Mexican archaeologists replace stone slab of Maya Ruler Pakal on sarcophagus


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More than 1,300 years after an entourage accompanied the mortal remains of the Maya ruler K’inich Janaab’ Pakal into the crypt at Temple of the Inscriptions, in the ancient city of Palenque, experts from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) conducted the definitive placement of the slab that covers the sarcophagus.

Pakal-2This work is part of the Palenque Archaeological Zone Program, in Chiapas, which includes consolidation of Temple XX, restoration of Casa C at The Palace, and other minor maintenance tasks at the archaeological site. The recently updated collections are being moved to a new warehouse, while all the information is being gathered in a database.

The hieroglyphic inscriptions of Palenque narrate that the Maya dignitary, also known as Pakal II, passed away on August 28th 683. His rest was interrupted a thousand years later by Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhulllier, who, after 4 years of excavations, discovered the funerary chamber on June 12th 1952.

Nine stucco warriors surrounded, as guardians, the extraordinary slab, sculpted over a monolithic sarcophagus. This enormous slab -2.2 meters wide and 3.6 long, with 7 tons in weight- was elevated in the 1950’s to explore the interior of the sepulcher where the remains of the Maya ruler rest.

Since the massive visit to the precinct provoked excessive humidity and high temperature in the tomb, it was closed to the public in 2004. It was also considered the appropriateness of substituting the metallic plaques that supported the slab, since they presented corrosion.

In 2008, INAH, through its National Coordination of Cultural Heritage (CNCPC), backed up an interdisciplinary project designed to define the conservation state of the slab and the other goods at the crypt: stucco reliefs, flattening and steps among other things, which implied a detailed register of conservation, architectural and archaeological aspects.

Specialists from different instances of INAH, such as the National Coordination of Archaeology, the National Coordination of Conservation, the Sub-direction of Laboratories and Academic Support, and the Palenque Archaeological Zone collaborated; the support provided by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) through its Institute of Engineering was invaluable.

Based on documentary check, high definition photography, analog and digital archaeological drawing and other techniques, a commemorative publication is projected by INAH, which goes beyond the already published information by archaeologists such as Alberto Ruz Lhulllier and Merle Greene.

One of the remarkable aspects of the project of the funerary space conservation is the new registration of the slab of Pakal II with the penetration radar device. This state of the art technology, owned by INAH, allowed knowing if the slab presented fissures or other anomalies that would compromise the removal of the metallic plaques that supported it.

According to the scan conducted by Jose Ortega Ramirez, PhD, from the INAH Geophysics Laboratory, it was concluded that the slab –made out of a single block of sedimentary rock of a thickness that goes from 245 to 290 millimeters- does not present fractures but its northeastern corner presents a high concentration of humidity.

Previous Maneuvers

With this information, in July 2010 the metallic beams were substituted with wooden ones while waiting for the report of the INAH Council of Archaeology about the convenience of introducing new stainless steel beams, or place in its original location the slab, since the remains of Pakal have been extensively studied and there are plenty of samples, so it can be permanently closed.

Maneuvers supervised by restorer Rogelio Rivero Chong, sub director at the INAH office of Conservation of the Cultural Heritage, and Abraham Roberto Sanchez Ramirez, chief of the Laboratory of Structures and Material at the Institute of Engineering of the National University of Mexico (UNAM) took place between July and October 2010.

The metallic sheet under the slab was not directly supported by the slab: the team headed by Alberto Ruz placed mortar bearings between the metallic beams and the slab to avoid oxide to be in contact with the Prehispanic monument.

To remove the 4 beams that measure 135 centimeters long by 120 wide, a gaming articulation was implemented with hydraulic jacks and wedges. In their place, robust wooden beams were set, in order to provide better support than the metallic sheets.

The crypt was protected with a tubular structure and agglomerate wood panels to avoid contact with the stucco reliefs. The stone slab, the sarcophagus, as well as the floor and steps, were covered with layers of synthetic cloth, polyethilene foam and geotextile.


The INAH Council of Archaeology resolved to cover the sarcophagus in a definitive way, approving the maneuver to lower the carved slab of Pakal to its original place. It will remain suspended on wooden beams, 90 centimeters over the surface of the sarcophagus.

The work was hard, taking place in conditions where humidity was of 100%, in 10-12 hour working days, where restorers, engineers and support staff remained inside the crypt for almost 4 days, representing nearly 40 hours of maneuvers.

The team headed by restorer Rogelio Rivero Chong and engineer Roberto Sanchez Ramirez wore chemical protection suits to avoid any contamination of the funerary context.

First operation, focused on the retirement of the wooden beams, was conducted with a hydraulic jacks system – 4, with 10 tons capacity each – distributed under the slab that weighs 7 tons, providing enough security to support it.

These maneuvers required great precision and coordination, since the beams were alternately displaced, cut and removed from the crypt thanks to help provided by 15 workers, part of the Palenque Archaeological Zone Minor Maintenance Program.

The second operation, lowering the slab, was conducted using 2 hydraulic jacks each time, to raise and lower the slab in alternation so it was gradually and securely placed. Inch by inch, the stone slab was lowered until it contacted the sarcophagus; the union was sealed with a mix of lime and sand, to allow, in the long term, a reduced passing of oxygen, to control the conservation conditions inside the sarcophagus.

After successfully concluding the descent process of the stone slab of Pakal, that may be qualified as historical, monitoring of temperature and humidity inside the crypt will continue, as well as preventive conservation and consolidation of the area. Compilation of registration data will be finished as well.

Later, a new exploration proposal will be presented to the INAH Council of Archaeology, with the aim of verifying if the crypt has a frontal access, as the sepulcher of the Red Queen has, in Temple 12; this would refute the Ruz Lhullier theory that points out that the tomb of Pakal was the starting point of the construction of the Temple of Inscriptions.

Iconography of the Slab

The edge of the Temple of the Inscriptions slab is carved with a long glyphic inscription. Its lecture begins in the southern side of the monument where it is marked that Pakal was born on December 23rd 603 AD, and died on August 28th 683 AD. It is mentioned that he was the successor of the dynasty because his ancestors ordered it, the “Wise Lords of the First Serpent”.

Narrations continue in the eastern side, where it is mentioned that the sarcophagus is carved, and then, the “entrance to the path” of several Palenque lords is registered.

In the northern side, the inscription is about the death of ruler Ajen Yohl Mat, on August 8th, 612 of the Common Era. At last, the glyphic text of the west refers to the departure of Janaab’ Pakal I, probably the grandfather of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, on March 6th 612 AD. Dates when his parents died, lady Sak K’ uk’ and lord K’an Mo’ Ix are registered.

The slab has carved the scene that represents the way K’inich Janaab’ Pakal transcends his death, becoming K’awiil, deity of maize. As the deity, Pakal wears a headband of flames and assumes fetal position.

Action takes place in the context of the Tree of the World that crosses the 3 levels of Cosmos: underworld, terrestrial and celestial.

The ruler is suspended between these levels, and according the ancient Maya conception, he is about to descend to the underworld where he has to defeat the lords of death to be reborn as the maize deity and ascend to the celestial level, where he will secure the balance of the universe and guarantee the continuity of his people.

Diverse deities testify the events where Pakal transcends the different levels through the Tree of the World, which sprouts from the head of the monster of the earth, identified by the sacrificial recipient he carries. The scene is framed by 2 celestial bands that represent astronomical signs and characters that seem to be saving prayers for the deceased ruler.

Source: Art Daily [January 26, 2011]



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