The Temple of the Inscriptions houses the tomb of Palenque's greatest ruler

Temple of the Inscriptions

"The nine-level Temple of the Inscriptions stands just south of the Palace. Set directly into the hill behind, it is highlighted and framed by the landscape.

After discovering that the floor slabs of the chamber could be moved to reveal interior constructions, the Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz cleared the staircase and in 1952 found the extraordinary tomb at the base of the pyramid, set on an axis, north-south, with the stairs.

Within, a large corbeled chamber held the uterus-shaped sarcophagus of the great king Pacal, whose remains lay covered with jade and cinnabar. The sarcophagus lid shows the king at the moment of death, falling in rapture into the maws of the underworld. The sides of the sarcophagus display Pacal's ancestors, emerging from the ground, while nine stucco attendants flank the walls.

The construction was designed for eternity: even the cross-tiers were made of stone (the only examples known) and a small stone tube, or 'psychoduct,' as it is called, connects the tomb to the upper level and thence to fresh air. The Temple of the Inscriptions in unique among all Mesoamerican pyramids in having been built before the ruler's death, probably to his specifications."

Mary Ellen Miller, The Art of Mesoamerica form Olmec to Aztec, p. 128-9.

NOTE: In Maya mythology, there were nine levels of the underworld, which correspond to the nine levels of the temple.

The discovery of Pakal's sarcophagus by Alberto Ruz

Pakal's Sarcophagus

"When Ruz stepped through the open door [of the tomb] for the first time, he saw a huge limestone block running south to north that filled the vaulted chamber. Calcium deposits reflected the light in a magical way that is evident even in black-and-white photographs taken on that day.

Ruz stood on the threshold of a unique and unparalled example of Maya art. In terms of pottery or jade, richer tombs have since been found, but nothing to equal the sarcophagus in size or imagery is known in all the Americas. Relief carvings adorn the top and edges of the lid, the sides of the sarcophagus, and the blocks on which it stands.

Together the images and text give us the most detailed and elegant exposition on Maya concepts of death, resurrection, and the afterlife."

Linda Schele & Peter Mathews, The Code of Kings, p. 109

The sarcophagus dramatizes the moment Pacal enters the "White Road"

The lid of Pakal's Sarcophagus

"A great tree emerges from the bowl of sacrifice and rises behind the body of the dying king...Today we know [the tree] represents the Milky Way as it stretches across the sky from the southern horizon to the north.

The White-Bone-Snake at the base of this image represents the hole in the southern horizon that is the passageway of souls and ancestors who have been reborn. The Maya name for the Milky Way was Sak Beh, the "White Road" of death.

Hanab-Pakal's impossibly awkward position declares that this is the moment of greatest transformation in his life. His upturned loincloth and akinbo jewelry rise as he falls into the maw of the White-Bone-Snake. As he falls, he travels down the tree that had its analog as the Milky Way, or Sak Beh.

The verb describing the event of death reads och beh, "he entered the road." Death is a journey down the Milky Way tree-road into the Otherworld. "

Linda Schele & Peter Mathews, The Code of Kings, p. 113

Pakal's ancestors on the coffin are depicted as plants sprouting from the earth

Portrait of Lady Kanal-Ikal from side of Pakal's sarcophagus

Pakal's Grandmother, Lady Kanal-Ikal, from ancestor portrait on the side of his sarcophagus and identified from Linda Schele's drawings of those ancestor portraits.

Linda Schele &Peter Mathews, The Code of Kings, p. 121

Lady Kanal-Ikal [Pacal's great-grandmother] and Lady Zac-Kuk [Pacal's mother] were very unusual individuals in that they are the only women we can be sure ruled as true kings. They were neither consorts nor, as in the case of Lady Wac-Chanil-Ahau of Naranjo, regents for young heirs. Yet by their very status as rulers, they created serious dilemmas for the government of their kingdom. When the throne of Palenque descended through Kanal-Ikal to her children, it became the prerogative of a different lineage, for the Maya nobility reckoned family membership through their males.

Lady Kanal-Ikal and Lady Azc-Kuk were legitimate rulers because they were the children of kings and, as such, members of the current royal lineage. The offspring of their marriages, however, belonged to the father's lineage. Each time these women inherited the kingship and passed it on to their children, the throne automatically descended through another patriline. This kind of jump broke the link between lineage and dynasty in the succession."

Linda Schele " David Freidel, A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, p. 221

The temple piers were completed by Pakal's eldest son and heir, Chan Bahlam

Decorated Pilasters, Temple of the Inscriptions

Click on the white rectangles to for a close-up view of the piers

"We will never know what Pakal intended for the six piers of his temple, because his son, Kan-Balam, took this very public location to show the ritual in which he became the heir and proved his divine nature. His artists used the four inner piers to depict ancestors presenting the six-year-old heir from the front of the pyramid. The image confirmed Kan-Balam's divinity by showing the ax of K'awil penetrating his forehead and one of his legs transforming into a serpent. He is both the child heir (the ba ch'ok, or "first sprout," of the lineage) and the embodiment of the divinity personified in K'awil."

The piers of the temple show the presentation of Kan-Balam as heir to the throne by the founder of the lineage (pier b), his mother (pier c), his father (pier d), and his great-great-grandfather and namesake (pier e).

Schele & Mathews, The Code of Kings, p. 99-100.

Temple of the Inscription emerging from the encroaching Chiapas jungle in 1890-91

Maudslay's 1890-91 photo of the Temple of the Inscriptions taken from House D of the Palace complex

From the Maudslay Collection, British Museum. Used with permission under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 non-commercial license. ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

Alfred Maudslay visited Palenque in 1890-91 and expended massive effort to clear, photograph, copy inscriptions and make plaster casts of monuments. Even today, epigraphers still use his photos and casts to decipher eroded inscriptions.

The Temple rises on nine platforms representing the nine levels of the underworld

Palenque: Temple of the Inscriptions seen from the Palace

The massive temple is best appreciated when looking upward from its base

Palenque: Temple of the Inscriptions

In the marvelous video 50 Años del descubrimiento de la Tumba del Rey Pakal / 2009, archaeologists and workmen discuss the discovery of Pakal's tomb by Alberto Ruz in 1952. From INAH TV (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia de México).

Temple of the Inscriptions Pier B Temple of the Inscriptions Pier C Temple of the Inscriptions Pier D Temple of the Inscriptions Pier E