Photograph by Kenneth Garrett
The first published account of this lost city was in 1567, from a Spaniard, Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada.
Exploring near the Usumacinta River, located in the modern Mexican state of Chiapas, Lorenzo came upon its stone temples and plazas, originally decorated with blue- and red-painted stucco but by then long abandoned by the Maya who built it. Lorenzo gave the grand structure the name Palenque, a Spanish word meaning "fortification."
500 years later, Palenque—one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico—is a modern wellspring from which researchers have drawn some of the most detailed information about Maya culture.
It wasn't large, surpassed in size by cities like Calakmul and Tikal, say experts. In 2003, David Stuart of Harvard's Peabody Museum reported that Palenque supported no more than 6,220 people at its peak.
But Palenque is prized for something else.
"The main point of interest about Palenque is not its size and [or] age, as other sites are larger and likely much older," says Michael D. Carrasco, an assistant professor of art history at Florida State University. "Its importance lies rather in its naturalistic sculpture, architectural inventiveness, and detailed epigraphic record."
Researchers say Palenque dates to the Early Classic (A.D. 200-600) period, but most knowledge about the city comes from the Classic period (A.D. 600-900).
Palenque's wealth of epigraphy (inscriptions) and recorded history has helped archaeologists to build the first time line of rulers of a Maya city—one that, while impressive, is still fuzzy in places.
Carrasco says the Palenque known to modernity is the product of a limited number of rulers, starting with Pakal the Great (603-683), his son, K'inich Kan Bahlam (635-702), and K'inich Akul Mo' Naab (678-736).
This succession of kings commissioned the Temple of the Cross Group, Temple XIX, and the Temple of Inscriptions, said to be one of the most profuse sources of glyphic text from the Maya world. It maps nearly 200 years of Palenque's history.
The three rulers also commissioned lengthy glyphic texts, which researchers have used to tease apart Maya script.
Much scientific debt is owned to Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, who in 1952 rolled away a stone inside the Temple of Inscriptions and found the burial tomb of Pakal the Great. This has since become one of the most extensively studied archaeological sites in the Americas.
David Freidel, a Maya specialist from Southern Methodist University, says the tomb contains Pakal's sarcophagus, upon which is etched the image of "a handsome youth, the maize god, preparing to ascend into the sky along the cosmic World Tree." Since 2004, Friedel says, researchers working at Palenque have discovered three royal tombs, a tomb of sacrifices, offerings to a royal, and a high noble's tomb.
Records at the site suggest the site came under attack by another Maya center, Calakmul, in 599 and again in 611. "This attack was the beginning of or perhaps catalyst for the building campaigns of Pakal and later kings," says Carrasco.
It was after the second attack that 12-year-old Pakal became ruler, setting in motion a vast rebuilding of Palenque from 615 to 683, one that would be continued by two later rulers: his son, K'inich Kan Bahlam, and Akul Mo' Naab, thought to be Pakal's grandson.
In 711, Palenque was sacked by the realm of Toniná. Though Temple XIX was built after that attack, still under the reign of Akul Mo' Naab, the event shifted Palenque's ruling dynamics, perhaps prompting a dissolution of concentrated power and replacing it with a shared arrangement between nobles and the king. The construction of elite building stopped after 800, and a gradual population decline ensued. By the time the Spanish got to Chiapas in the 16th century, the Maya had abandoned the city.
Follow along as Fred Hiebert and his team search for a sunken palace in Kyrgyzstan.
Under a remote Maya palace in the ruined city of Uxul, archaeologists in Mexico have uncovered an ancient burial—and a rare royal cup.
Below street level in Mexico City, archaeologists have found a jumble of bones dating to the 1480s.
Researchers have uncovered a remarkably well-preserved Maya mural and calendar markings.
'Live From Space' March 14
Post an Instagram With a Question and a Wave
Get a Guided Tour of Life in Orbit Directly From the ISS
Explore Nat Geo
Investigate a murder in Cleopatra's palace.
Use forensic archaeology to solve the death of China's first emperor.
How much do you know about the ancient Mesoamerican Maya civilization?
National Geographic Magazine
Rome’s border walls were the beginning of its end.
How did the Easter Island statues move? That question puzzles archaeologists—and modern-day islanders.
Archaeologists and artists, armed with the latest tools and techniques, are bringing the life-size army of painted clay soldiers back to life.
Explore Nat Geo
The Great Energy Challenge is a National Geographic initiative to help you understand our current energy situation. Explore the GEC to figure out and trim your carbon footprint.
See how you measure up against others, and how changes at home or in travel choices could do tons to protect the atmosphere.