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Finery and Insignia of a Maya King of Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Laura Filloy Nadal, Museo Nacional de Antropología, INAH, Junior Fellow 2005–2006, Spring

The city of Palenque is located at the northern end of the highlands of the state of Chiapas in southeastern Mexico. Palenque reached its maximum splendor in the Late Classic (600–900 AD) when it became one of the Maya centers of greatest importance. The early accounts of the city speak mainly of wars, defeats, and dynastic turbulence that did not come to a halt until the reign of one of the most prominent kings of the Maya area: K´inich Janaab´ Pakal—also known as Pakal the Great or Pakal II (603–683 AD).

During the reign of Pakal II, the city of Palenque flourished and underwent significant modifications. This sovereign ordered the construction of a number of major structures, including the Temple of the Inscriptions, which served as his sepulcher and commemorative monument. Mexican archeologist Alberto Ruz excavated this mausoleum in 1952, and discovered the remains of the renowned king dressed with fine effects carved in jade.

The central goal of my doctoral research is an in-depth analysis of the garments, insignia, and symbols of power present in Pakal's funerary complex. At Dumbarton Oaks, I had the opportunity to consult the magnificent bibliographic collection on Mesoamerican archaeology that allowed me to work with abundant references that facilitated the comparison of objects, clothing, and symbols of power associated with Maya royalty at different Classic period centers, and those worn by Pakal II for his last rites.

Since the 1960s, an interesting debate has arisen over the existence of portraiture in Mesoamerican visual representation. One group of specialists has maintained that, from the Western perspective, the notion of portraits has been confused with naturalistic or conventional art characteristic of certain Mesoamerican cultures. On the other hand, another group of specialists suggests purely conventional art may coexist with the art of portraiture. The accessibility of major sources on the world's history of art at Dumbarton Oaks let me track the debate over the existence of portraiture in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, and early Christian art. The main purpose was to find out whether or not the Palenque depictions are true portraits or if they are idealized, emblematic, or ethnic representations of the king and the royal family. My preliminary observations lead me to presume that at least during the reign of Pakal II, true portraits were produced in Palenque.