Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Megalithic Ruins of Ancient Mexico - Part IV

Palenque and the Megaliths of the Mayas
Palenque, one of the greatest Maya cities, lies in the foothills of the Chiapas mountains of Southern Mexico, in the basin of the Usumacinta River. Its jungle-covered ruins lay abandoned and forgotten for hundreds of years until their epic rediscovery in the 18th Century. [Photo by Author] 
Palenque is perhaps one of the better known of the ancient Maya sites, visited every year by hundreds of thousands of tourists. Located deep in the forests of Chiapas, the ancient city lay abandoned for hundreds of year until its rediscovery by Europeans in 1773. Over the following decades, it was visited by various explorers, including John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, who left some of the earliest drawings and plans of the ruins. Palenque reached its greatest prosperity in the late classical period during the reign of the legendary king Pakal (611-683 AD), before falling into decadence and being eventually abandoned towards the midst of the 9th Century AD. 
The ancient name of the city, as known from inscriptions, was probably Lakam Ha, meaning "Plentiful Waters". The name appears to be a reference to the many water sources and streams that surround the ancient site. The Spanish called the ruins Palenque, from the name of the nearby village of Santo Domingo del Palenque that was founded in their vicinity in the late 17th Century.  

Mythical Origins
The Palace of Palenque is a unique Maya structure., containing four major courtyards and a three-storied tower that served as an astronomical observatory. The Palace rests on a massive megalithic platform measuring some 91 by 73 meters (300 by 240 feet), pierced by a number of tunnels and underground passageways. [Photo by Author]
Although the earliest known king of Palenque, Kúk B'alam I, did not reign until 431 AD, the ruling dynasty of Palenque bolstered in inscriptions a divine origin dating back many thousands of years. The first divine ruler of Palenque known from inscriptions was the "God G1 the Elder" or Muwaan Mat, which was believed to have ascended to the throne in the year 3,309 BC (two centuries before the beginning of the present world age, in 3,114 BC, a date that also coincides with the beginning of the Maya calendar). A second divine dynasty began in 2,360 BC and comprised three more kings (known as the God G1 the Younger, God G2 and God G3).  These divine kings were thought to have come from a mysterious land called Matwiil, symbolized by a cormorant. In honor of their ancestral homeland, the rulers of Palenque of the historical period still boasted in their titles that of "Divine Matwiil Lord[1]. Nothing of this prehistoric homeland is known, but it is possible that another enigmatic place name, Tokhtan (meaning "Mist Center), similarly occurring in hieroglyphic inscriptions, may as well be associated with it.
Palenque was known in ancient times as Lakam Ha, meaning "Great Waters", due to the presence of many streams and water sources in the vicinity. The Otulum river  (here in the picture, near the archaeological site) was diverted by the ancient Maya engineers into a number of channels and underground water tunnels. [Photo by Author]
A no less interesting story of the origins of Palenque was collected from the sacred books of the Tzeltal Maya in the late 17th Century by the then Bishop of Chiapas Francisco Nuñez de la Vega. Even before the city's rediscovery, the Tzeltal tradition spoke of a great lost city built by a foreign race, the Chanes (literally "Snakes"), under the guide of a mysterious prophet called Votan, a great hero and legislator who established a great empire of the Tzeltal people called Xibalba. According to the early Mayanist Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg, this ancient empire once covered all of Mexico and Guatemala, and had Palenque as its capital (In the the Tzeltal legend, the city is called Nachan, "City of the Snakes"). Many have seen in these legends a variation of the familiar story of Quetzalcoatl and Kukulkan, as the hero was known to the Aztec and Yucatec Mayas. Votan, like Quetzalcoatl, was said to have come from a mysterious island kingdom, located beyond the sea, to the East, known as Valum Votan. The name of the Mexican colony of this great maritime empire was Valum Chivim. According to the original manuscript in the possession of Bishop Nuñez de la Vega, called the Probanza de Votan (the "Trial of Votan"), the kingdom of Nachan was one of four tributary monarchies of Valum Votan that together formed the empire of Xibalba or Valum Chivim. To the capitals of the other three kingdoms the same manuscript gives the names of Tulan (Tula?), Mayapan and Chiquimala (near Copán). Various voyages are mentioned between Valum Votan and its colony of Valum Chivim, each under the guidance of a different Votan. During one of these voyages, a great temple was said to have been under construction on the island of Valum Votan, whose description is strongly reminiscent of the biblical Tower of Babel [2].  
Moreover, after his final voyage Votan was said to have built a "House of Darkness" on a certain river (probably the Huehuetan or the Usumacinta), where he deposited in subterranean chambers all the sacred records of its race, under charge of certain old men and priestesses [3]. In a later article we will explore the possible connections between Votan and the esoteric legends of an ancient prehistoric "Hall of Records" in the Yucatan.  

Could Valum Votan be the same as the mysterious land of Matwiil, to which the kings of Palenque traced the beginning of their first divine dynasties?  

Megalithic Foundations
Megalithic foundations near the southeastern corner of the Palace of Palenque. Many of the stones, some of which weighing several tons, appear to have been displaced from their original location. Note the fine workmanship and jointing of the stones forming the first rows, as compared to the rough masonry of smaller stones of the platforms above. [Photo by Author]  
More megalithic stonework and precision jointing inside one of the courtyards of the Palace. Some of the stones in the picture measure over 2 meters (6 feet) long. This style of megalithic architecture is in stark contrast with that of the structures above, and may belong to a much earlier epoch hinted by in mythological texts. [Photo by Author]
A stairway consisting of large and finely fitted megalithic stone blocks leads into one of the rooms of the Palace, of much cruder construction. The first step from the top is a single monolithic stone block measuring nearly 4 meters (12 feet) long. [Photo by Author]
What proof is there of a prehistoric, non-Maya origin of Palenque? Clue may come from one of the largest structures in Palenque, the Palace, and from a vast underground network of aqueducts and tunnels that may predate the construction of the Classic Maya city.

The Palace is an immense structure, rising on an artificial platform 300 feet (91 meters) long by 240 feet  (73 meters) wide. The platform itself measures nearly 30 feet (10 meters) high, and is crossed by a number of galleries and vaulted corridors. The Palace grew over time to include a number of courtyards and an astronomical observatory in the form of a three-storied tower. Although most of the construction visible today dates to the Classic period, it is possible that earlier structures were incorporated in its foundations. These structures appear to be of the megalithic type, consisting of large, finely fitted and jointed blocks of stone, quite unlike the stuccoed masonry of small cemented stones, typical of  Classic Maya architecture ,that forms the rest of the Palace structures.

A wall consisting entirely of megalithic stone blocks, some of which measuring as much as 2 meters long, forms the first tier of the South side platform of the palace. These blocks appear to have suffered significant displacement due to natural forces that have altered the straightness of the joints and caused a deformation of the edges of the wall. This is particularly puzzling given the otherwise remarkable state of preservation of the Palace and may hint to this section of the Platform belonging to an earlier stage of construction.

On the uppermost Palace platform, the lower walls delimiting Courtyard 1 are also entirely faced with large, smooth megalithic stone blocks comparable in workmanship and size to the ones in the bottom platform, and quite unlike any other of the surrounding structures. Many of the large flagstones in this area were apparently re-carved at a later time. A beautiful megalithic stairway, in a remarkable state of preservation, is also found in this area of the Palace.
Another megalithic stairway inside the Palace of Palenque. Note how many of the larger stones appear to have been placed here in secondary use, as hinted by their imperfect fitting and the use of smaller stones to create an even surface. [Photo by Author]
One of the entrances to the system of tunnels and chambers that run under the palace of Palenque. The purpose of these subterraneans is unknown, but from the remains of  stuccoed decoration it is possible to assume a ceremonial rather than utilitarian function. [Photo by Author]
A section of the water tunnel that runs parallel to the Palace, along its Western side. Where the original stone vault has collapsed, it is possible to appreciate the use of very large stones in the walls and roof of the tunnel. [Photo by Author]
A short distance from the Palace, along its Western side, more evidence of megalithic stonework can be found in the underground aqueduct that runs parallel to its base from a mountain stream located a few hundred meters to the North.

The underground aqueducts are one of the most unique characteristics of Palenque, not found at other Maya sites. The course of the river Otulum ("Fallen Stones") was deviated and channeled into an underground tunnel running for nearly 300 meters (1,000 feet) under the main plaza and portions of the Palace. This tunnel, a masterpiece of megalithic engineering, is built entirely of enormous flagstones, some of which measuring as much as 3 meters (9 feet) long, to withstand the water pressure. The peculiar architecture of the tunnel and corbelled vaulting is visible in several places where the roof has collapsed.

Another impressive stretch of aqueduct, running entirely underground, can be found in the so-called "Picota" Group, a remote group of ruined structures located in a deep forest outside of the limits of the archaeological site. Also in this case a stream was channeled into an underground tunnel that runs for 30 meters (90 feet) under a large palatial compound. Both the entrance and exit of this aqueduct are visible, built of large megalithic stone blocks. The entrance of the aqueduct, where the river goes underground, is rectangular in shape, surmounted by an immense monolithic lintel measuring as much as 4 meters (12 feet) long. The exit has a triangular profile, consisting of as many as 7 courses of megalithic stone blocks placed in a nearly semi-circular arrangement. [4]
The exit of the Picota water tunnel near Palenque, formed by at least 7 tiers of megalithic stone blocks placed in a semicircular arrangement around the triangular opening. The size of the opening barely allows for one person to walk upright during the dry season, when the water level is low. [Photo by Author]
The entrance to the Picota water tunnel, where the river goes underground. Note the enormous monolithic lintel above the entrance to the tunnel. [Photo by Author]
In some cases these stone aqueducts run underneath structures dating to the early Classic period, an evidence of their great antiquity: In 2016, it was announced that a previously unknown water tunnel was discovered under the famous Temple of the Inscriptions that houses Pakal's tomb [5]. The Temple of the Inscriptions is one of the earliest monumental structures in Palenque, dating to 683 AD, and contains within its structure the remains of earlier layers of construction. Because the newly discovered tunnels run under the Temple, their construction must predate that of the Temple itself. The absence of a connection between the tunnels and the chambers above also suggests that the existence of the tunnels may not have been known to the Maya builders.

The megalithic tunnels and foundations of Palenque are evidence of a much older origin (perhaps even pre-Maya) of the site, a possibility consistent with the content of the hieroglyphic inscriptions found at Palenque, which include a long list of pre-dynastic rulers stretching back into prehistory, and with the local traditions of the Tzeltal people speaking of the arrival of a foreign race of megalithic builders from a land beyond the Sea.

Perhaps the most interesting possibility hinted by these traditions is the existence of an ancient "Hall of Records" situated somewhere in the vicinity of Palenque, along the Mexico-Guatemala border.
In a later article, we will speculate on the possible location of this "Hall of Records" and on the possibility that it may in fact have already been found at the ancient site of Yaxchilan on the Usumacinta river.  

[1] Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube, Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. Rev. ed. Thames and Hudson, London, 2008, pp. 155-159
[2] Excerpts of the now lost manuscript of the Probanza de Votan are included in the work of Dr. Paul Felix Cabrera, Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City discovered near Palenque (based on the original from Captain Antonio del Rio), London, 1822
[3] Lewis Spence, The Problem of Atlantis, London, 1924, p. 107
[4] A description of these tunnels can be found in Edwin L. Barnhart, El Proyecto de Mapeo de Palenque - Reporte de la Temporada de Campo de 1999, FAMSI, 2004