Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan/Chapter 34

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At daylight I returned, and found Mr. C. and Pawling sitting on the stones, half dressed, in rueful conclave. They had passed the night worse than I, and our condition and prospects were dismal. Rains, hard work, bad fare, seemed nothing; but we could no more exist without sleep than the "foolish fellow" of Æsop, who, at the moment when he had learned to live without eating, died. In all his travels through the country Pawling had never encountered such hard work as since he met us.

The next night the mosquitoes were beyond all endurance; the slightest part of the body, the tip end of a finger, exposed, was bitten. With the heads covered the heat was suffocating, and in the morning our faces were all in blotches. Without some remedy we were undone. It is on occasions like this that the creative power of genius displays itself. Our beds, it will be remembered, were made of sticks lying side by side, and set on four piles of stones for legs. Over these we laid our pellons and armas de agua, or leathern armour against rain, and over these our straw matting. This prevented our enemies invading us from between the sticks. Our sheets were already sewed up into sacks. We ripped one side, cut sticks, and bent them in three bows about two feet high over the frame of the beds. Over these, the sheets were stretched, and, sewed down all around, with a small space open at the head, had much the appearance of biers. At night, after a hard days work, we crawled in. Hosts were waiting for us inside. We secured the open places, when each, with the stump of a lighted candle, hunted and slew, and with a lordly feeling of defiance we lay down to sleep. We had but one pair of sheets apiece, and this was a new way of sleeping under them; but, besides the victory it afforded us over the mosquitoes, it had another advantage; the heat was so great that we could not sleep with our clothes on; it was impossible to place the beds entirely out of the reach of the spray, and the covering, held up a foot or two above us and kept damp, cooled the heated atmosphere within. In this way we lived: the Indians came out in the morning with provisions, and as the tortillas were made in the alcalde's own kitchen, not to disturb his household arrangements, they seldom arrived till after breakfast.

In the meantime work went on. As at Copan, it was my business to prepare the different objects for Mr. Catherwood to draw. Many of the stones had to be scrubbed and cleaned; and as it was our object to have the utmost possible accuracy in the drawings, in many places scaffolds were to be erected on which to set up the camera lucida. Pawling relieved me from a great part of this labour. That the reader may know the character of the objects we had to interest us, I proceed to give a description of the building in which we lived, called the palace.

A front view of this building is given in the engraving, No. 45. It does not, however, purport to be given with the same accuracy as the other drawings, the front being in a more ruined condition. It stands on an artificial elevation of an oblong form, 40 feet high, 310 feet in front and rear, and 260 feet on each side. This elevation was formerly faced with stone, which has been thrown down by the growth of trees, and its form is hardly distinguishable.

The building stands with its face to the east, and measures 228 feet front by, 180 feet deep. Its height is not more than 25 feet, and all around it had a broad projecting cornice of stone. The front contained 14 doorways, about 9 feet wide each, and the intervening piers are between 6 and 7 feet wide. On the left (in approaching the palace) 8 of the piers have fallen down, as has also the corner on the right, and the terrace underneath is cumbered with the ruins. But 6 piers remain entire, and the rest of the front is open.

The engraving, No. 46, represents the ground-plan of the whole. The black lines represent walls still standing; the faint lines indicate remains only, but, in general, so clearly marked that there was no difficulty in connecting them together.

The building was constructed of stone, with a mortar of lime and sand, and the whole front was covered with stucco and painted. The piers were ornamented with spirited figures in bas-relief, one of which is represented in the engraving No. 47. On the top are three hieroglyphics sunk in the stucco. It is enclosed by a richly ornamented border, about 10 feet high and 6 wide, of which only a part now remains. The principal personage stands in an upright position and in profile, exhibiting an extraordinary facial angle of about 45 degrees. The upper part of the head seems to have been compressed and lengthened, perhaps by the same process employed upon the heads of the Chocktaw and Flathead Indians of our own country. The head
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F. Catherwood


On one of the Piers of the Most Front of the Palace of Palenque.

represents a species of which few are seen in this part of the country at the present time. The head-dress is evidently a plume of feathers. Over the shoulders is a short covering decorated with studs, and a breastplate; part of the ornament of the girdle is broken; the tunic is probably a leopard's skin; and the whole dress no doubt exhibits the costume of this unknown people. He holds in his hand a staff or sceptre, and opposite his hands are the marks of three hieroglyphics, which have decayed or been broken off. At his feet are two naked figures seated cross-legged, and apparently suppliants. A fertile imagination might find many explanations for these strange figures, but no satisfactory interpretation presents itself to my mind. The hieroglyphics doubtless tell its history. The stucco is of admirable consistency, and hard as stone. It was painted, and in different places about it we discovered the remains of red, blue, yellow, black, and white.

The piers which are still standing contained other figures of the same general character, but which, unfortunately, are more mutilated, and from the declivity of the terrace it was difficult to set up the camera lucida in such a position as to draw them. The piers which are fallen were no doubt enriched with the same ornaments. Each one had some specific meaning, and the whole probably presented some allegory or history; and when entire and painted, the effect in ascending the terrace must have been imposing and beautiful.

The principal doorway is not distinguished by its size or by any superior ornament, but is only indicated by a range of broad stone steps leading up to it on the terrace. The doorways have no doors, nor are there the remains of any. Within, on each side, are three niches in the wall, about eight or ten inches square, with a cylindrical stone about two inches in diameter fixed upright, by which, perhaps, a door was secured. Along the cornice outside, projecting about a foot beyond the front, holes were drilled at intervals through the stone; and our impression was, that an immense cotton cloth, running the whole length of the building, perhaps painted in a style corresponding with the ornaments, was attached to this cornice, and raised and lowered like a curtain, according to the exigencies of sun and rain. Such a curtain is used now in front of the piazzas of some haciendas in Yucatan.

The tops of the doorways were all broken. They had evidently been square, and over every one were large niches in the wall on each side, in which the lintels had been laid. These lintels had all fallen, and the stones above formed broken natural arches. Underneath were heaps of rubbish, but there were no remains of lintels. If they had been single slabs of stone, some of them must have been visible and
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prominent; and we made up our minds that these lintels were of wood. We had no authority for this. It is not suggested either by Del Rio or Captain Dupaix, and perhaps we should not have ventured the conclusion but for the wooden lintel which we had seen over the doorway at Ocosingo; and by what we saw afterward in Yucatan, we were confirmed, beyond all doubt, in our opinion. I do not conceive, however, that this gives any conclusive data in regard to the age of the buildings. The wood, if such as we saw in the other places, would be very lasting; its decay must have been extremely slow, and centuries may have elapsed since it perished altogether.

The building has two parallel corridors running lengthwise on all four of its sides. In front of these corridors are about nine feet wide, (Plate 48,) and extend the whole length of the building upward of 200 feet. In the long wall that divides them there is but one door, which is opposite the principal door of entrance, and has a corresponding one on the other side, leading to a courtyard in the rear. The floors are of cement, as hard as the best seen in the remains of Roman baths and cisterns. The walls are about ten feet high, plastered, and on each side of the principal entrance ornamented with medallions, of which the borders only remain; these, perhaps, contained the busts of the royal family. The separating-wall had apertures of about a foot, probably intended for purposes of ventilation. Some were of this form +, and some of this T, which have been called the Greek Cross and the Egyptian Tau, and made the subject of much learned speculation.

The ceiling of each corridor was in this form. The builders were evidently ignorant of the principles of the arch, and the support was made by stones lapping over as they rose, as at Ocosingo, and among the Cyclopean remains in Greece and Italy. Along the top was a layer of flat stone, and the sides, being plastered, presented a flat surface. The long unbroken corridors in front of the palace were probably intended for lords and gentlemen in waiting; or, perhaps, in that beautiful position, which, before the forest grew up, must have commanded an extended view of a cultivated and inhabited plain, the king himself sat in it to receive the reports of his officers, and to administer justice. Under our dominion Juan occupied the front corridor as a kitchen, and the other was our sleeping apartment.

From the centre door of this corridor a range of stone steps, thirty feet long, leads to a rectangular courtyard, eighty feet long by seventy broad. On each side of the steps are grim and gigantic figures, carved on stone in basso-relievo, nine or ten feet high, and in a position slightly inclined backward from the end of the steps to the floor of the corridor. The engraving, No. 49, represents this side of the courtyard, and the one next following, No. 50, shows the figures alone, on a larger scale. They are adorned with rich head-dresses and necklaces, but their attitude is that of pain and trouble. The design and anatomical proportions of the figures are faulty, but there is a force of expression about them which shows the skill and conceptive power of the artist. When we first took possession of the palace this courtyard was encumbered with trees, so that we could hardly see across it, and it was so filled up with rubbish that we were obliged to make excavations of several feet before these figures could be drawn.

On each side of the courtyard the palace was divided into apartments, probably for sleeping. On the right the piers have all fallen down. On the left they are still standing, and ornamented with stucco figures. In the centre apartment, in one of the holes before referred to of the arch, are the remains of a wooden pole about a foot long, which once stretched across, but the rest had decayed. It was the only piece of wood we found at Palenque, and we did not discover this until some time after we had made up our minds in regard to the wooden lintels over the doors. It was much worm-eaten, and probably, in a few years, not a vestige of it will be left.

At the farther side of the courtyard was another flight of stone steps, corresponding with those in front, on each side of which are carved figures, and on the flat surface between are single cartouches of hieroglyphics. The plate, No. 51, represents this side.

The whole courtyard was overgrown with trees, and it was encumbered with ruins several feet high, so that the exact architectural arrangements could not be seen. Having our beds in the corridor adjoining, when we awoke in the morning, and when we had finished the work of the day, we had it under our eyes. Every time we descended the steps, the grim and mysterious figures stared us in the face, and it became to us one of the most interesting parts of the ruins. We were exceedingly anxious to make excavations, clear out the mass of rubbish, and lay the whole platform bare; but this was impossible. It is probably paved with stone or cement; and from the profusion of ornament in other parts, there is reason to believe that many curious and interesting specimens may be brought to light. This agreeable work is left for the future traveller, who may go there better provided with men and materials, and with more knowledge of what he has to encounter; and, in my opinion, if he finds nothing new, the mere spectacle of the courtyard entire will repay him for the labour and expense of clearing it.

The part of the building which forms the rear of the courtyard, communicating with it by the steps, consists of two corridors, the same

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On the east side of principal court of the Palace at Palenque


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as the fronts paved, plastered, and ornamented with stucco. The flank of the corridor fronting the courtyard sounded hollow, and a break had been made in it which seemed to lead into a subterraneous chamber; but in descending, by means of a tree with notches cut in it, and with a candle, we found merely a hollow in the earth, not bounded by any wall.

In the farther corridor the wall was in some places broken, and had several separate coats of plaster and paint. In one place we counted six layers, each of which had the remains of colours. In another place there seemed a line of written characters in black ink. We made an effort to get at them; but, in endeavouring to remove a thin upper stratum, they came off with it, and we desisted.

This corridor opened upon a second courtyard, eighty feet long and but thirty across. The floor of the corridor was ten feet above that of the courtyard, and on the wall underneath were square stones with hieroglyphics sculptured upon them. On the piers were stuccoed figures, but in a ruined condition.

On the other side of the courtyard were two ranges of corridors, which terminated the building in this direction. The first of them if divided into three apartments, with doors opening from the extremities upon the western corridor. All the piers are standing except that on the north-west corner. All are covered with stucco ornaments, and one with hieroglyphics. The rest contain figures in bas-relief, three of which, being those least ruined, are represented in the opposite plates.

The first, No. 52, was enclosed by a border, very wide at the bottom, part of which is destroyed. The subject consists of two figures with facial angles similar to that in the plate before given, plumes of feathers and other decorations for head-dresses, necklaces, girdles, and sandles; each has hold of the same curious baton, part of which is destroyed, and opposite their hands are hieroglyphics, which probably give the history of these incomprehensible personages. The others are more ruined, and no attempt has been made to restore them. One, No. 53, is seated as if to receive an honour, and the other, No. 54, kneeling as if to receive a blow.

So far the arrangements of the palace are simple and easily understood; but on the left are several distinct and independent buildings, as will be seen by the plan, the particulars of which, however, I do not consider it necessary to describe. The principal of these is the tower, on the south side of the second court. This tower is conspicuous by its height and proportions, but on examination in detail it is found unsatisfactory and uninteresting. The base is thirty feet square, and
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One of the Piers of the West Front of the Palace of Palenque

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One of West Side of the Palace of Palenque

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On the West Side of the Palace at Palenque

it has three stories. Entering over a heap of rubbish at the base, was found within another tower, distinct from the outer one, and a stone staircase, so narrow that a large man could not ascend it. The staircase terminates against a dead stone ceiling, closing all further passage to the last step being only six or eight inches from it. For what purposes a staircase was carried up to such a bootless termination we could not conjecture. The whole tower was a substantial stone structure, and in its arrangements and purposes about as incomprehensible as the sculptured tablets.

East of the tower is another building with two corridors, one richly decorated with pictures in stucco, and having in the centre the elliptical tablet represented in the engraving opposite. It is four feet long and three wide, of hard stone set in the wall, and the sculpture is in bas-relief. Around it are the remains of a rich stucco border. The principal figure sits cross-legged on a couch ornamented with two leopards' heads; the attitude is easy, the physiognomy the same as that of the other personages, and the expression calm and benevolent. The figure wears around its neck a necklace of pearls, to which is suspended a small medallion containing a face; perhaps intended as an image of the sun. Like every other subject of sculpture we had seen in the country, the personage had earrings, bracelets on the wrists and a girdle round the loins. The head-dress differs from most of the others at Palenque, in that it wants the plumes of feathers. Near the head are three hieroglyphics.

The other figure, which seems that of a woman, is sitting cross-legged on the ground, richly dressed, and apparently in the act of making an offering. In this supposed offering is seen a plume of feathers, in which the head-dress of the principal person is deficient. Over the head of the sitting personage are four hieroglyphics. This is the only piece of sculptured stone about the palace except those in the courtyard. Under it formerly stood a table, of which the impression against the wall is still visible, and which is given in the engraving in faint lines, after the model of other tables still existing in other places.

At the extremity of this corridor there is an aperture in the pavement, leading by a flight of steps to a platform; from this a door, with an ornament in stucco over it, opens by another flight of steps upon a narrow dark passage, terminating in other corridors, which run transversely. These are called subterraneous apartments; but there are windows opening from them above the ground, and, in fact, they are merely a ground-floor below the pavement of the corridors. In most parts, however, they are so dark that it is necessary to visit them with
55-Stucco Bas Relief in apartment wall of Palace at Palenque-511djvu.jpg

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In the Wall of one of the Apartments of the Palace at Palenque

candles. There are no bas-reliefs or stucco ornaments; and the gay objects which our guide pointed out or which attracted our attention were several stone tables, one crossing and blocking up the corridor about eight feet long, four wide and three high. One of these lower corridors had a door opening upon the back part of the terrace, and we generally passed through it with a candle to get to the other buildings. In two other places there were flights of steps leading to corridors above. Probably these were sleeping apartments.

In that part of the plan marked Room No. 1, the walls were in more richly decorated with stucco ornaments than any other in the palace; but, unfortunately, they were much mutilated. On each side of the doorway was a stucco figure, one of which, being the most perfect, is given in the engraving, No. 56. Near it is an apartment in which is marked "small altar." It was richly ornamented, like those which will be hereafter referred to in other buildings; and from the appearance of the back wall we supposed there had been stone tablets. In our utter ignorance of the habits of the people who had formerly occupied this building, it was impossible to form any conjecture for what uses these different apartments were intended; but if we are right in calling it a palace, the name which the Indians give it, it seems probable that the part surrounding the courtyards was for public and state occasions, and that the rest was occupied as the place of residence of the royal family; this room with the small altar, we may suppose, was what would be called, in our own times, a royal chapel.

With these helps and the aid of the plan, the reader will be able to find his way through the ruined palace of Palenque; he will form some idea of the profusion of its ornaments, of their unique and striking character, and of their mournful effect, shrouded by trees; and perhaps with him, as with us, fancy will present it as it was before the hand of ruin had swept over it, perfect in its amplitude and rich decorations, and occupied by the strange people whose portraits and figures now adorn its walls.

The reader will not be surprised that, with such objects to engage our attention, we disregarded some of the discomforts of our princely residence. We expected at this place to live upon game, but were disappointed. A wild turkey we could shoot at any time from the door of the palace; but, after trying one, we did not venture to trifle with our teeth upon another; and besides these, there was nothing but parrots, monkeys and lizards, all very good eating, but which we kept in reserve for a time of pressing necessity. The density of the forest and the heavy rains would, however, have made sporting impracticable.
Plate 56 Bas-Relief in stucco on the side of a Doorway at the Palace of Palenque -p485.jpg

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On the side of a Doorway at the Palace of Palenque

Once only I attempted an exploration. From the door of this palace, almost on a line with the front, rose a high steep mountain which we thought must command a view of the city in its whole extent, and perhaps itself contain ruins. (See Frontispiece.) I took the bearing, and, with a compass in my hand and an Indian before me with his machete, from the rear of the last-mentioned building cut a straight line up E. N. E. to the top. The ascent was so steep that I was obliged to haul myself up by the branches. On the top was a high mound of stones, with a foundation-wall still remaining. Back towards the mountain was nothing but forest; in front, through an opening in the trees, we saw a great wooded plain extending to Tobasco and the Gulf of Mexico; and the Indian at the foot of the tree, peering through the branches, turned his face up to me with a beaming expression, and pointing to a little spot on the plain, which was to him the world, cried out, "Alli esta el pueblo," "there is the village." This was the only occasion (with the exception of an aqueduct) on which I attempted to explore, for it was the only time I had any mark to aim at.

Besides the claps of thunder and flashes of lightning, we had one alarm at night. It was from a noise that sounded like the cracking of a dry branch under a stealthy tread, which, as we all started up together, I thought was that of a wild beast, but which Mr. Catherwood, whose bed was nearer, imagined to be that of a man. We climbed up the mound of fallen stones at the end of this corridor, but beyond all was thick darkness. Pawling fired twice as an intimation that we were awake, and we arranged poles across the corridor as a trap, so that even an Indian could not enter from that quarter without being thrown down with some considerable noise and detriment to his person.

In addition to mosquitoes and garrapatas, or ticks, we suffered from another worse insect, called by the natives niguas, which, we are told, pestered the Spaniards on their first entry into the country, and which, says the historian, "ate their Way into the Flesh, under the Nails of the Toes, then laid their Nits there within, and multiplied in such manner that there was no ridding them but by Cauteries, so that some, lost their Toes, and some their Feet, whereas they should at first have been picked out; but being as yet unacquainted with the Evil, they knew not how to apply the Remedy."

This description is true even to the last clause. We had escaped them until our arrival at Palenque, and being unacquainted with the evil, did not know how to apply the remedy. I carried one in my foot for several days, conscious that something was wrong, but not knowing what, until the nits had been laid and multiplied. Pawling undertook to pick them out with a penknife, which left a large hole in the flesh; and, unluckily, from the bites of various insects my foot became so inflamed that I could not get on shoe or stocking. I was obliged to lie by, and, sitting an entire day with my foot in a horizontal position, uncovered, it was assaulted by small black flies, the bites of which I did not feel at the moment of infliction, but which left marks like the puncture of a hundred pins. The irritation was so great, and the swelling increased so much, that I became alarmed, and determined to return to the village. It was no easy matter to get there. The foot was too big to put in a stirrup, and, indeed, to keep it but for a few moments in a hanging position made it feel as if the blood would burst through the skin, and the idea of striking it against a bush makes me shudder even now. It was indispensable, however, to leave the place. I sent in to the village for a mule, and on the tenth day after my arrival at the ruins hopped down the terrace, mounted, and laid the unfortunate member on a pillow over the pommel of the saddle. This gave me, for that muddy road, a very uncertain seat. I had a man before me to cut the branches, yet my hat was knocked off three or four times, and twice I was obliged to dismount; but in due season, to my great relief, we cleared the woods. After the closeness and confinement of the forest, coming once more into an open country quickened every pulse.

As I ascended to the table-land on which the village stood, I observed an unusual degree of animation, and a crowd of people in the grass-grown street, probably some fifteen or twenty, who seemed roused at the sight of me, and presently three or four men on horseback rode toward me. I had borne many different characters in that country, and this time I was mistaken for three padres who were expected to arrive that morning from Tumbala. If the mistake had continued I should have had dinner enough for six at least; but unluckily it was soon discovered, and I rode on to the door of our old house. Presently the alcalde appeared, with his keys in his hands and in full dress, i.e. his shirt was inside of his pantaloons; and I was happy to find that he was in a worse humour at the coming of the padres than at our arrival; indeed, he seemed now rather to have a leaning toward me, as one who could sympathise in his vexation at the absurdity of making such a fuss about them. When he saw my foot, too, he really showed some commiseration, and endeavoured to make me as comfortable as possible. The swelling had increased very much. I was soon on my back, and, lying perfectly quiet, by the help of a medicine-chest, starvation, and absence of irritating causes, in two days and nights I reduced the inflammation very sensibly.