As promised, this post begins a series of pieces I’m planning on the pseudoscience offered by the likes of Ancient Alien denizen Erich von Däniken and his ilk. Today I’ll look at one of von Däniken’s most infamous claims, Pakal’s sarcophagus lid at the Mayan Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque.
Pakel (also Pacel) was the one time Mayan ruler K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, born in 603 AD. Pakal, most famously known as Pacal The Great, reigned over the Palenque area (now known as Chiapas, Mexico) for some 68 years. In that time he was responsible for the construction or extension of Palenque’s most notable surviving inscriptions and monuments.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was the construction of the magnificent Temple of Inscriptions which is the largest Mesoamerican stepped pyramid at Palenque. The Temple of Inscriptions has been significant in the study of the ancient
Maya, owing to the extraordinary sample of hieroglyphic text found on the Inscription Tablets, the impressive sculptural panels on the piers of the building, and the finds inside the tomb of Pakal.
Although the Temple of Inscriptions itself had been visited and studied for very nearly 200 years, the tomb of Pakal wasn’t found until 1952, when Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier (the current Director of Research at Palenque for Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia) removed a slab of stone from the floor of the temple revealing a stairway that led to Pakal’s tomb (the now famous story of its discovery includes Lhuillier’s description of his first view inside the tomb). Inside the tomb researchers were delighted by the discovery of several important artefacts, including the beautiful and intricate carving on the lid of Pakal’s sarcophagus.
“The widely accepted interpretation of the sarcophagus lid is that Pakal is descending into Xibalba, the Maya underworld. Around the edges of the lid are glyphs representing the Sun, the Moon, Venus, and various constellations, locating this event in the night time sky. Below him is the Maya water god, who guards the underworld. Beneath Pakal are the “unfolded” jaws of a dragon or serpent, into whose mouth Pakal descends. This is a common iconographic representation of the entrance to the underworld.”
Pakal’s sarcophagus has been analysed by leading archaeologists, iconographers and epigraphers (experts responsible for deciphering and translating inscriptions), all of whom concur on the general meaning of the iconography present in the carving. As mentioned above, it represents Pakal’s journey into the underworld or afterlife.
Erich von Däniken however, would have you believe a very different story. First postulated in his 1968 best-selling book Chariots of the Gods, von Däniken claims that another interpretation of the sarcophagus’ relief just begs to be told:
“In 1935 a stone relief that very probably represents the god Kukumatz (in Yucatan, Kukulkan) was found in Palenque (Old Kingdom). A Genuinely unprejudiced look at this picture would make even the most die-hard sceptic stop and think.
There sits a human being, with the upper part of his body bend forward like a racing motorcyclist; today any child would identify his vehicle as a rocket. It is pointed at the front, then changed to strangely grooved indentations like the inlet ports, widens out and terminates at the tail in a darting flame. The crouching being himself manipulating a number of undefinable (sic) controls and has the heel of his left foot on a kind of pedal. His clothing is appropriate short trousers with a broad belt, a jacket with a modern Japanese opening at the neck and closely fitting band at arms and legs. With our knowledge of similar pictures, we should be surprised if the complicated headgear were missing. And there it is with the usual indentations and tubes, and something like antennae on top. Our space traveller – he is clearly depicted as one – is not only bent forward tensely, he is also looking intently at an apparatus hanging in front of his face. The astronaut’s front seat is separated by struts from the rear position of the vehicle, in which symmetrically arranged boxed, circles, points and spirals can be seen.”
Right off the bat one is struck by the glaring errors von Däniken made in this passage. From the wrong years of discovery to the wrong location cited, to its attribution to the wrong deity, all the way to the erroneous assumptions he makes about the iconography in question. Von Däniken asks the question: “Is everything that anyone links up with space travel a stupid figment of the imagination?” And in this case I would have to say: yes!
This is something he does quite often in the book; he asks rhetorical questions that seem to back up his claims, apparently in an attempt to distract us from his errors in research and judgement. He often cites the fact that there are 530 question marks in Chariots of the Gods as proof that he hasn’t made many of the erroneous claims attributed to him, but that he simply asked questions to get people thinking. Even with a cursory analysis of his interpretation of the carving, one immediately sees mistakes that could have been avoided with a little careful reading of the available material, which, by the way, was readily available in the 1960’s. Von Däniken likens the overall structure of the relief to a rocket ship, interpreting astronomical symbols incorrectly and seeing the Mayan water god Chaak as flames resulting from said rocket’s propulsion system. He claims that even a child could see this and draw the same, correct conclusion.
Nevermind that there is no archaeological evidence to support the idea that the Mayans knew anything about powered flight, or the fact that mainstream science has all but conclusively interpreted the sarcophagus lid as a depiction of Pakal’s journey to the underworld, is it simply rebellious intellectualism at work here or is von Däniken guilty of something more? If anything, the above excerpt from Chariots of the Gods tells us precisely why much of the archaeological world regards von Däniken’s conjecture as pure pseudoscience.
Nonetheless, droves of ancient alien believers accept von Däniken’s unfounded interpretation. One man, Paul Francis (self-proclaimed researcher and model maker) even went so far as to construct a model of Pakel’s rocketship in support of von Däniken’s theory, achieving some measure of infamy when that model was showcased on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens with Georgio Tsoukalis.
The UFOlogical/Paranormal world is divided on the issue of ancient aliens, while some see evidence of extraterrestrials everywhere in our past, most often that opinion is the result of conspiracy thinking and lazy intellects. The idea that aliens visited our ancestors, for whatever reason, is an attractive one for many people, but even the most enticing theory should be questioned for its validity and accuracy. In the interest of such transparency, I recommend that everyone take a closer look at my own sources for this piece. I don’t want anyone to take my word for it…do some reading and come to your own conclusion, just read more than one source.
 Robertson, Merle Greene (1983). The Sculpture of Palenque. Volume I: The Temple of Inscriptions. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-03560-1.
 Stierlin, Henri (2001). The Maya: Palaces and Pyramids of the Rainforest. London; New York: Taschen. ISBN 3-8228-1241-2.