Palenque . . . the magical place where the Maya writing system was first unraveled

. . . and the Maya-Georgia Connection was first proven with blue stucco!

Native American Heritage Month

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

The Royal Palace at Palenque, Chiapas

Headline Photo: While architecture professor, David Schele, and I stood on the terrace of a partially restored temple in order to obtain photographs of the entire Palace Complex at Palenque, David’s art student wife, Linda, seemed only interested in the artistic details of Mayan architecture. She constantly stooped over to photograph a figure carved in stone or a single glyph in the mysterious Maya writing system. Jokingly, I yelled down to her, “Hey Linda, you look like Inspector Clouseau” and took this color slide snapshot.

Little did any of us realize that in twenty years, I would be at a Smithsonian Institute staff Christmas party, in which the intelligentsia of Washington, DC would be celebrating the publication of A Forest of Kings . . . Linda’s book, which announced the translation of the Maya writing system.

Inspector Clouseau . . . played by the brilliant comedy actor, Peter Sellers

The tapestry was begun in 1970 by Linda Schele!

The 2021 series on The Americas Revealed for Native American Heritage Month has portrayed Native Americans three dimensionally and with an ancient cultural history. To cap off this series, we present readers a true saga that describes a complex tapestry, which was interwoven by people from several nations over a five decade period. What ties all these people together is the great Mayan city of Palenque in the mountains of Chiapas State, Mexico.

Palenque is the Spanish name of a nearby town, not its original Maya name. Very little was known about Palenque, when Linda Schele and I were there for the first time at the same time. Because of Linda, we now know that its real name was Lakamha. All references replicate themselves by saying that Lakamha means “Big Water.”

I don’t know what dictionary was used, but Lakam does not mean “big” in the western Maya languages or Yucatec Maya. My Itza Maya dictionary says that lak – am- ha means “flat – place – river” or “terrace – river.” That makes sense.

It is considered the greatest scientific achievement of anthropology, ever.  During the late 1970s and 1980s,  a small team of out-of-the-box-thinking archaeologists, who graduated from four Southeastern universities, did what was thought to be impossible.  They translated the Maya writing system.  The original key players were George Stuart (UNC-Chapel Hill – National Geographic’s chief archaeologist and later, Senior Editor), Eugene “Gene” Stuart (University of South Carolina & University of Georgia – Director of National Geo publications), Linda Schele (University of South Alabama & University of Texas), Peter Mathews (University of Calgary – Alberta) and David Stuart (Vanderbilt University – George’s and Eugene’s son). David Friedel, an archaeologist, who graduated from Harvard, later collaborated with Linda in the first book to announce this achievement.

In 1970, very little factual information was known about the Maya civilization.  Radiocarbon dates were not even available for site less trafficked by tourists . . . such as those in Campeche and eastern Chiapas.  Textbooks provided a mixture of speculations and myths . . . most all of them wrong. By that time, anthropologists could read most numbers, but did not understand the Maya calendar.   Scholars had to guess at the meaning of Maya inscriptions.  Today, this is hard to believe, but I try to stress that fact  in the series of videos that I am posting on Youtube about my fellowship in Mexico. (See the video of Uxmal).

Very honestly . . .  I can’t even recall Dr. Piña Chan, my fellowship coordinator at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, even mentioning the Maya writing system to me, even though he was half Maya.  There is absolutely no mention of the Maya writing glyphs in my daily journal.  Apparently,  Mexican archaeologists, like their North American peers, assumed it would be impossible to fully understand and therefore translate the Maya glyphs.  However, by that time, I quickly learned how to read Maya numbers.  Their symbols were rather straightforward.

Yes, we could describe the Maya architecture . . . in universal architectural terms . . . but we really did not know who built the buildings or why they were either expanded or abandoned.  Ninety to ninety-five percent of the buildings in a Maya city were occupied by illiterate commoners.  Even today, very few Maya commoners’ neighborhoods have been excavated by archeologists.  There is much knowledge to be gained.

In 1970, I wondered why the soil surface in former suburbs were covered in red ceramic potsherds.  No one could answer that question, because we could not read the engraved stones. We now know that in most Maya city states, Maya commoners were only allowed to make shell-tempered redware pottery . . . because it required far less wood to vitrify than fine white or buff clay.  Shell-tempered redware also predominates the acropolis at Ocmulgee National Historic Park. 

Palenque – Temple of the Inscriptions in 1970 – construction began 675 AD
Palenque – Temple of the Inscriptions – 2018

A chance meeting

So many years later,  I cannot recall the specific locale or circumstances, where I first met David and Linda Schele.  My journal merely says at Chichen Itza, Labna, Sayil, Kabah and Palenque:  “Ran into David and Linda from Mobile again.”   The section of the journal on Palenque also states, “David is an architecture professor at the University of South Alabama.  He has a grant to photograph some Maya cities.  Linda is an art student there. It is her first time in Mexico. Talked briefly in the ball court with George, who is an archaeologist from South Carolina.  He was taking photos of the bas reliefs at the ball court on way back from a site in Guatemala.”  Within a few months of my return to the hell of architecture school, I vaguely remembered David and Linda as being a couple about seven years older than me, who had the intellectual curiosity of people my age.

The large hills in the foreground and background were actually un-restored pyramids in 1970.

Sixteen years later, I would learn that George was George Stuart, at that time staff archaeologist-chief cartographer at National Geo.  It was his map of Mesoamerica that I used to prepare my proposal for the Barrett Fellowship. In 2004,  he and his son, David, would co-publish a book on Palenque.

Here is what happened at Palenque. There were no tour guide booklets for Palenque being sold in the museum.  In order to even climb the steps of the Temple of the Inscriptions (above) visitors had to be part of a group led by an INAH guide.  We joined the English-speaking group, led by Moises Morales, who introduced himself as the first guide at Palenque. I would stay that night at an inn owned by Sr. Morales and his Canadian wife. (Remember that inn!)

The ornate sarcophagus at the base of the pyramid was a principal attraction at Palenque.  One had to climb the pyramid with restoration work going on nearby then descend a narrow tunnel to the base.   Since Linda was shorter than me, I had to hold her shoulders for her to lean over the sarcophagus in order to get the entire lid in her photo.  Little did we know.

At the time, the archaeology profession had no clue what the “inscriptions” meant or who was buried there, other than it being someone important.  It would be Linda Schele, who in the 1980s would translate those inscriptions and tell the world that the Great Sun (Henemako in both Itza Maya and Eastern Creek) Kʼinich Janaab Pakal I was buried there.  In fact, much of her book, A Forest of Kings, would be focused on Palenque.

Many of the people in our assigned group were obnoxious middle-aged Northerners, who came in a tour package bus.  They were loud-mouthed, plus totally disinterested in either Maya or Mexican culture.  They were pushing the guide to spend less time at each building, so they could get back to their cocktails in Villahermosa.  David and I were not being given enough time to take professional quality photos.

I remembered that in my backpack was a guide to all Maya cities, given to me by Dr. Román Piña Chan at the museum in Mexico City.  Palenque was his favorite Maya city and so much of the booklet was on Palenque.  I suggested that we three Southerners break off from the group and use my booklet to tour the site.  That would allow David and I time to do our thing.  David and Linda agreed.

After seeing the major buildings, David wanted to photograph some more ruins and (being a good Creek boy, I wanted to explore the forests around Palenque.  We separated.  I never saw them again and was not aware of her spectacular achievements in Maya Studies until the 1990 Christmas Party in Alexandria.  Earlier that year, I had actually bought Forest of Kings, but did not realize that the author, Linda Schele was one and the same as “Linda from Mobile.”

Apparently, Linda went back to talk some more with George?  . . . because the following summer she participated in a 12-day Mayan art workshop at Palenque, which was coordinated by George and Gene Stuart. By this time, she had begun taking introductory anthropology courses at the University of South Alabama. Basically, from that point in her life until her death from cancer in 1998, she devoted her heart and soul to the translation of the Maya writing system.

Peter Mathews and Linda Schele in 1973. Peter became an anthropology professor at the University of Calgary in Alberta.

Concerned that Maya research was limited to a few experts with special access to key resources, Merle Robertson built a center where anyone could go to study the city’s art and inscriptions. In December 1973, 30 people came to the center at Robertson’s invitation. Attendees included Robertson’s assistant Linda Schele, who had studied every Palenque inscription firsthand, and Peter Mathews.

The duo began piecing together Palenque’s history using a carving from the site called the Tablet of the 96 Glyphs, which researchers vaguely understood to depict a line of royal accession. Within hours, and with a combination of luck and an intimate knowledge of the glyphs, Schele and Mathews accomplished something extraordinary: They unveiled most of Palenque’s dynastic history, including the life stories of six rulers.

In 1975, Schele was invited to the Second International Archaeoastronomy Conference at Colgate University to present an exploratory paper on Palenque’s inscriptions and their link to emblem and skull variant glyphs, which she later published in 1977.  Also, in 1975, Schele became a Fellow in pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. in 1975. Alongside Peter Mathews; David Kelley; and one of her longtime mentors, Floyd Lousbury, she participated in a series of mini-conferences at Dumbarton Oaks, which made significant advancements in understanding Maya inscriptions.

Linda Schele and David Stuart in 1979

Throughout the remainder of the 1970s and 1980s,  Linda made astonishing advances in understanding the Maya languages and writing, but was little known outside the world of Mayanists. She achieved a bit more respect from the professional anthropologists after receiving a PhD in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas in 1980.  However, anthropologists, who did not work with her, were prone to not take her achievements seriously, because she did not have an anthropology degree.  It was really not until the publishing of A Forest of Kings and Linda becoming internationally famous did the Old Guard of Anthropology/Archaeology give her “some” of the academic respect that she deserved.

Linda Schele and David Stuart at Copan, Honduras – 1986

In 1990,  Linda began publishing Texas Notes as an informal means of distributing information on the rapidly expanding body of knowledge, concerning Maya Civilization.  Texas Notes was the inspiration for my People of One Fire email newsletters, which began in 2007.  Of course, our newsletters initially focused on the Southeastern Native Americans and the southern part of Mexico, where the ancestors of the Creek Indians originated. These informal email newsletters evolved into The Americas Revealed website in 2017.

Two roads diverged in the ruins of Palenque

After David and Linda walked away to study some unrestored ruins, I headed toward the mountains. I was intrigued by a fast-flowing creek, which the Mayas call “el rio Otulum” that tumbles down the mountain and through the City of Palenque.  I sensed that there was a secret hidden at its source.  The jungle seemed impenetrable, so I put on rubble huaraches  (sandels) and waded up the mountain gorge.  There was magnificent scenery, but what I remember most were the purple snails. There were an infinite number of both live snails and empty shells.  I filled up a two-gallon zip-lock plastic bag with them. 

The ancient stone ruins of a shrine marked the source of the Rio Otulum

At the source of the creek was an ancient stone shrine that seemed older that Palenque.  It was a very mystical place that I will never forget.   Even though he and his son, David, wrote a book on Palenque in 2004,  George Stuart never waded up Rio Otulúm, just to see what was there.    

In 1983,  George Stuart accompanied the author of a book on the Appalachian Mountains to photograph our farm for a section in the book on our new goat cheese creamery.  Neither one of us recognized the other from 1970.  George introduced himself as a “nature photographer” and handed me a business card that said he was Director of Photography for the National Geographic Society. (Holy Cow!)

Our farm in the Reems Creek Valley of North Carolina (Photo by George Stuart)

His home was on “the other side of the mountain” from our farm, so George revisited our farm several times during the next three years. He never mentioned his extensive experience as an archaeologist, working on Maya sites.  On his last visit in 1986, Gene came along to buy goat cheese.  They ended up, helping us pick and press apples for fresh cider then joining us for barbecued ribs from a whey-fed pig that had been put in the freezer. 

It was on that afternoon that I learned that their son David at age 18 had been the youngest person ever to receive a MacArthur Fellowship and that following graduation he was going to work for Linda Schele. Continued conversation revealed that Linda Schele was the “Linda from Mobile.”  George had aged a lot, since I met him briefly at Palenque.  Conversely, he didn’t remember meeting me, per se.  He only vaguely remembered some “student” accompanying Linda and David.

Linda was now an art professor at the University of Texas, so I assumed that their son would be studying Pre-Columbian art. I quickly forgot Linda’s last name again because the news didn’t seem that earth-shattering.

It was also on that afternoon that I learned that both George and Gene were archaeologists, who had extensive experience, working in Maya cities.  George was the primary photographer and often the author for the famous articles on the Maya civilization that had fascinated me as a student in high school and college.  What they didn’t tell me was that beginning at age eight, David joined them for the summer archaeological expeditions.  He took an immediate interest in the Maya glyphs. By the time he was 13, he was beginning to translate the glyphs!  

Thus, both David Stuart and Linda Schele obtained PhD’s primarily to obtain credibility in skills in which they were already accomplished. Their obsession with the Maya writing system made the impossible . . . possible.

It was during that pleasant afternoon that George suggested that we should move to northern Virginia.  There were 64 architects in the Asheville Area, which could only support about 25. Our nearest retail outlet was 225 miles away in Durham, NC and most of our cheese was being sold to restaurants and stores in the Washington, DC area, Charlottesville and New York City’s top gourmet food store, Dean & Deluca.

The Christmas Party on December 15, 1990 in Alexandria, VA

This party is described in much more detail in The Shenandoah Chronicles. Initially, there was a general malaise among those at the party, because a coalition of military forces were about to attack Iraqi forces that had invaded Kuwait.  It was feared that nerve gas, carried by SCUD missiles would result in catastrophic casualties among coalition members. 

The host of the party pulled out two autographed copies of A Forest of Kings and passed them around. Of course, present at the party were David Stuart’s parents, plus some of the most respected archaeologists and historians in the United States.  There were also two Washington Post reporters and a CBS news executive.  In a way, this party marked the beginning of Linda Schele’s final eight years as a intellectual’s celebrity.  It was obvious that most of the people there considered the achievement by Linda, David Stuart and their associates equivalent to mankind walking on the surface of Mars.

From then on, Linda would frequently be interviewed by newspaper and TV reporters. In 2008, ten years after Linda Schele’s death, PBS would produced an outstanding documentary on the fascinating story of how the Maya writing system was deciphered. Its name is “Cracking the Maya Code.” For those readers, who have not seen it, it is as relevant as ever.

The next step was to teach a new generation of anthropologists and Mesoamerican teachers the Maya writing system.  That is the phase that we are in now.  The Maya people are relearning their own creation and now even doing math, the way their ancestors did.

A Maya teacher is guiding his students in the creation of Maya glyphs

Purple snail shells

Enter on stage a beautiful French actress and singer named Vivi, who could be descended from the people, who built Palenque.  I could be also . . . but will get to that later.   Vivi is a nickname given her by Mexican Indian grandmother, who married her grandfather, when he was a French petroleum engineer, working in Tabasco State, Mexico.  According to tradition, her grandmother’s people originally lived in the mountains of Chiapas, but fled from there because of a volcano.

About 9:30 PM at the Christmas Party, our hostess approved of the public displays of affection by Vivi and I, but suggested politely that we might better get to know each other in the guest quarters. At that point, we were both powerfully attracted to each other, but also both of use thought ourselves unworthy of other.  I viewed myself as a frog with a princess.  Vivi viewed herself as “bad woman” with Prince Lancelot (her quote).

Instead of what everyone assumed we would do, we sat on the floor, with our backs to the bed and watched National Geo nature films.  Vivi adored them. She wanted to see what the landscape looked like, where I was born.  From the shelf I pulled “Realm of the Alligator” . . . starring fellow Waycross, GA native and Creek Indian descendant,  Pernell Roberts.

In our immediate get-to-know-you conversation, I learned about Vivi’s Indian grandmother and she learned that I was part Creek Indian.  She had asked me first, because I looked different than the other people at the party, but didn’t think of me being Native American, because I was the tallest man there.  Creeks averaged about a foot taller than Europeans during the Colonial Period.

Vivi bashfully confessed that as a teenage girl, she “fantasized” that Adam Cartwright on the TV series, “Bonanza” (Pernell Roberts) was her boyfriend. Little did she know that Pernell and her carried the same Southern Mesoamerican DNA. That is probably why she was attracted to him. He also had a very pleasant, soothing male voice.

Vivi then told me about her travels in Mexico.  After graduation from the Sorbonne, she was based at relatives’ houses at first, but then financed a tour of most of the archaeological sites in Mexico by singing for anyone, who would pay her . . . mostly night clubs and weddings. 

She then shocked me by saying that Palenque was her favorite ancient city.  She paid for her stay there by singing at the Palenque Inn, run by the Morales family. The fantastic meals were cooked by Sra. Morelos, who was from Canada.  I responded by saying that I also stayed at the Palenque Inn (no other option back then) and Palenque was my favorite place.  

She added that actually her favorite place at Palenque was at the beginning of the little river, which flows through the ruins.  The temple there seemed to be enchanted.  I shocked her by saying that I had waded up that river and seen the little temple.

Alfonso Morales in 1997

Vivi almost stayed in Mexico permanently.  She said that the Morelos family had a son named Alfonso, who looked a lot like me. Actually, I could tell that Vivi had a major crush on Alfonso!  He was an archaeology student at the University of Texas. That means that Linda Schele was one of his professors and probably got him the scholarship.

Vivi had a degree with honors from the Sorbonne in Ancient European History. She was beginning to dream of being the wife of an archaeologist . . . maybe going back to school to become one herself. Then her relatives in Tabasco got word to her that she was needed in France.  She had recorded a song in Spanish at age 18.  Four years later, some French record company had pressed the records and made the tapes from her master disk.  It is was major hit in France and Spain and was coming on strong in the Americas.  French and Spanish TV networks wanted to perform it.  She bade farewell to the Morales family as her life began a sudden change.  HOWEVER, remember than name, Alfonso Morales!

It’s a complex story, but suffice it to know that later that evening I read the story of the Last Supper to Vivi and gave her communion with Norwegian platbrød crackers and very expensive French wine, brought to the party by the French ambassador.  The next afternoon as a drove back to my farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, I assumed that I would never see her again.  She was headed to Los Angeles to interview for a film then flying back to France to spend Christmas with her young daughter.

My herd dog puppies instantly adored the black-haired, French lady, wearing a Santa Claus coat. She said that after I baptized her in the shower stall, she felt like she was 18 again.

Instead,  Vivi showed up Wednesday morning, December 19th  . . . standing in the snow on my front lawn.  A movie director, who sounded a whole lot like Harvey Weinstein, but she never gave a name . . . had drugged her and tried to rape her.   She first asked me to wash ever square centimeter of her body and then asked me to baptize her as a Protestant Christian. 

I microwaved ice cold water from Toms Brook, which was in back of my house, then baptized Vivi in the master shower.  Thinking again that I would never see her again, I made a necklace from the purple snail shells in the small river that flowed through Palenque and suspended a ceramic gorget that I found on the mountain above Teotihuacan.  I told her that this gift was so that she would never forget the architect-goatherd who loved and baptized her.  That day would turn out to just be the beginning.

Because Vivi looks like a mixed blood Native American, French movie companies always type-cast her as a naive, but hot-blooded, Latin American or Spanish college student, attending university in “sophisticated France.” She played secondary roles in a series of “college sex comedies” similar to the American movie, “Animal House.” She quit the movie industry after I baptized her.

April 1993 –  Vivi believed that I had been murdered in Virginia, while I assumed that she had moved permanently to England to live with a wealthy gentleman.

June 1997 – Archaeologist Alfonso Morales was in the news around the world, when about 100 Maya Zapatistas attacked and kidnapped an archeological expedition, he was leading in the remote mountains of Chiapas. They beat and robbed their captives, but ultimate let them escape without the stone shrine, which they were transporting to a museum.  

December 24, 2009 – My house was illegally foreclosed upon then I was illegally evicted with only three days notice, on Christmas Eve.  This embarked me on a camping journey through the Southern Appalachian Mountains for two years.

June 21, 2011 – I stumbled upon the ruins of the Track Rock Terrace Complex in the Georgia Mountains, while looking for a lost 17th century Sephardic mining village.  I described my research at Track Rock Gap in an Examiner article, published on the Maya New Year’s Day, exactly two years after receiving an eviction notice.

June 2012 –  The Mexican Department of Cultural Relations asked archaeologist Alfonso Morales to obtain samples of Maya blue pigment for the History Channel in order to compare it with attapulgite mined in the State of Georgia.  Morales, who is chief archaeologist at Chichen Itza, then was interviewed by the History Channel film crew at a Chichen Itza stone bas relief, which portrayed a scene identical Proto-Creek art, found at Etowah Mounds in Georgia. *  Morales stated in front of the camera, that the Mayas traveled to Georgia and Florida is not a theory, but a fact.  He has also found proof that Native American leaders from Georgia visited Chichen Itza.  

October 12, 2012 – Scientists at the University of Minnesota found a 100% match between the attapulgite mined in the Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin in Georgia with all samples of Maya blue stucco, obtained in Palenque.

December 21, 2012 –  The premier of “America Unearthed” on the Maya-Georgia Connection was broadcast to the entire United States, except in North Georgia Mountains, where it was blacked out due to pressure from rightwing political extremists.

The Maya glyph for a king and the Maya numerical symbols can be found at Nyköping, Sweden, except they are 4,000 years old! Clearly, there is much we don’t know about the origins of the Maya Civilization.

2018 –  I discovered that the earliest Maya glyphs, translated by David Stuart and Linda Schele, can be also found at the Track Rock petroglyphs and on the Baltic Coast near Nyköping, Sweden.  The only problem is that those at Nyköping have been dated to at least 2000 BC!

The December 21, 2012 premier of “America Unearthed”

October 2020 –  Vivi stumbled upon the video of America Unearth’s premier on Youtube and realized that I am not dead.  With help from the French Consulate in Atlanta, Vivi tracked me down.  In subsequent communications, we realized that we carry the same southern Mexican DNA and that our ancestors could have been residents of Lakamha (Palenque).

April 2021 – Vivi wrote me a letter, stating that she has been in emotional turmoil all winter and early spring. She mourned my death for seven years then a very good man moved in with her and her children, who has always been kind to them. Yet, she still felt part of my soul bonded to hers.

Vivi in a 2018 ad for Cafe’ du Monde coffee and cocoa

She went to a psychic, but did not tell her anything about me or her Mexican grandmother. The psychic told Vivi that in an earlier life, she lived in a great Maya city, surrounded by tree-covered mountains. The man, who was her beloved husband in that Maya city, now lives in tree-covered mountains in the Southeastern United States. He is her eternal soul-mate and we will be married again in future lives or at least in heaven.

Life Is Indeed, Stranger than Fiction

6 Comments

  1. Howdy, If memory serves me correctly, David began copying and translating Maya Glyphs when he was ten years old.

    On Tue, Nov 30, 2021 at 4:31 PM The Americas Revealed wrote:

    > alekmountain posted: ” . . . and the Maya-Georgia Connection was first > proven with blue stucco! Native American Heritage Month by Richard L. > Thornton, Architect and City Planner The Royal Palace at Palenque, Chiapas > Headline Photo: While architecture professor, D” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We make this suggestion with the greatest respect for your work and support for your conclusions; The time has come for you to look carefully and deeply at a small volume entitled “Pacal’s Portal to Paradise at Palenque” by Graeme Kearsley. You will find my husband’s (Daniel G. Kelley) review of it on Amazon Books. His own study of the Temple of Meditation there (and broader related topics) has made clear more evidence supporting Kearsley”s conclusions. You will clearly discern that this is very anti-orthodox; the next storm is just developing.

    Like

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