Discovery of a system of channels underneath the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque
Temple of the Inscriptions. Photo by INAH
The funerary goods with which Pakal “the great” was buried 1,333 years ago included a pair of ear ornaments. These bore a script which explained how the deceased would need to be immersed in the waters of the god Chaac, in order to be received by the god of the underworld. With the recent discovery of a system of channels which run under both the Temple of Inscriptions and the ruler’s funerary chamber, it seems that what appeared to be a metaphor may have a more complex explanation.
Revealing this noteworthy discovery at a press conference at the National Museum of Archaeology, Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz, archaeologist and director of archaeology at Palenque said that due to its closeness to the funerary chamber (1.7 metres under the edge of the north wall), this water system might be a symbolic representation of the twisting path that would lead Pakal to the waters of the underworld.
Anthropologist Diego Prieto and archaeologist Dr. Pedro Sanchez Nava of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) said that even though the Temple of Inscriptions and its funerary chamber have been studied by archaeologists since the middle of the twentieth century, the discovery of the subterranean channels shows that the study of the most evocative building at the Palenque site is now breaking new ground.
Arnoldo González said that the discovery changes the original interpretation of the funerary chamber made by Alberto Ruz Lhullier, the archaeologist who discovered it in 1952. Gonzalez added that the new evidence shows that the building had been centred on a pre-existing spring.
The complex network of canals at different levels and heading in different directions must have been designed long before it was envisaged that a pyramid would be erected on the site in the first decades of the seventh century. The spring, from which water still flows through the central channel to this day, was the starting point from which the rest of the building was conceived. Gonzalez added that the aim of this was to associate Pakal II, Lord of Palenque, with this water source.
For Gonzalez, there is no doubt that it was the Mayan king Pakal who realised this architectural plan, because it was during his reign (685 – 683 AD) when the Temple of Inscriptions was begun. The construction of this funerary monument was concluded by his son, B’ahlam, during a period that lasted from 683 to 702 AD in the kingdom of Lakamha’, that is, “Place of the Great Waters” – the original name for the Mayan city.
The INAH researcher who in 1994 discovered the sarcophagus of the Red Queen, explained that the discovery underneath the Temple of Inscriptions emerged by happy accident during conservation work on the building. This happened when a series of shafts were sunk into the base of the main facade of the structure, with the aim of finding the first step of its huge staircase.
This work revealed that the staircase had been constructed on the underlying bedrock. However, on widening the holes, it was observed that there was a channel in the central construction, and a series of filled spaces, nearly four metres wide. In the first of these, at the foot of the staircase, a number of large rocks had been set in clay, giving the appearance of a floor. On top of these was another level of thick stones, also set in place with clay. The third and fourth layers were similar to the previous ones; and under these was a channel.
The fact that these stones are levelled and carefully placed, extending below the first step of the temple, and also the fact that the width of the court coincides with the north wall of the funerary chamber is considered significant. Gonzalez notes that the channel is built of horizontal rows of cut stones and then filled in with clay. The water flows within it on a north-south axis, allowing it to drain the temple. In the south-eastern side of the building lies the opening of a second channel, 20 cm by 40 cm, which runs parallel but at a higher level (20 centimetres above). Its waters run into the main channel.
The exploration of the drainage system was made with video cameras adapted to be carried on small carriages, allowing them to enter several metres into the temple structure.
For the moment, the lack of a technology that would allow a more detailed investigation of the interior means that source of water for the system of channels is unknown. However, it is possible that water comes in from the north side of the building, where the set of buildings known as Group J are found, and that the water comes from the same source that contributes to the Bernasconi stream.
The Director of the Palenque Archaeological Project thinks that the design of the channels could have derived from a system to drain rainwater from the terraces that form Temple 24, which is located on the south of the Temple of Inscriptions.
However, the most likely explanation seems to be that which relates the existence of the channels to the spring on which Pakal’s tomb was constructed. This theory fits with other archaeological evidence, in particular the references in Mayan writing and iconography at Palenque and other sites, where the burial of dignitaries is associated with bodies of water.
For Gonzalez, these discoveries generate more questions than answers. He therefore hopes that exploration of the site can continue with other technologies such as geo-radar, which may confirm the existence of other channels, as well as their sources and bearings.
Translated by the UK Zapatista Translation Service