In 1952 the French born archaeologist Aberto Ruz Lhuillier (1906–1979) discovered the tomb of Palenque’s greatest king, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal (603–683 CE) in the Temple of Inscriptions and thereby began the intensive archaeological investigation of what has become one of the most extensively studied sites in the Maya world. However, even before Ruz’s discovery, the immensely popular Incidents of Travel In Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1841) by travel writer John Lloyd Stephens (1805–1852) and artist Frederick Catherwood (1799–1854) had fixed the ruins of Palenque firmly in the imagination of the West through its captivating description and depictions of the city. This website uses an interactive map, Quicktime VR panoramas, an image archive, and 3-D modeling to bring art historical analysis, epigraphy, archaeology, and ethnography together to create a digital gateway that I hope will engage and thrill twenty-first century readers as much as Stephens and Catherwood excited their nineteenth century forebears.

Maudslay Photograph of the Palace, and Temple of the High Hill by Frederick Catherwood
From Left: Maudslay Photograph of the Palace © A. P. Maudslay , and Temple of the High Hill by Frederick Catherwood.

Today we know the people of Palenque and other ancient Maya cities through an evocative, yet fragmentary artistic and architectural record, and increasingly through their hieroglyphic literature. However, if viewed in isolation ancient sources only provide a patchy impression of Maya art and life. This is because Maya architecture, inscriptions, and sculpture, including works in stucco, stone, and terracotta, originally worked together to produce unified visual programs often accompanied by the spectacle of state ritual. In this respect the conceptual underpinnings and function of Maya art were closer to that of the Medieval West and other pre-industrial societies than to the current Euro-American notion of art, which has traditionally held that art is a commodity intended primarily for aesthetic appreciation and to be experienced in the context of the museum.

Unaahil B’aak (the houses of Palenque) brings together multiple lines of data to focus on the ancient city of Palenque, particularly on the Temples of the Cross Group, named after the cruciform iconography of the central tablet of the Temple of the Cross. This ambitious architectural program was commissioned by K'inich Kan B'ahlam (635-702 CE) and was probably completed a little less than two years before its dedication in 692 CE. The beauty and complexity of the architectural, sculptural, and textual programs of the Cross Group have slowly emerged over the second half of the last century through the work of several generations of archaeologists, epigraphers, and art historians (see History). Hieroglyphic decipherment and art historical analysis are now at point where for the first time in centuries, people can again appreciate the poetic language of glyphic texts (see Glyphs), examine individual personalities, and ask ever more penetrating questions about the political, religious, and social life of the Maya both at Palenque and elsewhere in the Maya world.

Back to top