January 19, 2019
Retirement has given me a fresh relationship with history. I find myself reviewing and reassessing the seminal events that make up how I see the world - the loss of icons such as Kennedy or MLK, the Challenger disaster or 9-11, and triumphs such as the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall or the election of America’s first black president. Living in México has taken all that to a whole new level. Travels have now taken me to fifteen archaeological sites in México. Each is interesting and unique, and offers insight to how people of another age saw themselves - another piece of the puzzle in understanding the past. But Palenque is really in a class by itself.
In 1952, the noted Mexican archaeologist Alberto Rus Lhullier, after two years removing the debris filling the stairways beneath the Temple of Inscriptions, opened the burial vault of K’inich Janab’ Pakal. It was one of the greatest finds of the twentieth century. Skeletons of five sacrificial victims stood watch at the entrance, presumably to assist the monarch in his transition from earth to Xibalba (shi-BAL-ba) the Maya afterlife. In a lavishly decorated chamber lay the sarcophagus of the eighty year old ruler beneath an elaborately carved stone slab. Over Pakal’s face was a stunning jade, shell and obsidian mask. (Images of the slab were later popularized by Erich von Däniken, who proposed that the images on the lid were of extra-terrestrial origin, an idea that has been rather soundly debunked, but which brought the sarcophagus to world-wide attention.) Though the tomb itself is now closed to the public, the relics from it are displayed in museums at this site and in México City.
The museum at Palenque is not terribly large, but the quality of the collection is indisputable. Besides a cleverly realized replica of the tomb of Pakal, there is a stunning collection of more than 300 items - incense burners, masks, jewelry, small statues, pottery, tools, and carvings, all retrieved from the archaeological site. The incense burners are most noteworthy, with their grotesque images of gods and monsters from Maya cosmology. One can imagine the sensual impact as the smoke arose from these grotesque vessels transmitting offerings of copal and blood.
(Carvings, incense burners and the jade mask of Pakal - at the site museum, Palenque)
The ruins outside are enormous, and extend well into the surrounding jungle. The sheer number of structures uncovered, their architectural sophistication - supporting massive roof combs that appear to have had purely aesthetic justification - and the extent of the carvings and artifacts incorporated, make Palenque a treasure trove of information about life in the Classic period of Maya culture.
The palace complex at Palenque is one of the most complete in the Maya world, and reveals the success and power of its rulers, who controlled as much as a third of the western Maya region in the modern states of Chiapas and Tabasco. The maze of courtyards, chambers, staircases, and verandas was heavily decorated with reliefs, sculptures and paintings. It becomes clear, from the dimensions of interior space, that life for the inhabitants was largely conducted outside. While verandas have large overhangs to protect both people and art from the tropical elements, interiors are small, dark, and pragmatic - primarily spaces for sleeping. Many of the chambers barely accommodate the large stone beds that remain in them. The courtyards, on the other hand, witnessed quotidian life, as well as civic and diplomatic events, some of which are commemorated in the encompassing glyphs.
The space known as the “Courtyard of the Slaves” is surrounded with carvings that represent conquest, and the attendant sacrifice of the conquered. It is clearly meant to intimidate visitors, and to buoy the bravado of residents! As at Bonampak, the conquerors are depicted as right-handed (masculine) and the vanquished are left-handed, seen as a feminine trait. The carvings here reinforce that torture and sacrifice were a routine part the Maya religious mindset, or at least a powerful tool for social control.
Across an aqueduct is the all-important ball court, almost ubiquitous in Maya cities. It was here that disputes were sometimes settled in a ritualistic and objectified manner. Nearby more temples, built on pyramidal bases, delineate large plazas. The most noteworthy includes the group of Temples of the Cross, the Sun, and the Foliated Cross, all with fine wall carvings depicting royalty or deities, and paired with extensive glyphic texts that identify names, dates and functions. Clearly these buildings were built by people who thought they had it all figured out, that their culture and their legacy would last forever.
But while the extensive glyphs and reliefs at Palenque give a fairly complete chronology of the royal lineage, they leave nagging questions about what daily life was like for the average person, the people who built all these splendid buildings, and who fought the wars to protect them, the people who lived in the thatched roof huts on the periphery. What was it really like to be surrounded by so much pomp and pretense while living an otherwise simple family life? This is what I ponder as I walk among the grounds and buildings.
(Above, left to right: Temple of the foliated cross / Temple of the Sun / Temple of the Cross)
While theories abound as to why and how Maya civilization collapsed, real answers are sparse. Historically, there are many examples of cultures that were conquered or assimilated, but that does not appear to have happened with the Maya, who displayed cultural adaptability throughout their existence, and survive as an identifiable entity to the present day. Climate change appears to have played a significant role, as well as physiological decline resulting from dietary deficiencies. This usually accompanies population growth and a shift to agriculture on a larger scale. Studies of skeletons from the period show a paucity of basic nutrients, particularly proteins - not a good sign in warring communities. There was also massive deforestation to provide for increasing populations and building needs, and we know that shortages invariably lead to internal conflict.
But what was the tipping point? By the end of the classic period around the tenth century, the bulk of activity was moving north into the Yucatán peninsula, and into newer cities such as Uxmal and Chichén Itzá. (How much more we might have known if Bishop Diego de Landa had not destroyed the irreplaceable corpus of ancient Maya codices at Izamal in July of 1562!)
Were the people just tired of unending war, or a bureaucratic, demanding and disproportionately acquisitive upper class? What prompted them to retire into the countryside and return to tribal community practices? Religious practices were not entirely abandoned, and Maya people continued to revere and invoke the ancient gods, even after they nominally accepted Christianity post-conquest. But leaving their grand cities behind, social structures and food production returned to a more sustainable equilibrium. As I look around, I wonder what lessons lie in wait here that we might apply in understanding our own society.