Tuesday, July 22, 2008

these bones

Palenque Tower and Temple

There’s a lot you should know about Palenque, a Mayan site on the Northern edge of the Chiapas highlands, but I’m probably not the one to tell you.


Heavy hitters [1] have written books and papers and shared research about the place known to the classic Mayan as B’aakal, or Bone: about its art, its architecture, its friendly terms with Tikal, its antagonistic relations with Calakmul, Tonina and Piedras Negras.

At minimum you should know about K’inich Janaab’ Pakal and his cinnabar saturated jade strewn burial in the heart of the plaza. About how he was found at the bottom of a smooth bending stairway of ochre colored stone 22 meters deep in the Temple of the Inscriptions, barricaded by rubble from the world and connected only by a psychoduct through which his descendants could play telephone with their ancestor. About the marvelous greenstone mosaic that masked his face in death; about the jade sphere that his corpse clutched in his left hand; the jade cube that he clutched in his right.

pakal's mask

pakal's cubepakal's sphere

About the marvelous inscription on the lid of his sarcophagus in which he’s resurrected from the underworld, Xibalba (which is wonderfully delicious to say out loud: she-BALL-bah), as a rapturous maize god; about his ancestors who line the sides of the monumental coffin (so tightly pinched into that small tomb that I asked a friend, who knows something about these things, “they carved it in situ? but how? the detail is so fine.” and he suggested that perhaps, instead, the massive temple was built around the stone container only after it had been carved.) who each bear a headdress that aligns them with an important crop -- cacoa (chocolate), nance, guayaba, chicozapote, mamey, and aguacate (avocado) -- crops that are passed from one generation to the next through inheritance. Like kingship. [2] Each gorgeous line etched to tell the story, to assert that I, Pakal, belong here. This was my job to do and I did it magnificently. And baby: I've *still* got your back. I'm an *ancestor* now.

Temple of the Inscriptions

You should know that the tourist traffic down the stairwell since it was excavated by Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in 1952, that the heat and breath and humidity of curious souls, threatened to destroy the treasure, and most folks can only see it now in a poorly rendered reproduction in the site museum at Palenque, or a little bit better reproduction at the Museo Nacional in Mexico City, where too the original jade mask is kept, along with the sphere and the cube and a cache of other precious grave goods.

You might be interested to know that one late night in a rainy December I had a chance to descend the ochre steps and peek into the tomb, and its an experience I’ll never forget. But that I didn’t this time: our host no longer working at Palenque, after a falling out with INAH.

Palenque Tower

You should know too about the beautiful pieces that are still being excavated, some in just the last five years or so: About the jaw dropping details of the thrones from Temples 19 and 21, the figures so individualized, so finely incised, you can almost hear their conversation.

stumpy @ the palenque museo

You should know that in 1973 Merle Greene Robertson, who made magnificent rubbings of the stuccos and bas-relief of Palenque and other sites (preserving many of them before they were diminished by the ash of a nearby volcanic eruption and the relentless worry of acid rain) started the Mesa Redonda, or Palenque Roundtable, in the living room of her home on the street that is now named (and misspelled) in her honor.

How scholars and regular folks with an interest in Mayan glyphs got together to try to crack what they were all about; to uncover the stories; started telling them again. How Linda Schele was there, and her passion for that place sparked a strange and wonderful populist movement that lends a curious slant to Mayan scholarship today -- academics and independent scholars and hobbyists all working through ancient glyphic texts, with variable results, but all working, and adding their decipherings to the pile.

courtyard of the captives

And maybe its peevish of me to mention that ten years after its founding, and ten Roundtables into it, INAH took over the Mesa Redonda and restarted the count back at one, because that’s how INAH does things.

under construction

It might too be of interest to learn that Merle Greene celebrated her 95th birthday at this year’s Roundtable; that our trip was timed to coincide with the conclusion of the festivities so that our host, Nick, could share a few margaritas with the birthday girl.

And for those who have been reading detritus for awhile it might matter to know that the last day of our visit at the historic site we lit a candle in the Cathedral to commemorate the second of anniversary of the night that Kathryn died in Palenque, too young, but in a place she knew as home. In a place she dearly loved.

salvation under wraps

[1] A few heavy hitters worth looking at:
Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya, Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube

Maya Cosmos, David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker

The Inscriptions from Temple XIX at Palenque, David Stuart

Living with the Ancestors: Kin and Kingship in Ancient Maya Society, Patricia A. Mcanany

[2] Living with the Ancestors, p 43


Kari said...

you're a very good teacher.

anniemcq said...

I agree with Kari. I hung on every word. So fascinating, and so amazed that I know you.

Lolabola* said...

I stopped breathing somewhere back there and now it's all shallow and laboured in excitement.

April said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
p2wy said...

wow, what a post.... would love to have you as a tourguide

(oops accidentally posted this as April first)

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