Temple of the Skull marks the beginning of the great plaza at Palenque. This temple (also known as Temple XII) sits on a large platform that runs to your left along the base of the heavily jungled hill behind it. It is is the first of a row of three great structures, the next of which may be the tomb of Pakal's mother, known as Temple XIII, and then Pakal's tomb, known as the Temple of the Inscriptions. The Temple of the Skull got its ominous name from a stone rabbit's skull carved on one of the temple supports. It is also known as the Temple of the Dying Moon, because a dead rabbit was associated in the ancient Maya mind with the waning (or "dying") moon. The base of this pyramid probably dates to the 6th Century AD. The Temple of the Skull was built on top of the earlier base sometime in the 8th Century AD. A grave found in the earlier structure contained over 700 pieces of jade, a semi-precious stone highly valued by the Maya and typically worn by people of very high status. Although it is not one of the larger and more imposing temples at Palenque, the envelopment of the Temple of the Skull by the looming jungle was evocative of every "lost city" tale I can remember.
Temple of the Red Queen. It is believed by some that the remains of the woman found in this tomb belong to Sak K'uk, mother of Pakal. Under Palenque dynastic custom, women could only rule when there was no male heir. Sak K'uk's husband, Muwaan Mat, died before his young son was old enough to rule, and so Sak K'uk ruled for 3 years until K'inich Janab, known as Pakal or Sun Shield, became 12 years old. In the administrative and ceremonial center called the Palace, seen in Part 1 of this series, a bas relief wall carving shows Sak K'uk presenting Pakal with an elaborate head dress, apparently at his coronation. He seems to have revered his mother, and may have built this tomb for her next to his own. Whatever the real identity of the tomb's occupant, she was an extremely important person to have such a monument. She was found covered by red cinnabar (hence the name), and dressed in fine jade jewelry. The bodies of a young woman and a child lay next to her crypt, apparently ritually killed so they could assist her in the afterlife. The tomb wasn't discovered until 1994, a demonstration that Palenque, of which only 10% has been fully excavated, has many more surprises in store.
Closeup of the lid of Pakal's sarcophagus. The lid is huge and thick and weighs several tons. The only way it could be opened was with automobile jacks, an inch at a time. The intricate carving shows a serene Pakal falling into the mouth of a monster who represents the underworld. The discovery of Pakal's crypt is at least equal in significance to that of Tut Ankh Amun ("King Tut") of Egypt. Until then, it wasn't clear whether the great ruler was real or simply a mythological figure.
Closeup of a Maya warrior on the side of the sarcophagus. Every detail of a carving such as this had deep religious and political meaning to the Maya, some of it known, much of it still a mystery.
Pakal's last resting place. Ruz Lhuillier slid the lid back, and Pakal was revealed inside, covered with a red powder and richly adorned with jade finery. Pakal's actual remains and the jewelry are now in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. In the background of the picture, a warrior god stands guard. One of these gods adorned each wall of the crypt.
Pakal's exquisite jade death mask and jewelry. The death mask is amazingly lifelike and detailed. The earrings with the long plugs were very much the fashion for important characters in Pakal's time. To read about a great Maya ruler from the ancient past is one thing, to view his remains and the objects he actually touched or wore is an entirely different experience. Photo from the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
Jade bracelets and rings adorned Pakal's wrists and fingers. In the palms of Pakal's hands Ruz Lhuillier found strange circular and rectangular objects with a mysterious religious significance. Photo from the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
Temple of the Foliated Cross. Pakal's oldest son, K'inich K'an Bahlam II, launched his own building program. After completing his father's tomb, K'an Bahlam (sometimes called Chan Balam) began work on another group of tomb/temples. These are called the Cross Group by modern archaeologists. The Cross Group surrounds a plaza atop a small plateau just above and to the east of the great plaza where the Temple of the Inscriptions and the Palace are located. Unlike some other Meso-American cities like Teotihuacan, Maya cities were never built in a grid pattern. Palenque has an organic appearance, being molded into the existing terrain in a way that is very pleasing to the eye.
Temple of the Sun. Directly facing the Temple of the Foliated Cross is the Temple of the Sun, with the best preserved roof comb of any structure in Palenque. Roof combs were a unique aspect of Maya architecture. The purpose of a roof comb is not entirely clear, but it contained political and religious symbolism. K'an Bahlam appears as a young man in this temple's bas reliefs. He is accompanied by an older adult figure, which may represent his father Pakal the Great, or himself as an adult. Between the young man and the older one is a shield with the face of a jaguar sun, representing the god of war and of the underworld. This temple commemorates K'an Bahlam's accession as Ajaw of Palenque in 684 AD.
The Temple of the Cross, the largest of the Cross Group. While the Temple of the Foliated Cross shows K'an Bahlam as a boy and is associated with maize and agriculture, and the Temple of the Sun shows him as a young man and is associated with war and the underworld, the Temple of the Cross represents K'an Bahlam as an older man and associates him with the deity Chaak.
Closeup of the Temple of the Cross and its roof comb. The Temple of the Cross is the largest of the Cross Group and the third largest structure in Palenque, after the Temple of the Inscriptions and the Palace. From the top, one can view most of the major structures in Palenque and the broad plains of the Usumacinta River Valley stretching out to the north. Inside the temple is a sanctuary tablet showing K'an Bahlam facing his father Pakal, separated by the cross representing the Ceiba Tree of Life. The existence of the cross as a central symbol in Maya mythology made it somewhat easier for Spanish priests to make the connection to the Christian cross, and indoctrinate the Maya into Catholicism.
The monster-god Chaak, inside the Temple of the Cross. This was the ruling deity of the temple. It is somewhat worn, but retains its wide-eyed and rather fearsome aspect. By associating themselves closely with Maya gods, the Ajaws tried to appear divine themselves and thus justify their rule.
The Ball Court. The Ball Court and the games played here were important not only in the Maya culture, but throughout Meso-America from the earliest days of the Olmecs through the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish Conquest. The Ball Court was associated with the god of maize and the underworld. The games themselves were re-enactments of the victory of the Maya Hero Twins over the gods of the underworld, and the freeing of the god of maize who came to the surface and gave the Maya the gift of corn. This court is the only one in Palenque and is one of the oldest in the Maya world. It appeared unusually narrow until I realized that the low platforms on either side of the narrow lane in the middle were part of the playing field too. No one knows for sure what the rules were. Human sacrifice appears to have played a role. It may have been the captain of the losing side, or maybe his whole team, who became the victims for the sharp obsidian knives of the temple priests.
The Count's Temple. This temple became the temporary home for the self-described "Count" Jean-Frédéric Waldeck. He was a man who "never let the truth get in the way of a good story." He claimed at various times to have been born in Paris, Prague, or Vienna, to be German, Austrian, or English, and to hold the title of Count, Duke, or Baron. Between 1834-36, he visited Palenque and made numerous drawings. Many of these were published in a book in 1838. Some of his drawings made Maya sites look Egyptian. To please other backers, he propounded the ideas that the ruins were from the Lost Tribes of Israel, or were actually Atlantis. It just depended upon who was paying him. Later archaeologists discovered three tombs in the temple, with jade offerings.
The North Group Temples. The Count's Temple forms one end of a plaza surrounded by the North Group of Temples. This group sits at the edge of a plateau, to the north of the Palace, with the Ball Court in between. These structures are significant because some parts of them date back as early as 325 AD, with the latest additions occurring between 625 and 700 AD, the period of Pakal and this sons. They are also unusual because a large number of domestic household materials were found in them, including manos and metates for grinding maize, obsidian blades, and a furnace. Apparently people lived here during the first half of the 8th Century, again during Pakal's time. The palapa (palm frond) shelter covers a recently discovered stucco sculpture.
A wide-eyed monster-god peers out from the past. There was no sign with information about this stucco sculpture, found at the base of the North Group of Temples. I have been unable to find any further information on it, but it was certainly striking. The left hand of the monster-god appears to be holding a torch. This was my last picture of the Palenque ruins, as we hurried to the bus.
Modern link to a distant past. This Maya woman waited patiently for customers among the throngs unloading off tour buses in the Palenque ruins parking lot. The Maya people have endured unbelievable suffering and social disruption since the Spanish first landed on the Yucatan Peninsula in 1517. Still, they have maintained their culture and language in the face of it all. Recently, archaeologists have been teaching them to read the ancient hieroglyphs so they can re-discover their history.