Discovery of the Mayan Ruins at Palenque

Spanish colonial officials uncovered the spectacular Mayan ruins at Palenque, which had been abandoned in the tenth century. Historians first believed that the technical and artistic abilities of ancient European travelers had inspired and influenced the building of the complex by local peoples. However, the Mayan origins of the site were revealed after the ruins were found, and the origins themselves have been uncovered and celebrated by the Mexican indigenous movement of the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

Flourishing during the middle to late centuries of the first millennium, Mayan civilization left a commanding architectural legacy throughout southern Mexico and regions of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. Among the most awesome remnants Ruins;Mexico of this heritage was the complex of temples and a palace at Palenque Palenque ruins in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Shadowed and framed by tropical verdure, the buildings rose in stony splendor along mountain slopes arching up from the blue crescent of the Gulf of Mexico. The city, which occupied more than six hundred acres, had approximately two hundred buildings at its height. The original inhabitants referred to the locale as Houses of Stone or Big Water. [kw]Discovery of the Mayan Ruins at Palenque (1786)
[kw]Palenque, Discovery of the Mayan Ruins at (1786)
[kw]Ruins at Palenque, Discovery of the Mayan (1786)
[kw]Mayan Ruins at Palenque, Discovery of the (1786)
Archaeology;Palenque ruins
Mayan civilization
Palenque ruins
[g]Central America;1786: Discovery of the Mayan Ruins at Palenque[2650]
[g]Mexico;1786: Discovery of the Mayan Ruins at Palenque[2650]
[g]Guatemala;1786: Discovery of the Mayan Ruins at Palenque[2650]
[g]Belize;1786: Discovery of the Mayan Ruins at Palenque[2650]
[g]Honduras;1786: Discovery of the Mayan Ruins at Palenque[2650]
[g]El Salvador;1786: Discovery of the Mayan Ruins at Palenque[2650]
[c]Anthropology;1786: Discovery of the Mayan Ruins at Palenque[2650]
[c]Architecture;1786: Discovery of the Mayan Ruins at Palenque[2650]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;1786: Discovery of the Mayan Ruins at Palenque[2650]
Rio, Antonio del
Almendariz, Ricardo
Ordoñez y Aguiar, Ramón de
Charles III (1716-1788)

Dominating the western region of Mayan territory, the later rulers of Palenque, the principal one being Lord Pacal, documented their lineage and accomplishments through elaborate inscriptions Hieroglyphics;Mayan carved on temple walls, the primary texts of Mayan history. The buildings at Palenque reflected the cumulative refinement of Mayan architectural Architecture;Mayan and sculptural Sculpture, Mayan
Art;Mayan skills, the elegance of arched mansards, and the richness of layers of detailed carving. The city peaked during the seventh and eighth centuries, then collapsed precipitously in the early ninth century. As the forest reclaimed the site, Palenque subsided from view and memory, even among descendants of those who had formed the complex. The Spanish conquest of Mexico during the early sixteenth century, however, was accompanied by myths and rumors regarding the hidden wealth of indigenous ruins, nurturing prospects for their rediscovery.

A question particularly intriguing to the Spanish was the origin of the indigenous population. Mexican Indians The question intrigued even the king of Spain, Charles III, an Enlightenment monarch curious about philosophical and scientific issues. In 1786 the king ordered the governor of Guatemala to confirm speculations regarding the existence of singular indigenous ruins that might lie within the governor’s jurisdiction (audiencia) in the province of Chiapas. Chiapas, Mexico Earlier findings in the previous decade by a local cleric, Ramón de Ordoñez y Aguiar, had confirmed the existence of ruins near the village of Santo Domingo de Palenque. In 1785 the existence of the ruins was confirmed when the village mayor and a government architect examined them and reported their existence.

In the spring of 1786, the governor of Guatemala sent to the site one of his senior military adjutants, Captain Antonio del Rio, to explore it more thoroughly. The captain was instructed to recover treasures or other items of historical importance. Arriving at Palenque and aided by the mayor, del Rio assembled a crew of several dozen local Mayan laborers and set about removing the tropical overgrowth, burning and hacking it away. As evidence of what he had found, he dispatched carvings to Guatemala, which were then shipped to Spain. In addition, he wrote a report, the first detailed study of Palenque, which inaugurated a series of analyses that attempted to interpret the site. Accompanying this report were the first drawings of the site, produced by Ricardo Almendariz, an artist who accompanied del Rio.

Del Rio and Almendariz were singularly impressed by the extent, complexity, and refinement of the architecture and sculpture that del Rio’s crew had exposed, the first time the site had been uncovered in centuries. However, the Spanish captain did not consider that the site might have originated from the ancestors of the local Mayans, a demoralized people who had been subordinated and marginalized by the Spanish for nearly two centuries. He speculated that the site was a product of the influence of ancient Western cultures, possibly the seafaring Phoenicians Phoenicians and American settlement of three millennia earlier or of classical Greece and Rome. Spain, too, had been settled by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans, who had traded and explored westward across the Mediterranean Sea.

The Spaniards believed that these voyagers may have ventured into the Atlantic Ocean, thereby reaching the Americas and influencing indigenous populations. Catholic clergy even assumed that indigenous religion was a corruption of Christianity, speculating that the region could have been evangelized in apostolic times by Saint Thomas through missionary travels eastward from India over the Pacific Ocean. It was assumed that Quetzalcóatl, Quetzalcóatl the feathered serpent god and prophet of the Aztecs and Mayans, had originated out of confusion with the apostle.


Antonio del Rio and Ricardo Almendariz’s illustrated report was sent to Spain in 1787, and another copy was archived in Guatemala. Both documents, however, were then forgotten. Charles III died at the end of the following year, and del Rio died in 1789.

The report reemerged in 1822. An English traveler visiting Guatemala came across a study by Pablo Felix Cabrera, a scholar from Spain who had resided in Guatemala during the last decade of the eighteenth century. Cabrera, who had been convinced that the Americas had been settled by the Phoenicians, found the del Rio and Almendariz report and drawings. Cabrera incorporated these findings into a study he wrote on the origin of American Indians, printed in London in 1822 and titled Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City, Discovered Near Palenque, in the Kingdom of Guatemala. Description of the Ruins of An Ancient City . . . (Cabrera) The authors are listed as Antonio del Rio and Paul Felix Cabrera. The following decade, an American periodical in New York serialized extensive parts of the report.

Throughout the nineteenth century, researchers failed to recognize that Palenque and other marvels of Mayan architecture had indigenous origins. Researchers continued to speculate that in addition to voyagers from the Mediterranean across the Atlantic, the lost continent of Atlantis could be the origin of indigneous culture in the Americas. Also, Mormonism has used such speculation as the rationale for its tenets regarding the ancient subsidiary roots of Christianity in the Americas.

Not until the Mexican Revolution at the beginning of the twentieth century did the true origins of Palenque begin to emerge. The movement known as indigenismo, Indigenismo (indigenous movement) focusing on the accomplishments of indigenous peoples, prompted a renaissance of study and artistic production focusing on native Mexican culture. Especially important in this regard was the establishment in 1939 of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (the National Institute of Anthropology and History). National Institute of Anthropology and History (Mexico) Advancing professional standards in anthropology and archaeology, the institute has sponsored projects conducted within an environment of respect for indigenous culture. By the latter half of the twentieth century, these efforts had achieved two significant goals in relation to Palenque: discovery of the splendid temple tomb of Lord Pacal and the decipherment of Mayan writing, revealing a detailed Mayan chronology and historiography.

Further Reading

  • Chouinard, Jeffrey. Mouths of Stone: Stories of the Ancient Maya from Newly Deciphered Inscriptions and Recent Archaeological Discoveries. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1995. Accompanied by maps and illustrations, this work examines the deciphering of ancient Mayan written language at Copan, Palenque, and Tikal, providing clues in narrative form.
  • Hughes, Nigel. Maya Monuments. Woodbridge, England: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2000. A study with maps and illustrations of Palenque and numerous other Mayan sites, placing Palenque in architectural, geographical, and historical context.
  • Palenque Round Table Series. San Francisco, Calif.: Precolumbian Art Research Institute, 1973-    . Scholarly papers from a series of conferences conducted since 1973 on Palenque, Mayan antiquities, and indigenous peoples and cultures of Mexico and Central America.
  • Ringle, William M., and Thomas C. Smith-Stark. A Concordance to the Inscriptions of Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. New Orleans, La.: Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University, 1996. A Mayan hieroglyphic catalog of inscriptions at Palenque, with an accompanying compact disc.
  • Romer, John, and Elizabeth Romer. The History of Archaeology. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001. Relates the intellectual, professional, and social context for the historical development of archaeology, placing Palenque’s rediscovery within this phenomenon.
  • Sandoval, Roberto Romero. “Travelers in Palenque, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: A Historical Study Through Their Bibliography.” Boletín del Instituto de Investigaciones Bibliográficas, n.s., 2, no. 1 (1997): 9-40. Provides a chronology of expeditions by more than one dozen travelers who believe the origin of Palenque is Mayan and not of ancient Europe.
  • Schele, Linda and David Freidel. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. New York: Morrow, 1992. An extensively illustrated work about temples, palaces, and monuments of Mayan rulers, including the complex at Palenque. Includes numerous linguistic, historical, and archaeological studies by noted scholars of the Maya.

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