Way back in 1952, when Yuri Knorozov made his breakthrough discovery that the Mayan glyphs were mostly syllabic, not phonetic, most Mayan scholars failed to believe him. Michael Coe, David Kelly and Floyd Lounsbury were among the few exceptions. Since that time, thanks to those old-hand epigraphers and such relative newcomers as Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, steady progress has been made in deciphering the wealth of Mayan texts. Though these numerous inscriptions tell us nothing about what the common people were up to, we are now able to read and understand a little of the fascinating history of important rulers like Pacal, King of Palenque, and his lifelong struggle to prove his right to the throne.
K’inich Janaab’ Pacal was born on March 23, 603 CE, the son of Lord K’an Mo’Hix and Lady Sak K’uk’, the reigning Queen of Palenque. Because the royal family claimed the throne through the First Mother, affectionately known to scholars as Lady Beastie, theirs was one of the few pre-Colombian dynasties that allowed a woman to take the crown in default of a male heir. Even so, she was expected to step down the moment any son of hers reached maturity. Pacal, whose name means “Shield” in the Mayan tongue, was crowned king by his mother on July 29th, 615, shortly after his 12th birthday.
The passing of the crown from mother to son was not unknown. It had taken place not many years before when Pacal’s great-grandmother, Lady Kanal-Ikal was queen and her son, Ac-Kan succeeded her. Despite this precedent and the fact Pacal proved to be an unusually wise and capable ruler during his long reign, his right to rule at all was always in question. Since, in all other matters of inheritance the Palenque society property and titles passed only from the father to his heirs, other noble houses felt their claims to the throne to be more valid.
Apparently to refute such claims, Pacal and the son who reigned after him, K’inich Chan B’alam II, kept adding magnificent buildings to their capitol city. Every new temple and pyramid prominently displayed images of the Kings and glyphic texts proclaiming their Royal lineage. Most of the existing structures on view today date back to their combined reigns during the seventh century CE.
Chan B’alam II was responsible for the construction of the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Foliated Cross and the Temple of the Sun.
This trio of lovely buildings crowns the slopes overlooking the Palace Complex. Pacal himself commissioned the building of such major works as the Temple of Olvidado, the Temple of the Count the Royal Palace.
This huge complex has many surprising architectural innovations. The roofs were mansard-type, with overhanging eaves to protect the outer walls which were studded with bas beliefs of gods, kings, priests and important ceremonials. The numerous rooms with interior courts overlooked a four-story tower which probably served as both lookout and observatory. The most unusual feature was a long, corbelled vault through which an underground stream flowed assuring the occupants a constant supply of fresh water, an engineering feat of no mean caliber.
Pacal’s greatest architectural triumph, however, was the magnificent Temple of the Inscriptions. This, like the Great Pyramids of Egypt, was designed as the King’s last resting place. The tomb chamber lies below ground level and was completed, with the massive sarcophagus in place, before the towering temple structure was built over it. Everything was provided for, including a speaking tube leading to the upper temple through which the deified king could communicate with his priests and advise his people from the otherworld.
All was in readiness long before it was needed. Pacal lived long enough to see to the expansion of Palenque’s power over the western part of the Lowland Maya territory and preside over a veritable florescence of arts and engineering. Pacal the Great died on March 31st, 683 at the ripe old age of 80. He had ruled Palenque for 68 years.
Even his sarcophagus was designed to bear witness to Pacal’s right to rule. The flat, heavy lid of his sarcophagus shows the dead King falling toward the Xibalba. (Not an astronaut at the controls of a spaceship as Eric von Daniken’s book, Chariots of the Gods, proposes.) The sides and ends, however, are carved with a royal portrait gallery showing the kings and queens who had ruled before him. His mother and father are there. So are Lady Kanal- Ikal, her son Ac Kan and others from far back in time.
All this came as a surprise to 20th century scholars. An actual burial in a pre-Columbian monument was unheard of before 1948 when Mexican archaeologist, Alberto Ruz, raised a stone slab set in the floor of the temple to find a steep flight of steps with 18 inch risers leading precipitously down into the bowels of the pyramid. The passage had been sealed with tightly packed rubble throughout its narrow, twisting descent to the tomb chamber. Removing this fill took Ruz and his crew another four years.
It was not until 1952 that they cleared the elaborately decorated burial chamber and found Pacal the Great, together with the richest treasure in grave offerings ever found in Mesoamerica. The jade portrait mask that was still in place and the full suit of jade plaques connected with gold wire that still covered his ancient bones alone were worth a fortune.
There has been some debate as to whether the body found in the tomb is really Pacal’s. The wearing down of the skeleton’s teeth, they say, indicates a man half the age of the King at the time of his death. Several far-fetched reasons are offered to explain the anomaly–a mistake in dates, another king of the same name, etc.
The most logical explanation is that, having spent his entire life as either Crown Prince or King, he was not confined to the common man’s diet of gritty, stone-ground maize, stringy root vegetables and tough meats. Royal personages would certainly have always dined on the softest and most refined of foods. Perhaps it is more surprising that a person 80 years old and had any teeth left to be examined. At any rate, the majority of scholars agree that it was indeed Pacal who was found in Pacal’s tomb.
Considering the length of his reign, Pacal’s propaganda campaign can be considered an unqualified success. He also succeeded in making his name as permanent and unforgettable as his architecture.