Palenque, México

After visiting Copán and Quiriguá, Frederick Catherwood and his team finally travelled to Guatemala City as per John Lloyd Stephens' orders. The journey was slow and dangerous, but they pressed on, and Stephens even writes of meeting with Figueroa and then Morazán in March 1840 to introduce himself and his diplomatic mission. They arrived in Guatemala City mere days after Morazán's army fell to Carrera's to find blood still in the streets. Stephens later met with Carrera who drafted him a new passport and documents with his signature, a move meant to give Stephens and his team a higher level of protection on their travels. In April they decided that Stephens had accomplished all he could in his diplomatic role due to the constant shifts in power, and prepared to depart for Palenque, México to continue their personal (exploratory) mission. Their route passed through Iximche, Q'umarkaj (Utatlán), and Huehuetenango before crossing the border to México. Toniná was the first large ruin they came upon in the Chiapas region before continuing to their destination: Palenque. 

    In Palenque they found relief work and masonry distinct from the styles employed at Copán, but still depicting rulers in similar headdresses and clothing. Catherwood determined that this linked the cities: both must be of Maya origin. Due to vast amounts of art and decoration, he thought Palenque was once a great power. Experts have now mapped more than 1500 structures at the site of Palenque, making it one of the most densely built Maya cities.

    Today we know that Palenque was occupied by the first century A.D. and became a regional power hub by the sixth century. The organization and flow of this city is evidence of urban planning. The design is referred to as palencano style architecture. Some characteristics of this style are large open spaces, vaulted ceilings, stucco scenes and friezes, T-shaped windows, and elegant designs that blend into the landscape. Catherwood's team did not find any stela and altars at Palenque, but connected some stylistic elements from the stela at Copán to the frieze designs at Palenque, such as similarities in the depiction of headdresses and clothing. Below are some of Catherwood's illustrations and photographs from our archives taken at Palenque about 130 years later. 


Top row left to right: Catherwood 1844: Plate VI "General View of Palenque." The central building in Palenque was not a temple but a royal palace, unlike at other Maya sites. Perhaps the most iconic feature of this building is the tower, often referred to as the watchtower for its style and vantage point. It is visible on the left side of this image, and in the following image as a detail. The building on the right of this image is known as the Temple of Inscriptions. It was commissioned by Palenque's ajaw (ruler) K'inich Janaab' Pakal and completed shortly after his death in 684 A.D. Pakal's remains were interred there after his death. Image three is from Catherwood 1844: Plate VII (bottom) "Interior of Casa III at Palenque." Plate VII (top) "Principal Court of the Palace at Palenque" on the right side showcases some of the friezes they found and the title of the work tells us what Catherwood and Stephens hypothesised as to the building's use.

Bottom row left to right: 2006.016.820, 2006.016.822, 2006.016.821, and 2006.016.875. The first three photographs show the palace and tower as seen in Catherwood's illustration. Dr. Brian Hayden stands in the foreground of the picture on the left. The final image shows how nature has taken over the city, turning large buildings and temples into mounds. Yet the harmony of the architecture and city planning is evident from the use of style and space. Photographs were taken in the 1970s. 

© 2018 SFU Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, created by Jackie La Mouri. Photographs courtesy of Dr. Brian Hayden.