Palenque Archaeological Site




Location: 8 km (5 mi) Southwest of Palenque town, Chiapas Map

Open: 8am- 6pm daily

Museum 9am- 4:45 Tue- Sun


Palenque Archaeological Site is an ancient city state situated 9 km (5-6 miles) from the village of Santo Domingo de Palenque in the Mexican State of Chiapas. You can get here from from Villahermosa via highway 186/199. It covers a total area of over 2 sq km or 1 sq mile. Palenque is a medium sized Mayan city, but it is one of the best preserved and mysterious.


History of Palenque or B'alam Archaeological Site

In the ancient times Palenque Archaeological Site was known as B'alam. It is hard to say when residents first settled the banks of Usumacinta river, but in the 4th and 3rd centuries the village turns into a municipality with a large population capable of erecting notable stone monuments. Most of the structures of  Palenque that you see today were build between 500 and 700 AD, although first settlement date back to the 300 BC. Few records that survived to our times indicate that Palenque was attacked by another Mayan city state of Calakmul and its allies between 599 and 611 AD. At the conclusion of the disastrous wars Palenque ajaw (Mayan ruler, king or monarch) began reconstruction of the ravaged city. One of the better known kings K'iinich Janaab' Pakal (Pacal the Great) started this process during his rule between 603 and 683. He was buried in the underground crypt underneath the Temple of Inscriptions, one of the more famous buildings on the site.


In the late 9th century the building ceased and the city fell in disrepair, so by the time Spaniards arrived to the site in 1520's most of the city was overgrown by the jungle. In 1567 Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada was the first man to describe this ancient city state. He was among few Europeans who visited the site. Spanish conquistadors also gave the ruins it modern name Palenque which means "fortification" or "wood stake fence", a rough translation of Mayan Otolum or "land of the strong houses". However in the time of its power and influence Palenque was called Lakam Ha or "Big water" after numerous springs that are found in the region. This was the capital B'aakal (the Bone) a mighty states that ruled southern Yucatan and despite exploration and digs has still a lot to uncover. The archaeological site was designated UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 due to its historic and artistic importance in the Pre- Columbian history of the New World.


Rulers of Palenque Archaeological Site

This is an incomplete list of ajaw or rulers of the city. Unfortunately some of the dates are approximate since records were largely destroyed by the Spanish. Another reason for difficulty in use of the records is difference in calendars that the ancient Mayans used. It is often hard to compare their complex calendar with the one we use today.


Snake Spine 967 BC- unknown

Ch'a Ruler I 252 BC- unknown  
K'uk' B'alam I 431- 435 AD K'uk B'alam I also known as Quetzal Jaguar was born on March 31st, 397. He is a mythical founder of the ruling dynasty in Palenque. He started ruling on March 11, 431. Upon his death in 435 AD he was probably buried in Temple XX.
"Casper" 435- 487 AD "Casper" was born on August 422. He was probably the son of Kuk Balam and his immediate successor. He ruled for 52 years, but he remains nameless to history. His strange name was given by a Mayan scientist Floyd Lounsbury who gave him its name since the hieroglyph of his name resembled a ghost.
B'utz Aj Sak Chiik 487- 501 AD Butz Aj Sak Chiik was born on 15th November and became a king at 28 and reigned until his death at 42 years old.
Ahkal Mo' Naab I 501- 524 AD Ahkal Mo' Naab I was born on July 5, 465 and became a ruler of Palenque at 36 years old. He was probably the youngest brother of king B'utz Aj Sak Chiik who died with no heirs left to take the throne. His biography is not very well known, but Pakal the Great for some reason considered him particularly important in the history of Palenque.
K'an Joy Chitam I 529- 565 AD K'an Joy Chitam I or "Tied Yellow Peccary" in Mayan was born on May 4 490 and became a monarch at 39 years old.
Ahkal Mo' Naab' II 565- 570 AD Ahkal Mo' Naab' II or "Turle Macaw Lake" was born on 3 September 523. He was probably older brother of Kan B'alam. The details of his life was written on the stone sarcophagus of Pakal the Great in the Temple of Inscriptions as well as the Temple of the Cross constructed almost a century later.
Kan B'alam I 572- 583 AD Kan B'alam ruled for a fairly long period of time, but he died with no surviving heirs to the throne.
Yohl Ik'nal 583- 604 AD (female ajaw) Yohl Ik'nal or "Heart of the Wind Place" in Mayan is one of the few female rules of Palenque. She ruled from December 21, 583 to her death on November 7, 604. She was the direct descendant of K'uk B'alam I, founder of the dynasty. The only reason why became a queen is due to a fact that Kan B'alam died leaving no sons to take over.
Aj Ne' Yohl Mat 605- 612 AD Aj Ne Yohl Mat was a king of Palenque who ruled during most unfortunate years of its history. Neighbour city of Calakmul with their allies invaded the kingdom and ravaged surrounding lands.
Janaab' Pakal 612 AD Janaab Pakal ("the shield" in Mayan) ruled for a very brief time. Some indentify him as a father of Aj Ne Yohl Mat, but it is unclear of his relationship to this ajaw.
Sak K'uk 612- 615 AD (female ajaw) Sak K'uk was a female ruler of Palenque and mother of Pakal the Great. She became a queen of Palenque after her father Janaab Pakal died after a brief rule. She took the throne after her father Janaab Pakal. Her mother K'inich Janaab' Pakal or "Heart of the Wind Place" died earlier. It seems that she reigned only briefly as a regent for her son. However even after Pakal took power in the kingdom Sak Kuk still yielded great influence and power over political matters in the city. She died on 12 September 640.

K'inich Janaab Pakal (Pakal the Great) 615- 683 AD

K'inich Janaab Pakal or Pakal the Great was the greatest ruler of Palenque. He was also the longest ruling king having reigned for 68 years. He was born in March 603 and ascended to the throne at 12. He is responsible for large building projects in the city including erection of Temple of Inscriptions that also served as his mausoleum.

K'inich Kan B'alam II 684- 702 AD

K'inich Kan B'alam II was born on May 23 635 and ascended to the throne at 49 years old. However he had no surving heirs and upon his death on February 20, 702 his younger brother K'inich K'an Joy Chitam II took charge of the city. K'inich Kan B'alam II continued construction project that was started by his father Pakal the Great. One of the more notable structures constructed in Palenque at the time is the Temple of the Cross.

K'inich K'an Joy Chitam II 702- 722 AD

K'inich K'an Joy Chitam II was younger brother of K'inich Kan B'alam II and son of K'inich Janaab Pakal (Pakal the Great). He was born on November 6, 644 and become ajaw of Palenque at 57 years old. He probably suffered military defeat by the Tonina  in 711. Although we don't know of his fate it is more likely that Tonina leader K'inich B'aaknal Chaak murdered old king or sacrificed him to one of many Mayan gods.

K'inich Ahkal Mo' Naab' III 722- 741 AD

K'inich Ahkal Mo' Naab' III was the son of Tiwol Chan Mat and lady Kinuw. He was also the great son of K'inich Janaab Pakal (Pakal the Great). He continued construction projects of his famous ancestor by construction of Temple XIX and possibly Temple XVI, Temple XVIII, Temple XXI and Group IV.

Upakal K'inich Janab Pakal uknown-764 AD

Upakal K'inich Janab Pakal or the Shield of the Sun God is a ruler of Palenque. Little is known about his life. The city it seems went into a decline around this period.

K'inich Kan Bahlam 651 AD


K'inich K'uk Bahlam II 764 AD- 783 AD

K'inich K'uk Bahlam or "Quetzal Radiant Jaguar" was a son of K'inich Ahkal Mo' Naab' III. His rule is marked by a significant decline in economy of the city as well as a decline in population.

Kimi Janab Pakal 799 AD- unknown

K'inich Ahkal Mo' Naab' III is the last known ruler of Palenque. It is possible that the final collapse of the city state occured around this time period.

The Temple of Inscriptions (Palenque Archaeological Site)

Palenque Temple of Inscription schematic cutThe Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque was constructed around 675. It measures 60 meters by 42.5 meters with a total height of 27.2 meters. It was used for religious ceremonies and burial of one of the most powerful rules or ajaw of the city. He was known as K'inich Janaab' Pakal or simply Pakal also Pacal (the Shield in Mayan) the Great and reigned for almost 70 years from 615 to 683 AD. The name of the structure comes from hieroglyphic texts that are inscribed on Inscription Tablets on the six piers of the building. These piers are named from A to F and suppose to represent about history of the city and its significant events.


Pakal the Great of Palenque

The Temple of Inscriptions protected a burial site of one of Palenque's rulers, Pakal the Great. In 1952 Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, a Mexican archaeologist, came to Palenque and started exploration of the city. In the Temple of Inscriptions he noticed a strange slab that seemed to cover an entrance at the top of the pyramid. After cleaning tons of dirt archaeologists descended and found a crypt with sarcophagus containing the body with his worldly possessions. Five skeletons of his servants, both women and men, were found at the feet of their dead ruler. They were supposed to follow their master to the Xibalba ("place of fear"), a Mayan version of the underworld or hell. Skull of Pakal was covered by a jade death mask. Its eyes are covered by shells, pearls and obsidian. The body of the king wore rings, jewelry and other items.

"Astronaut" of Palenque

Mercury Space programThe sarcophagus of was covered by a huge slab that depicts a man (presumably Pakal the Great himself) ascending to heaven from the jaws of the underworld represented as flames on the bottom of the slab. The cross figure is a representation of the World Tree that according to a Mayan mythology stands in the middle of the known World.


Several theories arose on the nature of the depiction. Some suggested it was a religious metaphor for after life, while others claimed it could very well be influenced by ancient machines that the local tribes saw in the past. Some archaeologists speculated that the legend of Kukulkan also known as Cucumatz (some Mayan tribes), Quetzalcoatl (aztecs), Viracocha (incas), Bochica (Chibcha) in the New World describes actual people who were technologically very advanced and inspired Mayan artists with advanced technology. All these heroes seemed to possess the same technology and the same description throughout the continent, but their actions, behavior on Earth are strikingly different. This allowed some scientists to speculate that in fact the legends don't have the same source. They are merely describing the same group of people. This somewhat controversial, but it is not an impossible version. One can easily find many similarities between an astronaut in a Mercury space module from the 20th century and the man ("The astronaut" or "spaceman") depicted on a stone slab.

  Palenque mysterious astranaut from the Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque

Temple XIII (Palenque Archaeological Site)

Temple XIII is a small religious building that is situated near the Temple of the Inscriptions. Locally it is known as a Tumba de la Reina Roja" or Tomb of the Red Queen after a royal burial of a Palenque queen inside. Her burial crypt was discovered in 1994. Her body and the inside of the coffin was covered in red after treatment with cinnabar. Her body was wore a malachite mask and over 1000 pieces of jade. Some suggested that the position of this temple and time period indicated that the Red Queen was actually wife of Pakal buried in the Temple of the Inscriptions next door.


The Palace (Palenque Archaeological Site)

The Palace of Palenque (El Palacio in Spanish) sits in the center of the archaeological site. It was the political and bureaucratic center of the city state. It consists of several buildings that were constructed over a course of four centuries between 5th and 9th centuries and form a rectangular complex. It is most recognizable by the four story Observation Tower that sits in the center. It was constructed in the 8th century by the orders of king Ahkal Mo' Nahb III. Its walls are still covered by preserved stucco reliefs. Unfortunately it is closed to the public for safety concerns. Archaeologists believed it didn't serve any military purposes, but instead was used so that the royalty or religious heads of the city could observe the time when the sun directly fell on the Temple of the Inscriptions during the winter solstice. The inner rooms and passageways inside the buildings are extremely narrow. The Mayans never developed the so called Roman Arch that effectively expanded the closed space. Instead they constructed v- shaped roofs that allowed only narrow long spaces to be constructed. It is visible in Palenque as well as other regions around the Yucatan peninsula. Their buildings were somewhat gloomy, but extremely durable despite encroach of the jungle and centuries of abandonment. In the southern part of the Palace you can descend into massive subterranean sweat baths that were used by the Mayans to cleanse themselves before performing religious rituals. Additionally they were several bathrooms here.


The Palace Observation Tower (Palenque Archaeological Site)


Ball Court (Palenque Archaeological Site)

The Ball Court of Palenque is not very impressive comparing to other similar structures in the Mayan World, but it is nevertheless worth a visit. It was here where people played for the "honor" to be sacrificed to the gods of the Mayan Pantheon of gods.

Temple of the Sun and Temple XIV (Palenque Archaeological Site)


Temple of the Cross (Palenque Archaeological Site)

The Temple of the Cross is the largest pyramid in the ancient city state. It is also a part of the group that also contains the Temple of the Foliated Cross and the Temple of the Sun. It is situated in the South- East corner of the archaeological site. It was constructed in 684- 702 AD and intended to commemorate rule of Chan Bahlum II who took throne after Pakal the Great. This huge monument contains hieroglyphs that describe history of the king's family. The temple was named after a cross that is a common motif found in the bas reliefs. The cross is common representation of the World Tree that is supposedly grew in the center of the World.

The Temple of the Skull (Templo de La Calavera) (Palenque Archaeological Site)


The Temple of the Skull got its name after a depiction of the skull on one of its pillars.

Temple of the Count (Palenque Archaeological Site)


Temple of the Count is another smaller temple of the city. It got its name from a Frenchman Jean-Frédéric Waldeck who claimed to be a count. He became famous for traveling around Mexico and drawing ancient ruins. He chose this temple as his temporary home in the middle of the 19th century and hence the name appeared.