By Gillett G. Griffin

(Presented at the first Palenque Round Table in 1973)

In the second half of the eighteenth century, vague rumors of an ancient city lost in the Chiapas forests persistently reached the ears of Fray Ramon de Ordonez y Aguiar, who was Canon of the Cathedral in what is now San Cristobal de las Casas. These ruins were said to be near the tiny pueblo of Santo Domingo del Palenque.

In December of 1784, eleven years later, on orders from Guatemala the mayor of Santo Domingo del Palenque, Jose Antonio Calderon, accompanied by Antonio Bernaconi, an Italian architect sent from Guatemala, visited the ruins. They drafted a report early in 1785.

"Temple of the High Hill" by Catherwood.
(click picture for complete caption)

In 1773 Fray Ramon sent his brother the long and difficult way to Palenque from San Cristobal. From what his brother reported he wrote a "memoria". This first educated look at the ancient site of Palenque in modern times occurred just exactly two hundred years before the first Palenque Round Table.

That report stimulated the first serious investigation into the ruins. In 1786 an artillery captain, Don Antonio del Rio, was officially ordered by the Spanish Crown to search the place for gold or other precious things. In his own words "it would be indispensably necessary to make several excavations...that I should find medals, inscriptions, or monuments that would throw some light upon my researches."

Temple of the Cross by Waldeck

Del Rio arrived in early May of 1786. Battling fog and thick foliage, del Rio retreated from the ruins to the village of Santo Domingo del Palenque to regroup. He sought out Jose Antonio Calderon, who had explored the ruins a year earlier with Bernaconi, and through him ordered Indian laborers.

Seventy-nine Chol-speaking Mayas showed up and finally provided with forty-eight axes and assorted bill-hooks they attacked the Palace on the 18th of May. Two days later a huge bonfire opened up the Palace area for the first time in a millenium. They then attacked the structure with, he complains, but seven iron crowbars and three pickaxes.

In his own words: "ultimately there remained neither a window nor a doorway blocked up; a partition that was not thrown down, nor a room, corridor, court, tower, nor subterranean passage in which excavations were not effected from two to three yards in depth, for such was the object of my mission."

To corroborate his report he dislodged the stucco head of a sacrificial victim on one of the piers of the western facade of the Palace and the leg and foot of the executioner as well as a carved leg of the throne or bench under the elliptical relief in the corridor of Structure E and a part of the corbal decoration found on one of the entrances to the subterranean rooms of the palace.

These were sent on to Guatemala and thence to Spain as examples of Palencian bas-relief. He further took stucco from the Temple of the Inscriptions and dug up offerings from under the floors of the Temple of the Sun and the two Temples of the Crosses.

But even so, del Rio brought from his excavations also a sense of wonder and awe for those Indians who had built Palenque.
Temple of the Cross

His report is fair and accurate. It was sent to Spain, where it was swallowed up in the archives, but a copy of it was picked up in Guatemala City by an Englishman, who took it to London, where it was published as a slim volume in 1822. The illustrations were copies of copies of del Rio's sketches, rather flatly rendered into line lithographs by none other than Jean Frederic Maxmilien, Comte de Waldeck. This little volume caught the attention of a few people and helped kindle investigations into the study of Maya civilization.