Archaeologists have discovered a system of underground canals beneath the Temple of Inscriptions in the city of Palenque, Chiapas, a find that puts in doubt a theory that the ancient ruler Pakal flew off in a spaceship after he died.
One particular canal was found under Pakal’s tomb and dates back to the seventh century, according to lead archaeologist Arnoldo González Cruz, who said researchers believe the tomb and the pyramid in which it is housed were purposely built over a spring.
The tunnel carried the spring water to the esplanade in front of the temple and, according to the researchers, would have provided Pakal with a path to the underworld.
The spaceship theory came out of the belief by some researchers that carvings on the stone sarcophagus in which Pakal was buried show him seated at the controls of such a craft. “There is nothing to do with spaceships,” González said in a report by the Associated Press.
In 2012, specialists worried that the soil under the Temple of Inscriptions, or Bʼolon Yej Teʼ Naah, which is classic Maya for “House of the Nine Sharpened Spears,” might contain sinkholes or geologic faults after a geo-radar study identified underground anomalies.
A dig began in front of the temple’s staircase where the archaeologists discovered a section of carefully layered rocks covering what has now been identified as a 17-meter-long man-made canal.
Pakal himself began construction of the temple in the last decade of his 70-year reign, and it was completed by his son and successor, K’inich Kan B’alam II, 10 years later.
Only a small section of the canal system has been yet studied with the aid of a camera mounted on a robot, but the specialists have reported that canals can be found in several orientations and levels.
According to Maya beliefs, after Pakal’s death his body had to be submerged in pure water before Chaak, the god of water and rain, transported him to the netherworld.
The director of archaeology at the National Institute of Anthropology and History, Pedro Sánchez Nava, explained that the theory of waterways as roads to the underworld makes sense when compared with elements from other pre-hispanic cultures.
“An analogy can be made with what was found in the citadel at Teotihuacán,” he said, adding that those cultures gave great importance to water. “In both cases there was a water current present. There is this allegorical meaning for water . . . where the cycle of life begins and ends.”