Clues to Maya Mysteries


On a muggy morning in March, researchers at this archeological park in southeastern Mexico were startled when a vertical layer of dirt, freed by the slash of a knife, fell away from damp stone. As it fell, it revealed the intricate inscriptions and sculptures of a massive throne that is expected to yield a trove of information about a period of Maya history that has remained surprisingly mysterious.

“It was an accident,” said Alfonso Morales of the University of Texas at Austin, who along with Arnoldo Gonzales Cruz of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City is co-leader of the expedition.

But it was an accident with such historic implications that Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo showed up at Palenque two weeks ago to announce the discovery of the throne and a vaulted funeral chamber that researchers have not yet been able to enter. “Apart from their enormous historical value . . . we can also see that these pieces have extraordinary artistic value,” Zedillo said to the assembled media.

The new discoveries date from the middle of the 8th century, a period when Palenque was one of the most powerful cities in a Maya empire that stretched from what is now Chiapas to southern Honduras and spanned the 4th to the 9th centuries.


Paradoxically, despite Palenque’s power and the Maya empire’s creation of the only written language in the Americas before Columbus, the powerful city left few written accounts.

The estimated 200 hieroglyphics and nine sculptured portraits on the newly discovered throne “provide the only record we have” of the time, said Gonzales Cruz.

Palenque is one of the most popular tourist destinations in southern Mexico. Despite a continuing tug of war between insurgents and the government, 350,000 visitors from around the world visit the national park here each year. The massive pyramids of Palenque are set against a backdrop of the Lacandon rain forest, and from the tops of the pyramids, visitors have a majestic view over the plains of Tabasco to the Gulf of Mexico.

Although tourists are welcome, foreign archeologists have not been warmly greeted for several decades--at least in part because many of their best finds were carted off to foreign museums. The current excavations at Palenque are a “pilot project,” Morales said, to determine how well foreign archeologists can work with their Mexican counterparts to preserve the finds locally.

“We’re working as a group,” he added. “No one can say, ‘This is my throne, that is my temple.’ ”


And despite the millions of tourists who have visited it, Palenque has many secrets still concealed. Part of the ongoing project, for example, is simply to put together the first accurate map of the city’s stone buildings and artifacts. The group has also, for the first time, brought in the modern technology of ground-penetrating radar to seek out still-buried remains.

It was the use of radar that led archeologists to the newly discovered funeral vault.


But the throne--the crown jewel of this season’s discoveries--was simply stumbled across when workers were excavating one side of a large room in a building known as Temple XIX. Constructed of slabs of vermillion-painted limestone, the throne is more than 9 feet wide, nearly 5 feet deep and 2 feet tall.

One side shows three human figures connected by a twisted cord of some kind, said Julia C. Miller of the University of Pennsylvania. The inscription has been dated to AD 736 and mentions several rulers of Palenque dating back to AD 561. The central figure may be Akul Ahnab III, the Palenque ruler who built the temple and several others nearby.

Another side is also decorated with at least six figures, and perhaps a seventh that has not yet been uncovered. The intricate text, indicating cycles of the moon and Mars and several eclipses, suggests that Akul Ahnab III began his rule on the same day (March 10) on which the first Maya god, called G-1, came into being in 3309 BC.

“In Palenque, when a leader had a problem in legitimacy, he either established a link with the gods or with former rulers,” Morales said. In this case, he forged a link all the way back to the first god.


On the floor of Temple XIX is another limestone slab about 12 feet long, revealing the head of an apparently important person. It has not been completely uncovered.

The funeral vault is in a nearby building known as Temple XX. Alerted by the radar images, the team removed a block from its northern wall, leaving a 5-inch-square opening through which they could insert a digital camera.

Photographs showed that the stuccoed walls are covered with murals in several shades of red paint. Some of the stucco has fallen off, so the images are incomplete, but there are at least three figures on both the east and west walls, and something on the north wall as well, Miller said. Eleven ceramic vessels and a number of jade beads are visible on the floor, but no traces of bones.

The team is attempting to excavate the still-buried door to the vault.


As other hieroglyphics emerge, the scientists hope to learn more about a turbulent period in Maya history. Although power in Palenque normally passed from father to son, one of Ahnab’s immediate predecessors was captured and killed in a war with a nearby community.

Ahnab, the son of a scribe who served in the court of Pakal, was the vainglorious leader who ruled Palenque at its zenith. Ascending to the throne in AD 721 when he was already 43, he clearly invoked the linkage to G-1 to establish his legitimacy.

The extensive building program of his reign may have coincided with the beginning of Palenque’s downhill slide. Only a few decades later, the city was abandoned.

Researchers have many theories to account for the city’s fall, ranging from destruction of the nearby forests to sharp shifts in climate. They hope the new discoveries will provide crucial hints about events leading to that abandonment.


But on that hot, sticky March morning, with sweat and dirt clinging to his arms, Morales was concerned with more practical problems. “What troubles we’ll now have” protecting the discoveries, which will go to local museums or remain on site, he said. “We have to advise, see to security problems, and see that its conservation is adequate.”

For more information, consult the team’s Web site at

Maugh reported from Los Angeles, Schwartz from Palenque.