The Spirit of K'inich Janaab Pakal

by Franc


Professor Winston Harlow, an American archaeologist, from New York and Ralph Peterson from Philadelphia join Mexican Professor Arnoldo Olivares, on an expedition and exploration of the lost ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque.

April 4, 1916

I had arrived to the coastal shores of Cozumel, within the State of Quintana Roo, Mexico, at around one o'clock in the afternoon of that day. The weather was humid, and the breeze of the wind at times was the only soothing comfort to shelter us, from the humidity that had engulfed us. Our arrival was expected, by our Mexican host and fellow archaeologist, Professor Arnoldo Olivares, who was waiting for us at the port. He had greeted us there, with an ambitious desire to begin the expedition, upon the next morning. I had introduced myself, as Professor Winston Harlow, an American archaeologist, from New York and then Ralph Peterson from Philadelphia. We had sent the professor, a telegram informing him of our indicative interest to explore the Great Temple of Inscriptions in the city of Palenque, where the sarcophagus of Pakal had lied. It was located nearby the Usumacinta River in the Mexican state of Chiapas, about 130 km south of Ciudad del Carmen. I had heard much, about the unbelievable tale of this Mayan Lost City and was fully determined to unravel its puzzling mystery. There had been several expeditions to the archaeological site before, but none had managed to decipher the immemorial Mayan inscriptions to a great degree. This arduous task was the challenge that I had sought to resolve with exceptional efficiency. Professor Olivares was accompanied, by three Mayan men, whose names were, Babajide, Cadmael and Gabor. They were bilingual and spoke fluent Spanish and Mayan. More importantly, they were from Palenque and knew that area of the pyramids well. Since we didn't depart for Palenque until the morning, we had spent our time at a local cantina discussing the adventures of the expedition and the possible discoveries that awaited us in Palenque therewith. I was not much of a drinking man, but I had taken two glasses of Tequila to commemorate the commencement of the expedition.

April 5, 1916

We had departed Cozumel and started our immediate journey to Palenque, through the dirt roads in horses carrying our provisions and equipment. Professor Olivares had warned us that it would be a long and weary trip to Chiapas, but I did not anticipate the extreme difficulty of the landscape that we would tread over. The persistent humidity had worsened, with every step taken inward. The predictable weather was only a precursor to the abundant mosquitoes that were in every vicinity inhibiting our progress to a certain extent, with the exception of the Mayans that were accustomed to this harsh habitat. Incidentally, they were the adequate persons that had been entrusted to guide us to Palenque. Our trip would cross the states of Campeche and Tabasco, before reaching Chiapas. I was told we would take, nearly the whole day to arrive at Palenque. The rain was a troubling concern upon our arrival, since we were approximating the depth of the familiar jungle. Professor Olivares had been recently excavating Aztec ruins near Mexico City, when he had received my urgent telegram. I had not expected for him to respond then, with immediacy. However, he had gained my duly respect and admiration, for his brilliant accomplishments. The world of archaeology and anthropology in the early 20th century had been developing, with new fantastic discoveries of ancient civilizations of the past. Therefore our expectations were high and based on the contingency of deciphering the immense inscriptions of the Mayans. I had read about the temples of Palenque and there was not much known in America about the ruins. The current fascination with Egypt had captivated and captured the newspapers of the world, and the British were on the forefront of those expeditions. I was cognizant of that fact and was eager to establish my reputation in the archaeological world. I was not guaranteed of finding any pertinent evidence in Palenque, but I was absolutely resolute in my diligent attempt and search, for its hidden wonders that had awaited our arrival.

April 6, 1916

We had arrived at the town of Palenque late during the night, due to an unforeseen delay in Tabasco that had hindered our continual advance. The glint of the morning sun was a visible sign of the warm day that would begin the initial stage of the exploration planned. It took us some considerable time to locate the lost Mayan city of Palenque, but when we did amazement had overwhelmed me suddenly. Ahead within the inspissated jungle of cedar, mahogany and sapodilla trees were the old ruins that had dated, from 226 BC to AD 799 and flourished in the 7th century. The ruins at Palenque had contained some of the finest architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings that the Mayas had produced in their time. There were still many things to excavate and at the same time restore. The history of Palenque had been determined from deciphering the unique hieroglyphic inscriptions seen on the multifarious monuments. Professor Olivares had a putative theory that the inscriptions detailed a lengthy sequence of the ruling dynasty of Palenque in the 5th century and precise knowledge of the city's contact with other states like Calakmul and Toniná. The most famous ruler of Palenque was K'inich Janaab Pakal, or Pakal the Great, whose tomb had been mentioned existed in the Great Temple of the Inscriptions. K'uk' B'ahlam, the presumed founder of the mighty Palenque dynasty was named Toktan Ajaw. The Mayans that had accompanied us had assisted Professor Olivares in reading the elaborate inscriptions. I was impressed with their remarkable ability to achieve this natural proficiency, and the professor had a special affinity and trust with them that only few men could attest to that fact. To the Mayans, Palenque was known as Lakamha that meant Big Water. This was just the actual beginning to our unforgettable experience at Palenque.

As I had observed the indelible ruins, I could sense an adjacent presence of a numinous origin and aura of a mythical magnitude that had surrounded the temples that were erected like colossal edifices before us, as we stood. Professor Peterson had concurred with my perception, and our anxiety to explore the ruins had increased twofold. The weather would be our unwelcome distraction, since it began to rain. We took refuge within one of the temples, until the rain had subsided. Once inside, we explored the interior structure of the temple and were told by the Mayans that the temple was called the Temple of the Skull, because it had a lone skull on one of the sturdy pillars. Professor Olivares led us through the passage and tunnels of the temple, until we had reached the sacrificial chamber of the ancient Mayans. He had witnessed chambers of this construction before, while in the old Aztec City of Tenochtitlán, outside of Mexico City. He had further explained that he had seen more atrocious intimations of human and animal sacrifices there than in the ruins of Palenque. I had thought it was too difficult to surmise the veracity of what had taken place in the chamber, but there were crude fragments of brittle bones still seen. Professor Olivares had recovered some of these bones previously, but with the hectic turbulence of the instability in the country, his funding was totally cut off, and he was forced to abandon afterward, his vital excavation. He was desperate to obtain foreign funding, for a new expedition to the ruins of Palenque. This had not disturbed me in one bit, since our agreement was of a mutual persuasion and benefit. We had depended on his expertise, as he had depended on his Mayan men. They were faithful to their traditions and descendants. The other chambers had inscriptions written that were, unfortunately, inconclusive proof to be analyzed effectively.

At last, the rain had calmed its pouring water and effects upon the area, and we were able to resume the exploration of the rest of the ample ruins that had included the other splendid architectural temples. The notable Maya Ajaw, K'inich Janaab' Pakal, who had ruled from 615 to 683, was the prime source and inspiration for our quest. He was known by the Temple of Inscriptions, after a lengthy text preserved in the temple's superstructure was discovered. In accordance to the legend of the Tomb of the Red Queen, the sarcophagus of the wife of Pakal was covered, with a scintillating reddish powder made of cinnabar. Our keenness to locate her tomb was paramount to understand Pakal. However, I wanted to discern the other temples as well. The Temple of The Jaguar was at the proximity of some 200 meters south of the principle group of temples. Its derivation came from the decorative bas-relief carving of a king that was seated on a throne, in the description of a jaguar. Professor Olivares had believed that the sarcophagus and pyramid were constructed above a spring, between 683 and 702 AD. The tunnels would lead flowing water from below the funeral chamber outward, into the wide esplanade in front of the temple. This would give Pakal's spirit an interminable path to the underworld. Professor Olivares was firmly convinced enough by these Mayan legends to explore the root of this extraordinary origin. Native lore had been forever embedded in the Mexican people with the Hispanic culture of Spain. It was incumbent upon us to deduce through an assiduous corroboration, the authentic existence of the underground water tunnel built under the Temple of Inscriptions, which had housed the tomb of Pakal. We were prepared to excavate if necessary, in order to resolve the hidden secrets of the ruins of Palenque. The source of these legends was considered unfounded evidence of a dubious nature. I was inclined to believe in the intuitiveness of the Mayans, who were people of this region.

I had noticed the two inner columns from the Temple of the Inscriptions and the spectacular Palace that was seen from the noble courtyard, along with the Corbel arch seen in the corridor. I marveled with the lofty Palace Observation Tower that loomed over us. The set of glorious temples and step pyramids, each with a precise carved relief, within the interior chamber depicted two figures of prefigurement that had presented ritual objects and images, to a central icon that had intrigued us tremendously. The Temple of Inscriptions had been built perhaps as early as 675, as the funerary monument of Hanab-Pakal. The temple superstructure houses were the second longest glyphic text established from the Maya world. The Mayans had explained according to their shamans and elders that the Temple of the Inscriptions had recorded approximately 180 years of the city's history, from the 4th through 12th K'atun. The Pyramid had measured 60 meters wide, 42.5 meters deep and 27.2 meters high. The Summit temple measured 25.5 meters wide, 10.5 meters deep and 11.4 meters high. The largest stones weighed 12 to 15 tons. These were on top of the ancient Pyramid. The Total volume of the pyramid and temple was 32, 500 cubic meters. The Mayans who had accompanied us had told Professor Olivares that a stone slab in the floor of the back room of the temple superstructure if removed would reveal a singular passageway leading through a long staircase that would take us ultimately to Pakal's sarcophagus. There we would find the huge carved sarcophagus, the bountiful ornaments that accompanied Pakal, and the stucco sculpture that decorated the solid walls of the tomb. They spoke of a psychoduct, which led from the tomb itself, up the staircase and through a hole, within the stone covering the entrance to the burial ground. The mere contemplation of all of these fantastic wonders of Palenque was sufficient to entice us to explore and excavate, until we had located the tomb of Pakal.

April 7, 1916

We had awakened to another rainy day and were inside the Palace. The Palace was well equipped with several large baths and saunas, which were provided with fresh water by an elaborate water system. An aqueduct that was built of massive stone blocks with a three-meter-high vault had diverted the Otulum River to flow beneath the central plaza. The Palace was the largest building complex in Palenque that had measured 97 meters by 73 meters at its core foundation. I was curious to know more information from the Mayans, and I began to study their language that they spoke among themselves. I wanted to know as an archaeologist about the sarcophagus of Pakal and thus, I had asked Professor Olivares to ask the Mayans, about this important issue. What they disclosed was an amazing revelation. They had described the iconography on the lid of the sarcophagus that depicted Pakal in the guise of one of the manifestations of the Mayan Gods emerging from the chasm of the underworld. Their account was too ambiguous, and I had needed more substantial evidence. They had begun to relate a story about a young woman whose name was Itzel, who in the year of 1606 was questioned by Spanish authorities in the town of Palenque of the legend of the sarcophagus of Pakal, and she had related to them, about the treasures that were in the burial chamber. After further deliberation, her story was considered false and dismissed, but the legend had remained for centuries afterward. We were fortunate that the two Mayans had understood the Maya writing that had used logograms complemented, with a set of syllabic glyphs. Professor Olivares was taught by them how to read the inscriptions, and he started to teach Professor Peterson and myself to read them as well. All the credit was given to the Mayans for their linguistic talent and desire to share it with us foreigners. This was something that we did appreciate, and their voluntary cooperation in the expedition was without a doubt the major source for our exploration; although Professor Olivares had paid them handsomely.

April 8, 1916

I was mindful of the previous expeditions of Galindo, Waldeck, Charnay and Maudslay that had attempted to unearth the secrets of the ruins of Palenque, but failed to locate the tomb of Pakal. If the legend of this priceless tomb was correct than this discovery would equal that of the Pharaoh of the Egyptians. We had discussed that potential prospect and its significance, during the night before. Even though, we were ready for the challenge of that exciting endeavor, we had to be cautious to any peril that could be awaiting us afterward. I had to admit that I was never a superstitious fellow, but there was an inexplicable force of nature that I felt was observing our movements at the city of the Mayan ruins. Professor Olivares had perceived that same premonition and the Mayans were somewhat skittish of their surroundings, as if they had sensed an unknown presence near. Truly, I cannot elucidate or describe this queer sensation, except that it then intensifies by the day and night. Perhaps there is a name to attach to it, or perhaps it is nothing more than our heightened anxiety consuming us. Whatever it was progressing into was not imaginary in essence. It was as real as the temples we had entered and explored. I had read the accounts of the other explorers of the past that were in Palenque, and they had mentioned experimenting a gradual effect that was burdening their minds and thoughts. Was this only an inconsequential coincidence, or was there some measure of truth to these accounts that were dismissible. If so, then what would be gained by spreading these unfounded rumors? Was their intention to frighten off any possible archaeologists or thieves that would ransack the ruins, for the sole purpose of avidity? But the obvious question in the end would be, why did they not return to finish their project and succeed in that lucrative task unestablished?

April 9, 1916

The exploration had reached the point of no return, as far as the time that had elapsed. We were optimistic at least that our effort and dedication would lead to the discovery of the tomb of Pakal. This was a grand prize worth the archaeological search, if we were successful. Professor Olivares had made the suggestion to concentrate on the sarcophagus. Professor Peterson and I had agreed, since it was a logical option to assume. Therefore, we had spent the day inside the Temple of Inscriptions, as the rain had poured down again. The humidity was intolerable, and the mosquitoes were a constant nuisance, but we could not allow these visible distractions to prevent our exploration and excavation. The process of excavating the direct tunnel of the tomb would require many days to accomplish and more men. What this had implied was contracting more of the locals of the region. We had decided to hire men from the town of Palenque that we could rely on, for discretion and commitment to the cause. We did not want any unnecessary attention or conflict, thus we hired only Mayans. Professor Olivares knew the Mayans well, as indigenous people, and their devotion for the preservation of their ancestral culture. He did not trust any outsiders that were the predominant mestizos, because they would plunder the ruins for profit as the foreigners would too. In spite of the fact that Professor Peterson and I were exactly foreigners, he needed our money, as we needed his involvement and expertise. We had a mutual interest and determination to uncover the hidden tomb of the mighty Mayan king Pakal. The ramification for this incredible discovery would be instant fame and recognition.

April 10, 1916

The excavation into the tunnels that led to the tomb had begun in earnest. The men that were hired had been excavating the whole day and night, but their progress was slow, due to the confined space and lack of oxygen afforded. Professor Olivares had contemplated the delay or difficulty in reaching the tomb, but he was not convinced of the duration of the excavation. The dirt and rock were hard, and the tunnel was very dark. The walls were solid and at times impenetrable. These obstacles were impeding our advance, and they were disruptive factors in the excavation to overcome so facilely. Nonetheless, the perseverance of the men was to be admired. The terrible conditions inside the limited area of the excavation were not that propitious to digging. New equipment was brought, but we could not dig with heavy tools, for fear of a collapse in the tunnel. Pulleys, pickaxes and shovels were all that we could utilize, for this tiresome excavation. Professor Olivares had insisted on our patience, and he was certain that we would locate in the end, the lost tomb of Pakal. I had not lost faith in him or in the Mayans, but Professor Peterson had started to doubt our continuous collaboration and participation. I did not blame him, since the funds for the expedition and excavation had been achieved, through the loans he had succeeded in obtaining from the banks in New York. There was much than prestige that he was seeking and risking. His reputation was in play, and failure was not an acceptable option. I could sense this in his gestures and facial expressions that I had descried. I tried to assuage his concerns and had persuaded his instinct as an archaeologist. For the time being, I had convinced him to continue, in the advancement of archaeology and anthropology. For how long would I be able to persuade him any longer?

April 15, 1916

The men had continued excavating day and night, but a grave illness had inflicted Professor Peterson and some of the workers too. Professor Olivares had called this sickness jungle fever. The exposure to the rains and the mosquitoes had contributed to the illness, as did the confinement of the tunnel and the close contact with the workers. Perhaps we were ignorant to the possibility of these unfortunate occurrences. However, we could not afford to halt our progress and effort. Those who bore the contagion were treated, outside in the tents that were built, for this specific motive, while the others continued digging. Soon, more men were inflicted with the jungle fever, and the Mayans were superstitious people that regarded any illness, as an ominous sign of death and malediction. Within the hour, all with the exception of our original Mayans had either been ill or had decided to abandon the excavation and leave the ruins for good. Naturally, this was not expected by us and Professor Olivares had attempted to convince them to stay, but they refused. We had to react quickly, if not the excavation would be over. Consequently, we were forced to hire non Mayans, mostly mestizos that did not have the same conviction and reverence of the Mayan history. At this point, we needed workers, regardless of their creed and background. There was no time to waste on philosophical or social differences. These mestizos were hard workers, as long as we had paid them equally. What they lacked in devotion to the Mayan culture they had recompensated with their assiduity. We were able to advance swifter, because we had more men available, but they too would succumb to the mysterious illness of jungle fever gradually.

April 20, 1916

I woke up to the horrendous news that Professor Peterson had died overnight in the cot of the tent he was reposing in. It was awful and extremely discomforting to realize that he was dead. He was my archaeological confidant, and a close friend of twenty years. We had gone to Machu Pichu in Peru and to the pyramids of Egypt together. I did not foresee that this was to be our last expedition as archaeologists, or his death in the Mayan ruins of Palenque. I was uncertain of what to do, but Professor Olivares was committed to the discovery of the tomb and had urged me to continue, in memory of Professor Peterson and the others. His point of motivation was heeded, and I had agreed to follow the course of the excavation. I could only believe for the sake of the expedition that the abditive tomb of Pakal would be located and exposed. Yet, there was no absolute guarantee that we would find his magnificent burial chamber, behind these intimidating walls. Time was becoming a pivotal factor to the excavation and the more time in the tunnel, the more exposure to jungle fever, the men had faced afterward. The faces of the sick men were riveted with extreme pallor and ghastly rashes that were manifest. They had resembled the fallen soldiers, on the battlefields of the continent of Europe. I had only seen this daunting occurrence once, during my time in Africa, when typhoid fever had killed dozens of men, women and helpless children in villages. The consequences were devastating, and I could not erase that memory, even if I wanted to. New workers were recruited from Palenque, but soon they became ill. Subsequently, we had to hire more men, from the neighboring towns and area. It was a horrific anguish to bear, but Professor Olivares was not reluctant in his resolution to succeed at whatever cost. We had come too far to simply give up and return, with no discovery to boast afterward.

April 25, 1916

On this day, there were more terrible news to accept. Professor Olivares was demonstrating the clear symptoms of jungle fever and there was scarce medicine we had disposed to combat this severe form of malaria. We had been using oil of cassia and oil of bergamot to thwart off the bite of the mosquitoes. This was being used by the soldiers on the battlefields of Europe and was extremely effective. Henceforth a preliminary dose of calomel used afterward with saline was advisable, but there was nothing in the town of Palenque that could stop the rate of the pernicious infections that resulted, when the patient was in the most feeble and comatose condition. Although we were proceeding with the excavation, it almost appeared that we were not close to reaching the tomb of Pakal. Our hope was dashing as well was the will of the men to continue digging. There was reservation among them to pursue this venture any more that was lucidly expressed to us. Each and every day there was less clarity in the issue of the continuity of the workers that were digging. With every worker that had gotten ill, we replaced them with new workers. The hospital in Palenque was incapable of treating all the infected patients. Many were taken to other hospitals in the state, while the dead were buried in the mounds by the jungle, far away from the town. There were occasions, when I could not tolerate the stench of death and sickening guise of death seen in the bodies of the deceased workers. It was utter shock and disgust that had disturbed me daily, to the extent of loathing the surroundings around me. At the rate of speed that we were excavating I had calculated that it would take at least a year or two if we were lucky. The thing was that we did not have that amount of time to achieve our objective of finding the hidden tomb of Pakal.

May 5, 1916

I do not know how much longer, the excavation will continue or how much longer did we require to dig to reach the tomb, but I was starting to feel the immediate effects of the symptoms of jungle fever. Professor Olivares could no longer assist me in the excavation, and I was forced to instruct the men alone. I had learned by that time enough Spanish and Mayan to communicate with the workers. Just when it seemed that doom was near, the most incredible phenomenon had transpired. As the workers were digging, one of the workers had discovered a hollow wall that contained behind it, another passage. Subitaneously, I ordered the men to knock down the wall with their pickaxes and shovels and within ten minutes, the wall had tumbled open. There was a conspicuous passage that we entered and then walked through. When he reached the end of the passage, it had led into the astonishing burial chamber of the great Mayan king Pakal. We had seen countless inscriptions on the walls of the chamber. The large carved stone sarcophagus lid in the Temple of Inscriptions was exactly as the legend had mentioned before. Around the edges of the lid, was a band with cosmological signs that had included those for the sun, the moon, and the star, also the heads of six named noblemen of numerous rank. The central image was that of a cruciform world tree and beneath Pakal was one of the heads of a celestial two-headed serpent we had viewed from the front. Both the king and the serpent head on which he appeared to rest were framed by the open jaws of a funerary serpent. This was a usual iconographic device for signaling entrance into the realm of the dead. The king himself was wearing the colorful attributes of the Tonsured maize god. At first, I was completely in awe and speechless of the momentous discovery, until the workers slowly opened the sarcophagus and there within the tomb had laid the dead remains of K'inich Janaab Pakal, with a jade mask over his face.

Then I had removed the mask and saw the dead skull and bones of Pakal and as I stood watching, a surreal figure of a black mist had emerged from within the tomb and taken form. It was the spirit of Pakal that had risen from the dead. The workers were frightened off and scurried out of the burial chamber. I was left alone to gaze at the disturbed spirit. The form had no human constitution and was the mass of a pure spirit that had erected. As this was happening, a loud stir of commotion was heard outside. The Mayans had come to voice their objection to the excavation and the intrusion of their Mayan king. They had come to remove us with vehemence. To them it was a matter of the preservation of their culture. Afterward, the impregnable walls of the Temple of Inscriptions had begun to crumble from inside. I had perceived this movement and had attempted to flee. I was able to escape the temple with my life intact, but the burial chamber of Pakal would be blocked off for decades or even centuries, by the huge collapse of the walls. The Mayans had stopped their aggressive behavior and had seen what had transpired. There was no malice expressed toward us, for it almost seemed to me that they were satisfied to see that we could not interrupt the tomb of Pakal any longer. For a moment, I felt that I understood their plight, and they had understood my tenacity to preserve their old culture and language. In the back of my mind was the unmitigated thought that I had failed in the name of archaeology and had failed Professor Peterson and Professor Olivares. Were their deaths in vain, or had they died for what was their tremendous passion, exploring the world for the insoluble oddities of life?

I had received some minor contusions and scratches on me, but nothing of a serious nature. However, my health was dissipating by the hazardous effects of the jungle fever. I would be treated then in Palenque for the malady. I believe it was not only my strength, but my persistence to survive that had allowed me to overcome the illness. Professor Olivares was not that fortunate, and he had died outside of the ruins of Palenque, along with a total of twenty-five workers who had given their lives to the excavation of the temple. I left Palenque thereafter, with nothing more than the memory and with my life. But there was one valuable token of the temple that I had rescued and kept as a vivid reminder of the expedition, the jade mask of K'inich Janaab Pakal, the longest ruler of the ancient Mayans of Meso-America.

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