The name Palenque, Spanish for fortification, is a rough translation of the Ch’ol Maya term Otolum (Strong Houses); that’s how local residents described the mysterious stone ruins to Spanish explorers at the time of the conquest. The ancient city’s true original name was Lakam Ha, or Big Water, surely a reference to the many springs and streams found in the area. It was the capital of a city-state known as B’aak (Bone Kingdom).
Scholars have been able to decipher enough Maya glyphs to construct a reasonable genealogy of the Palenque kings, from the rule of Chaacal I (A.D. 501) to the demise of Kuk (A.D. 783). But it was the period from A.D. 615 to 702, during the glorious reigns of Pakal the Great and his eldest son, Kan Balam, that Palenque grew from a minor city to an important economic and political center.
Palenque ’s most distinguished leader, Pakal the Great (properly called K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, or Great Sun Shield, but also referred to as Lord Pakal or Pakal II) was born in A.D. 603 and ascended to the throne in A.D. 615, when he was just 12 years old. Pakal lived to be 81 years old—remarkable for that time—and during his long rule expanded Palenque’s influence throughout the western Maya lowlands. He built the Temple of the Inscriptions to house his own elaborate tomb, and commissioned many of the most notable structures and artwork in the palace.
Pakal was succeeded by his eldest son, Kan Balam (Serpent Jaguar, also written as Kan Balamok) who was noteworthy for having six digits on his hands and feet. (To maintain the royal bloodline, Maya rulers often took relatives as wives, eventually leading to birth defects. Pakal himself had a clubfoot, and some archaeologists believe his mother and father were siblings. Likewise, Pakal may have married his sister, leading to his son’s defects.) Kan Balam reigned for 18 years and built the Temples of the Cross, Foliated Cross, and Sun , which emphasize the preordination of his rule.
When Kan Balam died in A.D. 702, his younger brother, Kan Xul, took the reins of power. His rule was Palenque ’s apogee in terms of population—over 50,000 by some estimates—and political power, controlling a region that extended nearly from the Sierra Madre to the Gulf of Mexico. But the glory was not to last; in A.D. 711, Palenque attacked its traditional rival, Toniná , but was unexpectedly defeated by the much smaller kingdom. Palenque’s king was captured and killed—described in victorious carvings and texts in Toniná—leaving Palenque in disarray, with no supreme ruler for over a decade. A new king named K’inich Akal Mo’ Nab’—presumably a descendant of the Pakal dynasty but possibly not—emerged in A.D. 722, and was succeeded by his son and grandson. Several new structures were commissioned under their reigns, and Palenque appeared to be on the rise once again. However the historical record abruptly ends in A.D. 799, after which the city underwent a rapid and lasting decline, part of a widespread Maya collapse during that period.
The first detailed account of Palenque by Europeans was made by a Spanish army captain, Antonio del Río, who passed through in March 1785. (Two centuries earlier, Hernán Cortés came within a few dozen kilometers of the ruins but apparently never knew they were there.) Del Río drew maps and plans and eventually received a royal order to excavate the site for a year. But the Spaniard’s “excavation” was amateur and brutish and led to the destruction of a number of structures. Captain del Río also broadcast wild and fantastic assumptions about the beginnings of the Mayas, and it wasn’t long before visions of Palenque as the lost city of Atlantis or a sister civilization to the ancient Egyptians circulated in Europe. A true picture of Palenque  didn’t emerge until the mid-1800s, when the American diplomat John L. Stephens and English artist Frederick Catherwood visited the site and wrote and drew realistic and detailed accounts of what they saw.
For detailed reports and photos of current and past archaeological digs, check out www.mesoweb.com/palenque .