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Of Majesty and Mayhem

An exhibition of ancient Maya art points up the opulence and violence of the great Mesoamerican civilization

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Maya specialist George Stuart, who was staff archaeologist for the National Geographic Society from 1960 to 1998, once called Palenque the “most beautiful and evocative” of all the Maya ruins. “From a distance,” he wrote, “Palenque’s buildings appear as tiny jewel casks gleaming whitely on their graceful pyramids and platforms.” The most spectacular Palenque discovery came in 1952, when Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier found an immense sarcophagus at the end of a secret staircase deep inside the Temple of Inscriptions. “Out of the shadow arose a vision from a fairy tale,” Ruz would recall. It was the tomb of Pakal the Great, who ruled Palenque from a.d. 615, when he was 12, until his death in 683, at 80. The tomb was covered by a slab with a bas-relief showing the king emerging from the jaws of the underworld—a scene symbolic of resurrection. Inside, Ruz found Pakal’s skeleton and a jade death mask, with eyes of white shell and black obsidian. Jade jewelry adorned his remains— a necklace, pendants, earrings and rings. The highly prized green stone, colored rather like a corn husk, represented yet another royal association with the Maize God.

A strikingly individualistic stucco head of Pakal, also in the show, was found beneath the sarcophagus. It demonstrates the preference that Palenque sculptors had for naturalistic portraiture. (Other Maya artists, by contrast, tended to favor idealized portrayals of kings, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other.) “The idea of being interested in the individual is something that seems special for Palenque,” says Miller. Simon Martin, a researcher at the University of PennsylvaniaMuseum of Archaeology and Anthropology and coauthor of the exhibition catalog with Miller, goes further. Pakal’s artists, he says, were “in a sense creating a cult of personality.”

In 2002, a limestone panel from a.d. 736 was found buried in the rubble of one of Palenque’s temples. The relief pictures Pakal, who had died 53 years earlier, flanked by his grandsons. It was long believed that the period of Palenque’s greatest wealth and power, and the achievements and artistic production that Pakal set in motion, ended with the reign (a.d. 702 to circa 720) of his second son.Mary Miller says that the discovery of this panel, which is featured in the exhibition, proves “that the long arm of Pakal extended right up to the end of the dynasty.”

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