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Public History - Palenque!

On Thursday, June 9, we arose early and packed the van for the trip from Chicanna Ecovillage (in Xpujil, Campeche) to Chablis Hotel (in Palenque, Chiapas). The drive took the better part of the day, and we arrived around 3:00 pm. After unloading our luggage, we took our laundry to a local business owner, ate dinner, and Brant went swimming with several of the students.

Early the next morning, June 10, we drove to the archaeological site at Palenque. It was a short trip through a lush, green forest. At the entrance to the site, there were numerous Lacandon Mayas, who were selling hats, crafts, food, and drinks. In fact, people took up positions throughout the archaeological zone to sell handicrafts and souvenirs.

Palenque proved to be everything that we hoped it would be: mysterious, imposing, and enshrouded in jungle. The Maya first settled at the site around 100 BCE, and it reached its height between 600 and 800 CE, when it served as a regional power. The city fell into decline during the early 10th century and was completely abandoned to be taken over by the jungle.

American explorer and diplomat John Stephens and his colleague British artist Frederick Catherwood were among the first Westerners to visit the site, and their book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán (1841), introduced Palenque to the reading public. Visitors traveled to and photographed the site throughout the nineteenth century, but Palenque became a major tourist site after archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier spent four years (1948-1951) excavating a long stairway in the Temple of Inscriptions. Once he reached the bottom, Ruz Lhuillier discovered the tomb of the Maya ruler, K'inich Janaab' Pakal. Pakal had ruled Palenque from 603 to 683 CE, during one of the greatest eras in the city’s history. His body was found with the jade mask and bead necklaces that had been placed on him at the time of his death, and it was encased in an ornate sarcophagus surrounded by sculptures depicting the ruler's transition to divinity. Two decades later, in 1973, archaeologists and epigraphers led by Linda Shelley broke the Maya code at Palenque, and they offered the world the first dynastic history of a major pre-Columbian city-state…using Pakal’s family as their guide.

Following our wonderful tour through Palenque’s many sites, including the Palace, the Observation Tower, the Temple of the Count, the Temple of the Cross, and the Temple of the Foliated Cross, we had the opportunity to visit the Palenque museum. It is a truly remarkable spot with many stelae, sculptures, and an entire underground exhibit on Pakal’s tomb. It is a must see! After the museum, we returned to the hotel, had dinner, and Brant swam.

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