The first European to mention the existence of Palenque seems to have been Father Ramon Ordonez de Aguilar in the late XVIIth century. Ordonez de Aguilar was the priest at the Royal City of Chiapas, known today as San Cristobal de las Casas. In 1730 it had been his grandfathers' brother, Antonio de Solis, who had visited the site. But it wasn't until Ordonez told several people 40 years later about this expedition that anybody else knew about this place or that it had been discovered at all.
Among the first to hear about this discovery from Ordonez de Aguilar was Lieutenant Esteban Gutierrez, who decided to organize an expedition to Palenque in 1773. Later, Fernando Gomez de Andrade also fielded an expedition; he was the major of Ciudad Real de Chiapas and along with him went Fray Luis de la Roca , a priest from the Dominican Order. They caught the President of the Audience of Guatemala's (an administrative unit of the Viceroyalty of New Spain) interest. His name was Jose de Estacheria, and he gave the order to field the first official expedition to Palenque . After this expedition the western world knew about Palenque .
In 1784 Estacheria commissioned Lieutenant Jose Antonio Calderon, the major of the village of Palenque , to carry out the first inspection of the site. He traveled there under very intense rains and was there for 3 days, guided by local indigenous people. Upon receiving Calderon's report, Estacheria commissioned an Italian architect, who was the Chief Architect of Royal Works of Guatemala, Antonio Bernasconi, to field a new expedition with Calderon. They visited the site again in early 1785 and made the first architectural blueprints and perspectives of the buildings, as well as the earliest drawings of the bas-reliefs modeled in stucco at the site. They drafted a report in early 1785.
By 1786 it was the King of Spain himself who was interested in Palenque ... King Charles III ordered research be continued at the site. In the meantime Bernasconi had died, so de Estacheria commissioned Antonio del Rio to continue the work. Del Rio and his team arrived at Palenque in late 1787. He reported that with the help of 79 Indians he managed to take out the weeds that had grown on top of the buildings for several hundred years and that he had started excavating some of the buildings. This may be the first methodical excavation conducted at the site. This expedition's artist, Ricardo Armendariz, was responsible for some of the first sketches reflecting the beauty and artistry achieved by the ancient architects at Palenque .
At the dawn of the XIX century a great era of explorers and romantic travelers ensued. During the XIXth centrury tales and fabulous stories of boundless imagination had began to be woven in connection to Palenque.These new more modern travelers are responsible for a more clear and realistic vision of the city. However, the excavations conducted at the site were not systematic, resulting in the loss of many pieces and contexts, all in the name of enriching foreign museums. This new time of explorations started with another expedition, this one commissioned by Charles the IV himself. He sent Captain Guillermo Dupaix and artist Luciano Castaneda to explore the southern confines of New Spain . Their drawings and their report were unfortunately forgotten, as Mexico 's War of Independence broke out! Dupaix took one of the 3 panels which make up the Panel of the Cross at Palenque . It was returned to the Government of Mexico (as Chiapas then became a part of Mexico and separated from Guatemala ) by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. Dupaix's report was finally published in 1934. His name went down in history as that of the first looter who operated in Palenque .
In 1832 a truly singular adventurer and artist visited Palenque : Count Frederick Maximillien Von Waldeck. Lithographs and painting were his passion. He was 65 when he first visited the site, and legend has it he lived for 2 years in one building now named after him, Temple of the Count . He actually only stayed at the site for 3 months, at a cabin he had built by the Temple of the Cross . Waldeck's drawings appeared in a joint edition published with Charles Etienne Brasseur, named Monuments Anciennes du Mexique . Although his drawings are not very precise, they do posses magnificent artistic quality.
In the summer of 1839 two famous travelers arrived in Palenque : John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. Because Stephens was very interested in Pre-Hispanic monuments he managed to get the US government to appoint him as a diplomat to Central America . His diplomatic status, however, didn't make his travels more comfortable in any way. They traveled through the region experiencing some great hardships, getting wet and being bitten by mosquitoes. Sometimes they even went hungry, as there weren't many provisions at the towns where they arrived. They were truly a pioneering and adventuresome pair of explorers. The hardships they endured were perhaps but a small price to pay for the privilege of being some of the first westerners to ever see all of the beautiful Maya sites at the time they did, before they had been looted, eroded and several parts of them destroyed or lost for posterity.
Stephens and Catherwood saw the glyphs and bas-reliefs in an almost untouched state. Their most valuable contributions are that Catherwood's drawings were more detailed and much more realistic than those of the artists who had visited the site previously. Their fanciful imaginations had accompanied those artists to the site when they visited before Stephens & Catherwood, so fantasy and exaggeration started giving way to a more serious approach to the Maya and Stephens' descriptions are largely responsible for this. He was a very reasonable and logical man and his observations held more scientific value than anyone else's who had traveled to the site thus far. However anecdotal and narrative his work may be, Stephens' lines caught the attention of the articulate western world for the Maya civilization. This is perhaps his most important contribution, albeit his chronological and cultural concepts on the ancient Maya were only approximations he was right in that these were original works of a unique people who had inhabited this region and his views helped to completely discard any old notions that the ancient inhabitants of Palenque, Copan and Quirigua may have been Phoenicians, Hebrews or even mythical beings.Catherwood, a connoted artist, made skillful illustrations of the buildings at Palenque and the stuccoed bas-reliefs carved in stone that are found in them. After the end of their journey they published Incidents of Travel in Central America , Chiapas and Yucatan . The book was a huge editorial success in 1841. It expresses Stephens' views on previous explorations to the site and is also an invaluable source for where to look for early references and research material. It provides the first plan of the Palace , detailing which walls were standing and which were not.
In 1857 Desire de Charnay traveled to Palenque for the first time on a mission appointed by the French government. The French mission's objective was to study ancient Mesoamerican cities. He traveled through several sites on the highlands and then returned to Palenque in 1881. In just that brief lapse of time (not even 30 years) he could remark the progressive destruction of the buildings and noted the collapse of the Temple of the Cross , which he had seen whole during his first visit. He also noticed that the relief on the Temple of Leon had disappeared. With de Charnay the chapter of romantic travelers was closed and a new one was open: the age of archaeological scientific expeditions started.
At the end of the XIXth century great Americanists contributed to create a new image of Palenque and of the Maya area in general. On June 1877 Teobert Mahler arrived in Palenque . He stayed at the Palace , he then baptized "The Nunnery". From his travels excellent field notes and photographs taken by him are preserved to this date. Photography was still in its early days, and although his were not the first pictures to be made... His were definitely the best.
English explorer Alfred Percival Maudslay, considered as the founder of scientific archaeology in the Maya World, visited the site in 1891. Preparations for his last travel to the Maya World included visiting Mexico City to obtain a letter of recommendation for the Governor of Chiapas. Maudslay was single-handedly responsible for several advancements in the exploration and conservation of the monuments at Palenque , as well as in other sites, such as Copan . During his only stay, a short one, too, he removed a tall and heavy tree from the tower at the Palace , which was threatening to make it collapse. Maudslay cleared the forest in a scale larger than any other visitor before him. He began excavating the Palace , and mostly the east and west patios.
Maudslay also cleared the Eastern court of the Palace , at certain places removing the debris was enough, at others 4 feet of material had to be dug out to be able to see the walls. He kept a very careful photographic record of all his work, but he also made sure that his photographs were of excellent quality, at times "whitening" the stucco on some of the "piers" to make sure that the uniformity enabled the viewer to make out what was on the pictures. "I found it necessary to bring the stucco ornamentation to an even tone by washing it over with a distemper of wood-ash and flake white, which did not harm the moulding and was all washed off again by the first shower of rain." He worked at Palenque altogether for about 4 and a half months, which we may rightfully consider the first field season at the site.
Although Maudslay wasn't an archaeologist by training, his passion for the antiquities of the New World resulted in a brilliant career change for him and a great contribution to science and to Maya archaeology. The results of his work and travels are found in the documentation collected in the course of 7 expeditions he fielded to Central America . His photographs and field notes were published in the 6 archaeology volumes in a famous series of the day named Biologia Centrali Americana (1891- 1902). The whole series is a fascinating work composed of 89 volumes, filled with beautiful engravings of Central American insects, flora and fauna. All of the original volumes on natural history are at the British Library in London . However, the 6 archaeology volumes are housed at the Museum of Mankind in London , containing 200 engravings and including the original topographic maps drawn by Maudslay, as well as an appendix on the inscriptions found at the site. All of Maudslay's original notes are apparently in a private collection Dr. Ian Graham of Harvard University has had access to in the course of writing Maudslay's Biography, titled Alfred Maudslay and the Maya.
American anthropologist William Holmes arrived at Palenque in 1895 and established his encampment at the palace. He also made drawings and descriptions of the buildings, which were published in 1897 on Archaeological Studies among the Ancient Cities of Mexico . However, because of the Mexican Revolution there weren't any new visitors at the site with scientific pursuits until 1922, when the Danish citizen Franz Bloom was commissioned to study the site by the Direction of Anthropology and the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture and Development. He returned to the site in 1925 and was in charge of the first expedition to the area fielded by the University of Tulane . In his book Tribes and Temples , Bloom describes his activities between 1925 and 1927, carrying out a thorough reconnaissance of the site, the most complete one carried out until today, to the point that it is still reference work for scientists working currently at the site.
Beside the explorers from the past, Palenque still has much to offer explorers at the site today.