Palenque’s Temple of the Skull

The sole surviving portion of the stucco decoration on the Temple of the Skull (Temple XII) at Palenque is — no surprise — a skull. Visitors to the ruins might notice it just as they enter the ruins, looking up at the temple’s one remaining pier. The skull was clearly part of a larger composition, and its position at the base suggests it served as a pedestal for a standing figure, much like the skeletal heads (seeds?) beneath the feet of the royal portraits on piers of the Temple of the Inscriptions.

Looking recently at the deer skull, I noticed that its shell ears (or ear ornaments) have a distinctive and telling appearance. At first they appear to be the same as the spondylus shell ears characteristic of the gods Chahk or GI, but on closer look one can see that he upper halves of each shell are half-covered in jaguar pelt. This odd feature occurs in only one other setting in Maya art and writing: on the rather strange long-lipped head that substitutes for WAY-wa-la or WAY-la, written several times in Palenque’s inscriptions (see second jpg attached with this post). We don’t know the exact reading of the head (I’ll provisionally refer to it as WAYWAL?), but it’s consistently paired with BAAK, BAAK-le or BAAK-la in a title used by two Palenque kings, K’inich Kan Bahlam and K’inich K’uk’ Bahlam. The entire combination my read something like Baakel Waywal, but the semantics are obscure to me; baak, “bone,” is perhaps related to the standard Palenque emblem glyph, the head variant of which is a deer skull. At any rate, the two main elements of the strange title, BAAK and WAYWAL?, therefore seem to be conflated in the stucco decoration on the temple. It’s an iconographic version of the hieroglyph.

The identification should point to a close association between the Temple of the Skull and one of the two rulers mentioned, K’inich Kan Bahlam or his great nephew K’inich K’uk’ Bahlam. To me the style of the stucco looks not too terribly late and more in line with the earlier king.


(So, could the rich tomb discovered beneath the Temple of the Skull in 1994 be that of K’inich Kan Bahlam? I would never put this in print, so forget you ever read it…)

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