
be an unknown descendant of Kan Balam, one of Palenque’s
greatest kings, or possibly a ruler “who fell from grace,” or
even someone from a different lineage who dominated for a
His team of archaeologists, including two Americans,
speculate that he might have been called “U-Pakal Kimich,”
which means “Shield of the Sun God” in Mayan.
Morales, a leading expert in Maya hieroglyphics, said the
figure was almost certainly that of a king because of the regal
glyphs that adorn its clothes and extremely ornate sandals.
Tests have dated one glyph to June 3, A.D. 761.
But the sands of time have done their work. The roof of
the temple has collapsed and the rain forest has grown over
most of the structure. The figure of the king, still showing
traces of Maya blue and ochre red paint, was found on a
column that originally supported the roof.
On the reverse side of the column are sculptured feet,
which Morales said seem to have belonged to the figure of a
captured nobleman or ruler. The figure of the captive itself
appears to have been damaged in a possible act of
‘Too Many Coincidences’
Financed partly by the San Francisco-based Pre-Columbian
Art Research Institute, the excavation team has begun digging
toward the base of the temple in the belief that more buildings
or even a tomb may lie underneath. Some bone fragments
have been discovered, but nothing that would allow
archaeologists to conclude that the site could be a burial
David Green of the Pre-Columbian institute declined
comment, saying it was too early to draw conclusions. “We
would hate to mislead anybody.”
But Morales said he had the courage of his convictions
and was not afraid to stake his reputation on claiming it was
possible he had solved the 32-year riddle. “If we’re wrong,
we’re wrong. But there are too many coincidences,” he said
with a chuckle.
To stroll through Palenque is to walk in the footsteps of
ancient kings. “Palenque is a unique Mayan site. It’s an
open-air museum in which you can walk in the same spots
people walked 1,200 to 1,500 years ago,” Morales said.
Even if they have discovered clues to the missing 32
years, there remain many mysteries and decades of work for
the archaeologists. Morales said more than 100 buildings still
had to be unearthed, not counting any yet to be discovered.
And work does not end with excavation. Perhaps even
more challenging than discovering new clues to the past is
preserving them once they are extracted from their jungle
graves. Acid rain and volcanic ash have badly damaged much
of Palenque’s artwork in recent years, and the tread of
thousands of tourists is wearing down many of its ancient
“I think it’s important to conserve what we have
discovered and it’s also important that we publish what we
find,” Morales said. “If we can’t preserve it, then in my
opinion we shouldn’t excavate. … At the same time, if we
aren’t going to tell the people about them, so they can better
appreciate their culture, then it’s best we just leave the place
as it is.”
Copyright 1998 Reuters.