The Unearthing of Palenque

In the 15th century, while exploring near the Usumacinta River, located in the modern Mexican state of Chiapas, Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada of Spain stumbled upon its magnificent stone temples and plazas. The grand structures were initially decorated with blue and red painted stucco but were long abandoned by the Maya. Lorenzo named them Palenque, a Spanish word for ‘fortification’. Today, 500 years later, Palenque is a modern fountainhead from which researchers have extracted some of the most detailed information about Maya culture.

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The Mayan ruins at Palenque_©

According to Michael D. Carrasco, an assistant professor of art history at Florida State University, the main point of interest about Palenque is not its age or size, as other sites are more prominent and likely much older. He says the importance lies in its naturalistic sculpture, architectural innovativeness, and detailed record of epigraphy. In consonance with the researchers, Palenque dates to the Early Classic period (A.D. 200-600), but the Classic period (A.D. 600-900) lends most of the knowledge about the city. As per reports, Palenque supported no more than 6,220 people at its peak. It wasn’t large in size like the cities of Calakmul and Tikal

The Rulers

With the help of Palenque’s wealth of Epigraphy and recorded history, archeologists built the first timeline of Mayan city rulers, which, while being impressive, is still fuzzy in places. Carrasco says that Palenque was ruled by a limited number of rulers- Pakal the Great (603-683), his son, K’inich Kan Bahlam (635-702), and K’inich Akul Mo’ Naab (678-736). This Trio of kings had commissioned lengthy glyphic texts, which researchers have utilized to decode the Maya script. 

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King Pakal_©

A Groundbreaking Discovery

In the early 1950s, Palenque made its way to international news, thanks to a groundbreaking discovery both literally and metaphorically, by Mexican archeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier. While excavating a deep-buried temple in the rainforest, he uncovered a stone slab from the floor to discover a secret staircase leading down into the heart of the pyramid. Ruz and his team meticulously cleared the passageway that opened into a vaulted chamber with a massive carved-stone sarcophagus. They found the remains of the greatest rulers of one of the ancient world’s greatest civilizations. This remarkable discovery of the intact tomb of the Mayan king Pakal is touted as the greatest archaeological find ever made in the Americas.

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Stone structures at Palenque_©

Architecture of the City

Unlike the Mayan tool-limestone construction, the Palenque builders used plaster to obtain a smooth finish but did carving on the interior walls. The best examples include the tablets affixed to the walls with plaster, stucco, and terracotta works. The palace complex has three parallel walls enclosing two corridors with Palenque-styled pointed vaults. The city’s ruins were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. There is evidence of farming at Palenque which dates back to 100 B.C., even before the Maya Classic period when the civilization flourished. Mayan scriptures recorded information in well-preserved glyphs affixed to their temples in stucco or carved in lintels. They chronicle a detailed history of Palenque’s golden age but a little about its downfall.

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Palenque builders used plaster in construction_©

The Temple of Inscriptions is one of the largest and best-preserved structures well-known for its remarkable hieroglyphic inscriptions. The Temple of Sun is prominent for the large stucco bas-relief of the exquisitely modeled throne with figures. The palace building has a huge central courtyard which had been used for political functions and entertainment during the peak of Palenque’s power. 

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Mayan Bas-relief inscripions_©

Palenque – Abandoned

Around the 9th century, after the ancient city of Palenque was destroyed and abandoned, the temples and palaces got covered by the surrounding thick jungle which largely protected the buildings and their elements from all kinds of robbery and thefts. Since the 18th century, Palenque has been the point of interest of numerous travelers, researchers, and explorers as it represents one of the most significant achievements of mankind on the American continent. The elegant construction craftsmanship along with the lightly sculpted bas-reliefs demonstrating Mayan mythology is evidence of the creative genius of the civilization.

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Palenque was abandoned in the 9th century_©

Most of what remains in the central area of Palenque is Pakal’s city. The administrative center of ancient Palenque is quite well-maintained, most important structures are restored and the surrounding area is cleared for visitors. With the establishment of the new airport, there’s a conspicuous sense of impetus in Palenque town: roads are repaved, the central square has been dug up and new public art has been erected as the town is getting ready to showcase an improved and new look for the expected influx of tourists. 

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Palenque has been a point of interest for numerous travellers_©
Palenque is now open for tourists_©

What ultimately knocked down the Maya? Archeologists can’t point to one singular reason, hypothesizing that Palenque probably got destroyed by a combination of deforestation, drought, overpopulation, and power disputes among the nobles. The last known inscription at Palenque was recorded on a vase carved on November 17, 799 and it records the name of a nobleman ‘Janab Pakal’, the city’s last ruler. His name honors the great king Pakal who reigned more than a century earlier. Even though Palenque was abandoned by A.D. 1000, the Maya, about 7 million descendants are still with us, living in Guatemala and Southern Mexico.



Ankita is an architect with a passion for writing. A Design enthusiast and a movie buff, she loves to travel, explore different cuisines and write fascinating stories related to art, architecture, and design. She is currently exploring the field of architectural writing and journalism with RTF.

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