A Magical Place named Wide Waters

Posted: April 2, 2012 - 09:18 , by Elizabeth O'Grady

On a chilly February evening, Dr. David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin shared his enthusiasm for the Maya site of Palenque, and took the ROM audience to a very different time and place.

His lecture, entitled Palenque: The Art and History of an Ancient Maya Court, covered several centuries of discovery, starting with 18th-century explorers coming across some mysterious buildings in the jungle. Although the ruins, located in what is now Chiapas, Mexico, were known to local Maya, they weren’t always viewed as part of their culture, and the prevailing romanticizing European opinion was that these imposing structures might have been built by the Egyptians or the lost tribes of Israel.

Fast-forward to Stuart’s first excavation on this site, in 1978. He knew this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life: “Seeming to rise out of the jungle, Palenque is magical in its physical setting: you…hear the howler monkeys, and see the forest and mountains around. This is one of the greatest architectural sites of the world, and legendary in terms of the history of early exploration. Much decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphs has taken place here and [that has been] integrated with work on archaeology. ”

On the western edge of the Maya region, Palenque’s location made it a cultural crossroads. The city is set in a valley on a mountain ridge, which was important in planning the sacred and ritual architecture of the site. Excavation is ongoing and the audience was surprised to see the extent of Palenque: a map showed over 1,000 structures throughout the forest, many still unexcavated. The city was named Wide Waters because many of these were built among cascades.

The lion’s share of the attention, however, has gone to three significant structures: the Palace, the Temple of the Inscriptions and the Temples of the Cross Group. Ruler K’inich Pakal (603-682 CE) was responsible for much of Palenque’s spectacular architecture: the Palace was his courtly house and the Temple of the Inscriptions his funerary temple. Ascending to the throne at age 12, Pakal ruled for about 70 years and is considered the greatest king of Palenque.

Stuart detailed Alberto Ruz Lhuillier’s discovery of Pakal’s tomb below the Temple of the Inscriptions in 1952, one of the most significant finds of Maya archaeology. After two years digging down a staircase which had been covered for centuries, Ruz Lhuillier found a large sarcophagus, with many treasures and the remains of Pakal, buried with a spectacular jade funerary mask.

David Stuart also discussed the famous sarcophagus lid in the tomb. Using symbols such as jade, cacao and fruit trees, and with glyphs reading “Thus is created the burden of the maize god”, Pakal’s ancestors are portrayed as emerging from the earth, as the sustenance of humanity. Pakal is shown reclining; a current interpretation is that he is portrayed as the infant maize god coming out of the earth like the sun. This was a metaphor for resurrection, and it also built on his personality cult. Pakal became a revered ancestor, the focus of ritual and celebration. “If ever a city could be equated with one person, it is Palenque and Pakal.”

Listen to an audio recording of Dr. Stewart’s lecture, Palenque: The Art and History of an Ancient Maya Royal Court. The Maya Lecture Series was presented during the exhibition of Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World, closing April 9, 2012.

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