The Spanish military conquest in the vast basin of the Grijalva-Usumacinta system differs from other regions of ancient Mexico. Although as much or more fierce than those of other lands, the indigenous people of the main concentrations succumbed in the confrontations, but the tropical forest, the jungle and the intricate river network prevented the frank advance of the Spanish troops and their presence only managed to disperse the towns. natives. After the conquest, this dispersion was also an obstacle to evangelizing work, a task that in the middle of the XNUMXth century was led by Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, first bishop of Chiapas.
One of Father Las Casas' concerns was to rescue, as he saw it, the small communities that lived in wild places and without any support, including the spiritual one. He thought that if he gathered them in towns that enjoyed the protection of the Church and the Crown, he would fulfill the dual purpose of evangelizing them and keeping them safe from encomenderos.
Fray Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada, integrator of Indian towns, founded Santo Domingo del Palenque in 1567, with Choles families from the region. The Dominican made arrangements before the bishopric and then traveled to Spain to ratify the foundation of that town and others. That a town founded by a Dominican was called Santo Domingo, there is nothing unusual, but it is striking that "del Palenque" added
Fray Pedro once mentioned to Father Las Casas that, not far from the place designated to erect the new settlement, were what he called “beautiful ruins”, on the banks of the Otolum stream. In the Chol language, otolum means fenced or walled place; in Spanish, palenque, if it were a palisade. It is the only reference that can explain the name of the town and its relationship with the neighboring archaeological site, whose original name is unknown.
In 1573 it was recognized as a people attached to the General Captaincy of Guatemala, established in 1570 as part of the viceroyalty of New Spain. To celebrate it, Fray Pedro brought from Spain three bells for the Santo Domingo church. One of them is preserved, the only evidence of those events of the XNUMXth century.
Palenque became a city in 1972, as the municipal seat. It is an important cattle ranch in the region and also participates in the economic activity of Chiapas and Tabasco, as it is a tourist destination that is visited a lot every year.
The archaeological zone takes its name from the neighboring community founded in the late XNUMXth century: Santo Domingo de Palenque. The last meaning, also of Spanish origin, means "Lurch"Or"Palisade”, Which is a wooden fence that surrounds a site to protect it. It is possible that the indigenous people preserved in their memory the existence of defensive works in the abandoned pre-Hispanic city. On the other hand, the place name comes from the Chol language, referring to the Otulum stream which means "fortified houses”That crosses the archaeological zone. Other names have also been used to refer to the old settlement: Na Chán "city of snakes"Ghochan"head or capital of the snakes", Nacan, Ototiun"Stone house"And collide"sculpted snake", among others. The local inhabitants know him with the name of the Otolum stream, whose alternate meaning is “place of the fallen stones" Xhembobel-Moyos, the name of an immediate town, was at one time also used to designate the ruins.
The pre-Hispanic occupation began in the late Preclassic period, around the 300nd century BC, by groups whose provenance is unknown, but there is no doubt that, from the year 600, Palenque was a governing center of the area. In the hieroglyphic inscriptions, dates have been found that allow locating the main development of the city between the 750th and XNUMXth centuries, with a boom period between XNUMX and XNUMX AD, during the late Classic period. It is known that he was one of the main lordships of that time, like his contemporaries Toniná, in Chiapas; Calakmul, in Campeche; Pomoná and Comalcalco in Tabasco; Piedras Negras and Tikal, in Guatemala and Copán in Honduras. He had commercial and political relations with all of them. The emblem glyph of Palenque appears on stelae and other monuments in remote places, which denotes that it extended its influence to a vast region. That emblem glyph is known as Baak (Bone).
There are registers of rulers from the year 431 to 799; from the XNUMXth century on, information became scarce until it disappeared, as in all Mayan cities that fell into decline at the end of the Classic period. The city was not destroyed by its original inhabitants. There are no traces of fighting or fires. It is thought that its unemployment was gradual and, with the passage of time, it became one of so many places that later settlers found in the middle of the jungle and turned into sacred spaces or new settlements.
It can be said that Palenque was already an archaeological site 600 years before the arrival of the Europeans. Consequently, talking about your discoverers requires some discipline. The mention of Fray Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada to Father Las Casas in 1567 cannot be considered an archaeological discovery. Neither did the visit of Father Antonio Solís in 1740. There are sources that attribute the discovery to Fray Ramón Ordóñez y Aguilar, canon of Ciudad Real (San Cristóbal), because in a report he gave in 1773 to the president of the Royal Audience of Guatemala, he mentioned that he had visited the ruins and described them, which would constitute the first documents. However, the first to explore the site and its structures was the Spanish captain Antonio del Río, commissioned in 1786 by the president of the Royal Audience of Guatemala, to whom he reported in 1787.
For almost 900 years, the jungle invaded the abandoned city. Archaeological work of more than two centuries has slightly displaced the jungle to expose buildings as exploration and restoration progress. INAH archaeological projects, from the middle of the XNUMXth century to the present, preserve the natural environment of the sites as much as possible and only displace what is essential, but this does not mean, in the case of Palenque, that in its splendor city was, like today, in a small clearing in the forest. It was actually a large clearing and the forest was far away. There were no trees bordering temples or urban landscapes, nor was there at that time the concept of garden or plant ornamentation. Its large stuccoed platforms delineated the space of a marvelous city.
To build such a large city volumes of materials. They obtained limestone from two of their own deposits and turned it into lime, and later, with it and sand, made mortar. Huge amounts of lime, which also required gigantic amounts of wood, without adding that firewood was the only source of energy for all purposes. If the practice of slash and burn for agriculture is added, it will be understood that the forest was far from covering the city.
In the current state of restoration, the impressive architectural ensemble reveals, here and there, discreetly, remains of materials that allow us to imagine what the real appearance was like in its time of splendor.
In the XNUMXth century, all the buildings in the town center had stucco flats, let's say oyster white. The edges of the pyramidal bodies, the faces of the smooth alfardas and other elements of the structures were painted with red, cinnabar or hematite; on other alfardas and numerous pilasters there were reliefs modeled in stucco and painted in great detail with orange, yellow, green and blue pigments, in addition to red. There are traces of those materials.
They also had high ridges, of which only remains remain, although some are visible in the Group of Crosses and in the Temple of the Skull. They were also stuccoed and decorated.
To further enjoy the tour, it is convenient to start with the Archaeological Museum and thus form a general idea of the ancient Mayan city and its inhabitants, and then, when looking closely at the buildings, appreciate the many details.
After the Archaeological Museum, a kilometer and a half away, is the entrance to the Palenque archaeological zone. On the first visit, use the entrance that leads to the main parking lot; there are other accesses, but this is the most secure.
As you walk from the parking lot to the east, a staircase leads to the platform of the Great Plaza. The first building, which corresponds to the northeast vertex, is Temple XI. The one that goes further, towards the east, is the whole of the Palace. To the south is a group formed by a platform with two structures, Temples XII and XIII; the first is that of the Skull, and the second is of the Red Queen. Immediately is the tallest building on the site, the Temple of Inscriptions.
Temples XII and XIII
These two structures and an intermediate one are on the same platform that hides older structures. The three buildings are supposed to have been higher and have higher temples, but only the one from the first building is preserved: Temple XII, which they call the Temple of the Skull because of a relief molded in stucco representing a skull.
Restoration work on the two temples was done in 1994.
Temple XIII is known as the Temple of the Red Queen because inside, inside a smooth sarcophagus, they found the skeletal remains of a woman and a large number of pieces in her funeral offering. It was the custom of the ancient Maya, at least in important burials, to cover the shrouded bodies with cinnabar powder and also the walls of the graves. In this case, the cinnabar completely impregnated the skeleton and adhered to the objects. For that apparent color, for the rich trousseau and for not yet being found in the Palenque inscriptions glyphs that make reference to the possible name of the character, they called her Red Lady. That of Reina was surely contribution of some report in the Mayan world there were no kings, in the European sense.
The skeleton corresponds to a woman of approximately 45 years of age. Outside the sarcophagus were the remains of two other people, probably sacrificed servants. The hierarchy is awarded for the location of his tomb in the urban core and above all for the wealth of the funeral offering; the trousseau consists of 1140 pieces of jadeite, malachite, shell, bone and pearls with which bracelets, bangles and ear muffs were made. After laboratory tests, the specialists concluded that some of these pieces corresponded to two masks, the largest of them facial, and another, small, must have been part of the belt.
Temple of the Inscriptions.
It is called so because, on two of the pilasters of the upper structure, and on three boards found in the bays of the sanctuary, they were found in those glyphic tables that constitute one of the main sources to know the history of the site in its boom. In the archaeological record it is Temple II.
The basement has nine bodies that form a rectangular pyramid structure. The height of these nine bodies reaches 21 meters; from there it displaces the upper temple, with approximately 6 meters more. Only remains of the crest are left, the height of which should have been approximately 3 meters.
The long staircase on the north face only shows a section of the alfardas that surely flanked it along its entire length. Those of the short stairway to the upper temple, which were perhaps painted, are preserved.
The upper enclosure has five entrances and seven pilasters. The two ends show glyphic cartridges, while in the central ones, deteriorated but still recognizable, human figures modeled in stucco are observed. At first glance it is difficult, but possible, to perceive the remains of paint. If there were wooden lintels, no evidence was found. When restoring the structure, for better consolidation of the building, concrete lintels were used.
In the report of his exploration in Palenque, Frans Blom mentioned that, in the rear bay of the temple, on the floor, he saw three slabs with stone plugs that probably sealed the access to the interior space of the basement. In 1952, while working at the sanctuary, archaeologist Ruz Lhuillier returned Blom's data and decided to remove the plugs from the slabs and lift them. In doing so, he found access to a staircase that led down to the core of the building. It was filled with carefully fixed mortar debris, proof that the builders did their best to prevent anyone from using the passage.
After removing the rubble, they descended 16 meters to the west of the basement, and then 5 meters further to the east. There they found the access to a crypt and, inside it, a monolithic sarcophagus supported by four legs, sealed with a stone plate and covered by a huge tombstone, also monolithic, whose reliefs showed, on the upper face, a human figure surrounded by a large number of symbolic elements and, in the four corners, glyphic cartridges. Since the end of the XNUMXth century, after the explorations of Maudslay and Thompson, there were archaeological antecedents of tombs of this type in Palenque, for example, in the Temple of the Cross and in Temple XXI, but not so elaborate. It was the grave of someone very important.
From the inscriptions on the tombstone, and those found on boards in other buildings in the city, the character of the crypt was identified according to the glyphs Solar Shield. On one of the songs on the tombstone a Mayan date corresponding to the year 683 was read, which was interpreted as that of the burial.
It was one of the most important archaeological finds of the XNUMXth century, in Chiapas, Mexico and the entire world. Of course, it attracted many archaeologists and epigraphers, in addition to numerous journalists.
Crypt and sarcophagus
Access to the crypt is restricted. Special permission is required to go down the steps and reach the point from which the sarcophagus can be seen. In the Archaeological Museum there is a replica in which everything is appreciated better than in the real enclosure; There is another in the National Museum of Anthropology, in Mexico City. The restriction is understandable because the staircase and the enclosure are small spaces, and the structure, in general, delicate. The orientation of the axes of the crypt is cardinal; not so those of the pyramidal basement that hides it, which are slightly turned towards the northeast.
On the interior walls there are remains of stucco reliefs representing nine richly dressed characters. They are said to be the Nine Lords of the Night. There are also remains of paintings representing cosmogonic elements. When the crypt was opened, these figures were badly damaged by leaks, which formed copious stalactites and stalagmites. The costumes of the characters correspond to those of high dignitaries, perhaps priests or divinities.
The sarcophagus is a hollow parallelopiped block, 3x2x1 meters, with four legs, all in one piece, carved and with traces of paint. The headers are oriented from south to north. The inner niche is roughly in the shape of a fish and was excavated to leave the walls about 25 centimeters thick. It was sealed by a stone plate, with the same shape, perfectly embedded. It was covered by a 3.8 x 2.30 x 0.25 meter stone tombstone, carved in bas-relief on its upper face and the four edges; in the latter is where the hieroglyphic inscriptions are found.
In both heads of the sarcophagus stone supports were found whose function must have been to allow the movement of the gigantic tombstone. Archaeologists made many considerations and tests before moving the tombstone and, above all, the stone seal. First they cut a hole in the side of the sarcophagus to get an idea of the content. After concluding that the risk of removing the seal was reasonable, they proceeded to move the large headstone and then remove the seal plate. Thus they found the extended skeleton (feet to the north) and a rich offering that included the fragments of a jadeite funeral mask that today, restored, is part of the collection of the National Museum of Anthropology.
Another piece known worldwide today is a male head, in stucco, which shows a complex hairstyle that gives the impression of being a plume. Some say it is a portrait of Pakal as a young man, but it is only a hypothesis. The piece was found under the sarcophagus, on the floor, along with a similar one, by a woman who also sports a complex hairstyle. They say she was Pakal's mother, but that has no support either. Archaeologists agree that both pieces must have once been part of the ornament of some façade or crest. The possible meaning of its placement, as an offering under the sarcophagus, is unknown.
Close the Great Plaza from the east. It has stairs on its four sides, but for the public only the one that opens onto the Great Plaza, the one on the north side (towards the Ball Court) and those on the south façade are open. Access through the Great Plaza is a few steps from the Temple of the Inscriptions and is recommended as access to start the tour.
The so-called Palace, in Palenque, although it had areas intended for residential use for people of high rank, is not a single building but a set of 15 or more structures on a raised platform that hides previous construction stages and also galleries that had functional purposes .
As an architectural complex, it is the richest and most important in Palenque. Undoubtedly, it had several construction stages and renovations over four centuries or less. The last ones are from the end of the XNUMXth century.
Group of Crosses
It is so named because in the scenes of boards found in three buildings a cruciform composition was observed, which is actually a stylized representation of a corn plant. Those three buildings, called Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Foliated Cross and Temple of the Sun, form a small square called Plaza del Sol. In fact the set includes a dozen or more buildings and extends to the south, but that sector is less explored.
Gastronomy that contains the secrets of the Mayans.
In Palenque we recommend you to taste the shote (river snail) with momo; As for traditional drinks, we find the sour atole, granillo, the sour pozol with chili, which we can consume from the comfort of home because there are merchants who go from house to house offering these drinks as well as a great variety of tamales. .
Some of the drinks and foods characteristic of the region that we recommend are:
White Pozol. Savor this traditional drink made with nixtamalized corn dough. It is taken without sugar with tastes of panela or piloncillo, with enchilado or peanut magician.
Coyol candy. Mellow and exquisite dessert made with the fruit of a palm, piloncillo and cinnamon. Try it and pamper your palate.
Shote in broth. Exquisite exotic dish of pre-Hispanic heritage, made with river snails and flavored with epazote, you have to try it!
Nucú. Exotic dish from Chiapas, easily crumbles on the palate. This insect has a pleasant scent in which the aroma of the earth where it sprouts is perceived, due to its texture it easily crumbles on the palate; Before eating, add a pinch of salt and a few drops of lemon.