The first published account of this lost city was in 1567, from a Spaniard, Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada.
Exploring near the Usumacinta River, located in the modern Mexican state of Chiapas, Lorenzo came upon its stone temples and plazas, originally decorated with blue- and red-painted stucco but by then long abandoned by the Maya who built it. Lorenzo gave the grand structure the name Palenque, a Spanish word meaning "fortification."
500 years later, Palenque—one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico—is a modern wellspring from which researchers have drawn some of the most detailed information about Maya culture.
It wasn't large, surpassed in size by cities like Calakmul and Tikal, say experts. In 2003, David Stuart of Harvard's Peabody Museum reported that Palenque supported no more than 6,220 people at its peak.
But Palenque is prized for something else.
"The main point of interest about Palenque is not its size and [or] age, as other sites are larger and likely much older," says Michael D. Carrasco, an assistant professor of art history at Florida State University. "Its importance lies rather in its naturalistic sculpture, architectural inventiveness, and detailed epigraphic record."
Researchers say Palenque dates to the Early Classic (A.D. 200-600) period, but most knowledge about the city comes from the Classic period (A.D. 600-900).
Palenque's wealth of epigraphy (inscriptions) and recorded history has helped archaeologists to build the first time line of rulers of a Maya city—one that, while impressive, is still fuzzy in places.
Carrasco says the Palenque known to modernity is the product of a limited number of rulers, starting with Pakal the Great (603-683), his son, K'inich Kan Bahlam (635-702), and K'inich Akul Mo' Naab (678-736).
This succession of kings commissioned the Temple of the Cross Group, Temple XIX, and the Temple of Inscriptions, said to be one of the most profuse sources of glyphic text from the Maya world. It maps nearly 200 years of Palenque's history.
The three rulers also commissioned lengthy glyphic texts, which researchers have used to tease apart Maya script.
Much scientific debt is owned to Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, who in 1952 rolled away a stone inside the Temple of Inscriptions and found the burial tomb of Pakal the Great. This has since become one of the most extensively studied archaeological sites in the Americas.
David Freidel, a Maya specialist from Southern Methodist University, says the tomb contains Pakal's sarcophagus, upon which is etched the image of "a handsome youth, the maize god, preparing to ascend into the sky along the cosmic World Tree." Since 2004, Friedel says, researchers working at Palenque have discovered three royal tombs, a tomb of sacrifices, offerings to a royal, and a high noble's tomb.
Records at the site suggest the site came under attack by another Maya center, Calakmul, in 599 and again in 611. "This attack was the beginning of or perhaps catalyst for the building campaigns of Pakal and later kings," says Carrasco.
It was after the second attack that 12-year-old Pakal became ruler, setting in motion a vast rebuilding of Palenque from 615 to 683, one that would be continued by two later rulers: his son, K'inich Kan Bahlam, and Akul Mo' Naab, thought to be Pakal's grandson.
In 711, Palenque was sacked by the realm of Toniná. Though Temple XIX was built after that attack, still under the reign of Akul Mo' Naab, the event shifted Palenque's ruling dynamics, perhaps prompting a dissolution of concentrated power and replacing it with a shared arrangement between nobles and the king. The construction of elite building stopped after 800, and a gradual population decline ensued. By the time the Spanish got to Chiapas in the 16th century, the Maya had abandoned the city.