Stairway to Heaven

The hieroglyphic stairway of Palenque

British Museum

Map of Mesoamerica, Eva Jobbova, 2019, From the collection of: British Museum
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Photograph of Chichén Itzá taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

Alfred P. Maudslay is one of the most important 19th century explorers of the Maya area...

...and his work is a legacy for future generations.

A.P. Maudslay with his pet spider monkey (c. 1900) by A.P MaudslayBritish Museum

The Maudslay Collection at the British Museum, his plaster casts and glass plate negatives of Maya monuments and inscriptions, are important for the conservation and study of Palenque’s architecture and sculpture.

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

Over the years many sculptures have eroded due to weather and time, in particular the Hieroglyphic Stairway of House C.

The stairway has been exposed to the tropical environment since it was constructed during the reign of K’ihnich Janaahb Pakal in the 7th century CE.

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

The Palace of Palenque is one of the most emblematic buildings, not only of this ancient city but also of the entire Maya world.

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

The Palace was a royal and administrative structure composed of different buildings, called “houses”, as well as two main courtyards, which date from the Early Classic to the Late Classic period.

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

This area was the focus of urban reconstruction by king K’ihnich Janaahb Pakal during the second half of the 7th century CE.

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

House C

This building known as House C is located at the north side of the Palace and was constructed in 661 CE to celebrate the victories of king K’ihnich Janaahb Pakal against the Santa Elena polity (near today’s Balancan town in Tabasco) and his allies during 559 CE.

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

Hieroglyphic Stairway

This was the state of conservation of the Hieroglyphic Stairway in 1891 during Maudslay’s visit to Palenque.

The passing of time and the vagaries of the climate in Palenque have damaged the Hieroglyphic Stairway. Today, this is the state of conservation.

Drawing of the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Palenque (1890s) by Annie HunterBritish Museum

First passage

The beginning text of the Stairway relates the birthdate of king K’ihnich Janaahb Pakal on March 24, 603 CE . In Classic Ch’olan –a prestigious language spoken by the Maya elite and their courts throughout the Maya area– it says sihyaj K’ihnich Janaahb Pakal which means “was born K’ihnich Janaahb Pakal”.

Drawing of the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Palenque (1890s) by Annie HunterBritish Museum

Second passage

The next part of the inscription records the enthronement of K’ihnich Janaahb Pakal twelve years later on July 27, 615 CE . The text says: k’ahlaj huun tu’ baah K’ihnich Janaahb Pakal - “was tied the crown upon his head”

The Oval Tablet
The Oval Tablet housed inside House E (the structure in the Palace destined for the throne
Palenque kings) shows the accession scene of K’ihnich Janaahb Pakal. His mother Ix Sak K’uk’ is raising the royal crown upon his head.

Palenque – Palace House E, Stone slab, The British Museum, 2017-2019, From the collection of: British Museum
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Drawing of the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Palenque (1890s) by Annie HunterBritish Museum

Third passage

The text continues and goes on to narrate one of the most humiliating events in the history of Palenque: the destruction of Lakamha“Big Waters” –the ancient name of the ceremonial area of the city– at the hands of king Hut? … Chan or “Sky Witness” from the Kaanul dynasty, then located in Dzibanché, Quintana Roo.

This event occurred on April 21,  599 CE. So, this is a retrospective event, king Pakal was not even born yet. As part of the attack Palenque’s three patron gods were tumbled over and destroyed.

Photo of one of panels in the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, Mexico (1891) by Alfred P. MaudslayBritish Museum

Temple of the Inscriptions

A section of the East Tablet of the Temple of the Inscriptions records a second attack by the king of Kaanul nicknamed “Scroll Serpent” on April 4, 611 CE.

Pakal was a ch’ok “youth, prince” of eight years during this time.

Drawing of the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Palenque (1890s) by Annie HunterBritish Museum

Fourth passage

This is the climax of the text and describes the military campaign directed by K’ihnich Janhab Pakal against the Santa Elena polity, located in Tabasco. It starts by saying that there was an exhibition of the body or the remains of Nuun Hix Lakam Chak, ruler of Santa Elena.

This was probably the father of Nuun Ujol Chahk, the next king of Santa Elena and the one that was captured on August 8, 659 CE, in the company of another six minor lords of the Usumacinta region. These six lords are represented in the panels to the sides of the Hieroglyphic Stairway in House C.

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

On both sides of the Hieroglyphic Stairway a sculptural programme composed of three captives is on display. These captives show an attitude of submission and respect towards the entrance of House C, where once upon a time king Pakal used to rejoice in his victory against the Santa Elena polity. 

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

We can see in the background of the Hieroglyphic Stairway that the interior of House C was used by Maudslay for all kind of things, especially since he worked there night and day (you can see his hammock in the last slide!).

And the interior was filled with clotheslines, and shelves to keep all his personal stuff, tables and chairs where he used to work.

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

Panel 1

This captive is called Matz’al. His arms are crossed over his chest as a gesture of respect and submission towards the ruler of Palenque.

Drawing of an inscription from Palenque (1890s) by Annie HunterBritish Museum

Unfortunately, the text in front of him is very damaged and it is impossible to figure out his origin.

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

Panel 2

In this part a captive named K’ahk’ K’in is represented.

Drawing of an inscription from Palenque (1890s) by Annie HunterBritish Museum

Captive 2

It is recorded in the text that he was a ritualist ch’ahoom “censer, sacrificer” and that his origin is from a not yet identified political entity.

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

Panel 3

The third captive is Ajan Ahk...

Drawing of an inscription from Palenque (1890s) by Annie HunterBritish Museum

...about whom the text specifies that he was originally from a place called Ho’ Pet Kab “Five-Round-Earths”.

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

Panel 4

This sculpture and inscription represents Ahiin Chan Ahk...

Drawing of an inscription from Palenque (1890s) by Annie HunterBritish Museum

...and the text mentiones that he was a lord of Pomoná in Tabasco, in ancient times known as Pipa.

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

Panel 5

In the fifth panel we see Sakjaal Kokaaj

Drawing of an inscription from Palenque (1890s) by Annie HunterBritish Museum

...a captive who was from a place named Wa’lib (which we unfortunately cannot identify on the map).

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

Panel 6

The last panel represents a captive with his arms crossed over his chest again, in a submissive gesture.

Drawing of an inscription from Palenque (1890s) by Annie HunterBritish Museum

This figure is named as Aj K’in Mak and is associated with an unknown place called Yan Ahk.

Drawing of the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Palenque (1890s) by Annie HunterBritish Museum

Fifth and final passage

The final passage of the Hieroglyphic Stairway records the name of House C as Ehtej Naah or “The House of the Achievements”. This name of the building reflects the military success of K’ihnich Janhab Pakal during his  659 CE,  as well as later campaigns. As a result, two years later, in 661 CE he constructed House C to celebrate his victory over the king of Santa Elena, Nuun Ujol Chahk and his allies.

So we can say that House C was the place for the trophies and victories of the most important ruler of Palenque, king Pakal.

The Maudslay legacy for the archaeology and conservation of monuments in Palenque is invaluable. Thanks to its detailed record of sculptures and buildings, we have access to information that would otherwise be lost today.

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay, Alfred Percival Maudslay, 1881/1894, From the collection of: British Museum
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Credits: Story

All images © Trustees of the British Museum unless otherwise marked
Text and image selection: Yuriy Polyukhovych and Ángel Adrián Sánchez Gamboa, Epigraphists of the Proyecto Colecciones en los Museo de Chiapas: Museo de Palenque, Museo de Toniná y Museo de Comitán de Dominguez.  
   
  

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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