Mexican archaeologists announced at a press conference at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City on Monday that they have discovered a canal network underneath the 1,300-year-old Temple of the Inscriptions in the ancient Mayan city of Palenque. Experts believe the water flowing through the underground tunnels beneath the tomb of the Mayan King Pakal was meant to offer a symbolic path to the afterlife.

Shrouded in the dense jungle of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, the Temple of the Inscriptions was one of the most complex construction projects ever undertaken by the Mayans, and for hundreds of years the stone pyramid that towered over the ancient city of Palenque concealed a secret deep inside.

Temple of the Inscriptions, Chiapas, Mexico. Mayan. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Temple of the Inscriptions, Chiapas, Mexico. Mayan. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Until the middle of the 20th century, it was common wisdom among archaeologists that the Mayan pyramids were not funerary monuments. That all changed in 1952 when Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier discovered a hidden staircase inside the Temple of the Inscriptions that led to a tomb containing a jewel-bedecked skeleton wearing a jade mosaic death mask. The bones belonged to the legendary seventh-century King K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, who had ruled over one of the great Mayan dynasties and commissioned the building of the pyramid toward the end of his nearly 70 years on the throne. Inside the tomb 640 glyphs drawn by royal scribes tell the story of King Pakal’s reign until his death in 683 A.D. Images carved into the limestone lid atop the 20-ton limestone sarcophagus portray the king’s resurrection and journey to the afterlife.

Archaeologists working with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History have announced that they have uncovered another secret inside the grandest burial monument in the Americas—a complex underground water system flowing underneath the tomb of King Pakal. The genesis of the discovery began in 2012 when researchers were exploring the temple ruins with geo-radar and found anomalies in front of the pyramid steps that they feared could be a hole or geological fault line threatening the temple’s structural integrity. As they explored further, archaeologists found three layers of carefully fitted stones on top of water tunnels underneath both the pyramid and the tomb itself.

Jade mask of Mayan King Pakal, at the National Museum of Anthropology and History, in Mexico city. (Credit: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)
Jade mask of Mayan King Pakal, at the National Museum of Anthropology and History, in Mexico city. (Credit: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Since the tunnels—two feet wide and two feet high—were too small for human exploration, the archaeological team relied instead on cameras and lights mounted on small wheeled vehicles that were driven along the limestone floors of the canals by remote control. They discovered the intricate canal system has various levels and flows in numerous directions. The archaeologists believe the canals existed well before the pyramid itself, possibly as part of a drainage or water supply system in Palenque. Since water is still flowing through the underground tunnels, the source is likely a natural spring.

“We believe the spring was the starting point from which the temple was built and whose purpose was to associate the ruler with these bodies of water,” said Arnoldo Gonzalez, the director of the Palenque Archaeological Project, according to Agencia EFE. “We should also consider that the people of ancient Palenque might design such a hydraulic system to metaphorically recreate the waterway that would lead K’nich Janaab’ Pakal to waters of the underworld,” he added.

Limestone sarcophagus with relief depicting King Pakal, reconstruction of the royal tomb from the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Limestone sarcophagus with relief depicting King Pakal, reconstruction of the royal tomb from the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

The connection between the waterways and Mayan beliefs in the afterlife would explain inscriptions carved into a pair of stone ear plugs found in the tomb that mention that the king needed to be submerged in the water of the rain god Chaac in order to be carried into his next life. In addition, archaeologists have discovered symbolic water tunnels built by pre-Hispanic people elsewhere in Mexico as well. “There is this allegorical meaning for water,” said Pedro Sanchez Nava, director of archaeology for the National Institute of Anthropology and History, according to the Associated Press, “where the cycle of life begins and ends.”

Prior to the discovery, archaeologists had theorized that the funeral chamber led to other rooms under the temple. The archaeologists were unable to determine the length of the tunnel or pinpoint exactly where it begins. However, they announced that they plan to continue to explore the canal system with ground-penetrating radar in an attempt to better understand their origin, extent and configuration.

Visitors can no longer enter the tomb of King Pakal, but a re-creation can be viewed at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City along with the king’s jade death mask.