Summer 1948: A flagstone on the floor of the Temple of Inscriptions has troubled the archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier for too many years. He cannot understand why it is the only flagstone in this room to contain these holes. And what, precisely, might be the reason for them, he ponders. Is it simply more evidence of the tomb raiders who have looted so much from these lost cities? Or could it possibly be….? He can’t dismiss the idea that a breakthrough in their work could be close. It is stiflingly hot inside the temple. The Mexican takes a damp handkerchief from his pocket and dabs his brow. He feels his heartbeat throbbing in his neck as a thought takes hold in his head. What if…? He strides toward the flagstone, his trousers clinging to his legs. ‘We must lift it,’ he declares, eyeing his colleagues in turn. He is quite sure of that now. ‘We must discover where it leads.’ What follows is dangerous, painstaking work. For four years they labour, carefully excavating ever deeper into the heart of the temple, until their toil is finally rewarded. On the 15th June 1952 they discover the tomb of K’inich Janaab Pakal, “Pakal the Great”, one of the most revered of the Maya rulers of Palenque. He has laid here undisturbed for 1300 years. Ruz Lhuillier puts pen to paper and writes the following: ‘Out of the dim shadow emerged a vision from a fairy tale, a fantastic, ethereal sight from another world. It seemed a huge magic grotto carved out of ice, the walls sparkling and glistening like snow crystals. Delicate festoons of stalactites, like the tassels of a curtain, and the stalagmites on the floor looked like drippings from a great candle. The impression, in fact, was that of an abandoned chapel. Across the walls marched stucco figures in low relief. Then my eyes sought the floor. This was almost entirely filled with a great carved stone slab, in perfect condition.’ The discovery was to make Ruz Lhuillier a minor celebrity, though the big question is this: was Pakal the Great really an alien?
28th August: Like the Mayan city of Tikal, Palenque, too, sits among thick jungle. It is hot and steamy, said to be one of the wettest places in Mexico. It’s no more than a seven hundred metre walk from our camp-site to the entrance of the Palenque ruins and already my clothes are damp with the effort. We cross a bridge spanning a river. Shafts of sunlight spear the pools of water where the Maya nobility came to while away the hours gossiping, scheming and, no doubt, just trying to stay cool. As we pursue the meandering path up the hill through the greenery, the humidity clings to the skin like a veil. I begin to feel like an explorer of old – which of course is totally ridiculous, because none of them travelled with all the benefits of a Toyota LandCruiser. John L Stephens and Frederick Catherwood arrived here in May 1840, exhausted and diseased, following their arduous overland journey. They camped for a month at the base of the palace. On his return home Stephens, a lawyer, explorer and travel writer, penned Incidents of travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucutan in 2 volumes, whilst Catherwood, an architect by trade, made the illustrations. Despite the efforts of earlier explorers, Catherwood’s illustrations were considered to be the first significant depictions of Mayan ruins in Central America and the Yucatan. As they stood atop the Temple of Inscriptions, observing their surroundings, they could have had no idea what rested beneath them, the tomb that was to be uncovered by Ruz Lhuillier some 112 years later. K’inich Janaab Pakal, Pakal the Great, ascended to the throne in 614 AD, at the age of 12. He was ushered into power by the “Wise Lords of the First Serpent”, relieving his mother, Queen Sak K’uk, of the crown. Pakal is credited with turning round the fortunes of the Palenque dynasty, following a number of defeats at the hands of rival kingdoms. Pakal’s reign lasted 68 years. He died at the age of 8o. After his death it was incumbent upon the former sovereign to ascend through the three levels of the cosmos, being the underworld, the terrestrial world and, finally, the celestial world, from where he could secure the balance of the universe and guarantee the continuity of his people. In the funerary chamber found deep in the Temple of the Inscriptions Ruz Lhuillier and his colleagues uncovered 620 hieroglyphs covering 180 years of events surrounding the Palenque court. Nine warriors modelled in stucco surrounded the sarcophagus, which included hundreds of objects made of jadeite, shell and obsidian, and a jade mosaic funerary mask. Many of these items are national treasures. In the Palenque museum there is an interpretation of the carvings on the slab covering Pakal’s sarcophagus. According to the museum it is a scene in which the ruler appears as the personification of K’awiil, the patron god of agriculture. He wears a flaming crown and crouches over the “Quadripartite Monster”, an entity that personified the sacrificial vessel. He rises from the jaws of the Sak B’aak Naah Chapaat, the “First Centipede of the White Bones”, which represented the depths of the underworld and is considered the Way of the god K’awiil. Pakal reaches the terrestrial level guided by the trunk of the Sacred Tree, the same tree that is crossed by a two-headed serpent. From the serpent’s heads emerge the gods K’awiil and the Jester God. The scene is framed by two skies containing astronomical signs. Whether the bones found in the tomb are indeed Pakal’s is still under debate: analysis of the wear on the teeth suggests a man 40 years younger than Pakal when he died. But could such disagreement amongst the scientific establishment be a smokescreen for a more sinister explanation? The Swiss author Erich Von Daniken would undoubtedly say it was.
As a youth I was enthralled by the theories of Erich Von Daniken. In 1968, whilst working as the manager of the Hotel Rosenhugel in Davos, Switzerland, he published a best-seller Chariots of the Gods? in which he made controversial claims about extra-terrestrial influences on early human culture: in effect, Von Daniken claimed that Martians, or “ancient astronauts”, were responsible for the construction of such ancient marvels as the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, the Moa of Easter Island and the great Mayan cities of Central America. In his opinion the slab covering Pakal’s sarcophagus was clear evidence that the former ruler came from another planet, for the carvings clearly show him sitting atop a rocket, a breathing apparatus in his mouth, his hands manipulating the controls of his machine and his foot pressing a pedal. It was terrific stuff. I lapped it up. I mean, how could mere humans move all these enormous stones? And all this weird artwork and inscriptions – they could be nothing else but the visions of men from out of space. The archaeologists and scientists accused Von Daniken of being a looney. They said the inscriptions were done by Mayans most probably under the influence of magic mushrooms. When Von Daniken was convicted of several financial crimes they simply used it as more ammunition to discredit him. Not to be deterred, apparently the former hotelier wrote his second book, Gods from Outer Space, from the comfort of his prison cell. Von Daniken’s theories might be a load of old bunkum but…aah, what the hell, it’s a great story.
30th August: The road from Palenque to San Cristobal de las Casas crosses some beautiful country. Highway 199 has a history of bad-ass highwaymen, so we question a policeman concerning the latest security situation before heading out. ‘Muy tranquilo,‘ the policeman assures us. And he’s right: the only aggression we come across is a bunch of vultures cackling over a squashed chicken. San Cristobal is a wonderful colonial town set at 2000 metres altitude. It’s cooler up here and I feel the heat being purged from my bones. Though, it’s also the rainy season and in our three days here the rain barely lets up. Very soon this cool environment which came as such a relief turns to a shiver. It’s time to head to the coast. Zipolite Beach, on the Pacific Coast, has something of a reputation as a nudist beach. Sounds just the job:a beach that’s hot enough to wander around naked has to be a good place to warm up.