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TitleOld America - Ancient Ruins (5)
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1875
AuthorsOttinger, G.M.
JournalJuvenile Instructor
Date Published24 July 1875
KeywordsAncient America; Mesoamerica

Series of articles dealing with archaeological, anthropological, geographical, societal, religious, and historical aspects of ancient America and their connections to the Book of Mormon, which is the key to understanding “old American” studies.

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In the northern part of the Mexican State of Chiapas, hidden from sight by the dense forest, and forgotten long before the arrival of Cortez, the extensive ruins since known as Palenque were discovered during the year 1750. Whether the discovery was due to chance, or to divine revelation made to the Indians, as is asserted in that country, one thing is certain: they were never mentioned before that year. The news of their discovery excited considerable interest in Spain, and two explorations were made by order of the government (Bernasconi's, 1784, and Del Rio's, 1785). The expedition of Del Rio alone was productive of any result, and that only in the form of a and superficial description. Eighteen years afterwards Charles IV., of Spain, caused a careful reconnaissance to be made of them, but the results if the expedition long remained unknown. During the period of the revolution the three memorials of Captain Dupaix and the drawings of his companion, Castaneda, remained forgotten in the archives of Mexico. Finally, by exchange, they became the property of M. Baradere, who published them in 1834 in a work called Recuil des Antiquities Mexicaines. Waldeck (1834) and Stephens (1843) have added much to Dupaix, by giving fac-similes of the hieroglyphical tablets. Other explorers have since visited the ruins, and with pen and pencil excited our curiosity. And still it is possible that many of the ruined edifices have not been seen, but lie buried and unknown in the forest. The largest building at Palenque is called the "palace." It stands near the river on a terraced, pyramidal foundation 40 feet high, and 310 feet long, by 260 broad at the base. The building, which is built of hewn stone and laid in cement with remarkable precision, faces the east, and is 228 feet long, 180 feet wide and 25 feet high, and has fourteen doorways on each side, with eleven at the ends. A corridor nine feet wide and roofed by a pointed arch went around the building on the outside; this was separated from another within of equal width.

The "palace" has four interior courts, the largest being seventy by eighty feet. They are surrounded by corridors, and the architectural work facing them is richly and elaborately finished. Around the top of the building runs a broad cornice of stone. The whole building has been originally coated with stucco and painted, remains of red, yellow, blue, black and white paint being still visible in many places. Between the doorways are square pieces adorned with spirited figures in stucco. A flight of broad stone steps leads up the side of the terrace to the principal doorway. From the north side of one of the courts rises a tower three stories high, built of stone; it is thirty feet square at the base. Within the courts of the palace are several other buildings, all much ruined. The great mound used for the foundation of this building was encased with stone, the workmanship here and everywhere else about this structure being very superior. Where the stucco, or plaster, has been broken, six or more layers or coats are revealed, each layer presenting traces of painting. This indicates that the building had been used so long before it was deserted that the plastering needed to be many times renewed.

It would be beyond our limits to attempt to give a detailed description of the sculptured bas reliefs, the groups and figures in stucco which decorate the walls of the innumerable rooms and corridors in the palace; we therefore refer our readers to the beautiful drawings by Catherwood and the graphic descriptions of Mr. Stephens' works. Two other buildings marked by Mr. Stephens in his plan of the ruins as "Casa No. 1" and "Casa No. 2," are remarkable. No. 1 is seventy-five feet long, by twenty-five feet wide, and stands on the summit of a high truncated pyramid; it has solid walls on all sides save the north, where there are five doorways. In the interior are a corridor and three rooms, and between the doorways leading from the corridor to these rooms are great tablets, each thirteen feet long and eight feet high, all covered with elegantly carved inscriptions. A similar but smaller tablet, covered with an inscription, appears on the wall of the central room. This building resembles the palace in architectural and ornamental features, and also displays the same workmanship. Casa No. 2, generally called "La Cruz," is built on a steep and lofty pyramid, which stands on a terraced foundation. The building is fifty feet long, by thirty-one wide; it has three doorways at the south, with a corridor and three rooms. This edifice has, above the height required for the rooms, "two stories of interlaced stucco-work, resembling a high fanciful lattice." Here I may say, as to ornamentation, the walls, piers and cornices of all the ruined buildings of Palenque are covered with it; everywhere the artistic skill and workmanship is displayed, Mr. Stevens going so far as to say "In justness of proportion and symmetry of form, approaching the Greek models." This building is usually called "La Cruz," because the most prominent object within the building is a great bas relief, on which is sculptured a cross and several human figures. The building is approached by a flight of steps. Dupaix says, "It is impossible to describe adequately the interior decorations of this sumptuous temple." This cross is supposed to have been the central object of interest. It was wonderfully sculptured and decorated, and occupies the centre of the sculptured tablet. It stands on a highly ornamented pedestal, and is surmounted by an extraordinary bird, the wings and tail of which bear a strong resemblance to many of the plumes in the head dresses of the figures on the walls of the palace. Around the bird's neck hang strings of beads, from which is suspended an ornament resembling the curious flower called 'by the Aztecs "macphalxochitl," or "flower of the hand," the pistil being in the form of a bird's foot, with six fingers terminating in so many nails. On each side of the cross, with their faces turned towards it, are two male figures, carved with a justness of proportion equal to the sculptured remains of Egypt. One of these figures seems to be making an offering of a child to the bird. The infant held by this figure suggests the idea of a Christianity. The other figure is looking on, and being, shorter that his companion, is mounted on a kind of footstool. in order to bring his head in a line, and properly balance the composition. The costume of the men is different from that of the other figures found among the ruins; for while the garments of the latter in many cases indicate the warrior, the robes of these two figures are made of a pliable texture, more resembling the loose cotton drapery of the priest.

The cross is one of the most common emblems found in all the ruins, and this led the early Catholic missionaries to assume that the knowledge of Christianity had been brought to that part of America long before their arrival; and they adopted the belief that the gospel was preached in Yucatan by St. Thomas.

In one of the other "casas" there is a tablet containing two figures very much resembling the two in adoration before the cross in Casa No. 2. Here they appear to be making offerings of infants to a hideous mask with the tongue lolling out of the mouth, and supported by two crossed batons richly ornamented. The floors of these adoratorios were excavated by Del Rio, and found to contain an earthen vessel and a circular stone, beneath which were a stone head, two small pyramids, with the figure of a heart made of dark crystal and two covered earthen jars containing a substance resembling Vermilion.

Among the stucco ornaments in these buildings are beautiful designs of plants and flowers. Mr. Stephens also found the sculptured head and two bodies of figures of most just and perfect proportion and symmetry of form. One statue only has been found similar to those of Copan. It is ten and a half feet high, elaborately carved and engraven with hieroglyphics.

What more mav be discovered at Palenque when the whole field of its ruins shall have been explored it is impossible to say. The chief difficulty in the way is explained by Mr. Stephens, who states that the forest is so dense that without a guide he might have gone within a hundred feet of the buildings without discovering them. More, much more, has been discovered by explorers than I have mentioned.

The ruins of Palenque, or Otolum, as it is called by some writers, are deemed by archaeologists of the greatest importance, on account of the abundance of inscriptions found there, which it is believed will at length be deciphered, being similar to the written characters of the Mayas, which are now understood.