In Photos: Enormous Ancient Mexican Temple

Valley of Oaxaca

view of Mexico's Valley of Oxaca

(Image credit: bcampbell65 | Shutterstock)

Researchers excavating in Mexico's Valley of Oaxaca (shown here) have uncovered the area's earliest known temple precinct (El Palenque's temple), which the scientists say, was staffed by a specialized priesthood. The scientists detailed their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of April 22, 2013.

Where mountains meet

Oaxaca Valley in Mexico

(Image credit: Donald Barger | Shutterstock)

The Valley of Oaxaca is located in southeastern Mexico, at the place where the Eastern Sierra Madre and Eastern Sierra Madre meet, according to the Houston Institute for Culture. Oaxaca was first derived from the Náhuatl word, Huayacac, which roughly means "the place of the seed," referring to a tree commonly found in Oaxaca, according to the Institute.

Temple & priest housing

temple precinct at mexico's valley of oaxaca

(Image credit: Image courtesy of Charles Spencer and Elsa Redmond. )

Here, an oblique aerial view of El Palenque's temple precinct, facing southwest toward a public plaza. Three temples linked by enclosure walls face the public plaza. Behind them are two priests' residences, located in the left foreground of this view. Also visible is the entrance to the masonry-lined tunnel directly behind central temple.

Hearths & burned floors

temple precinct at mexico's valley of oaxaca

(Image credit: Image courtesy of Charles Spencer and Elsa Redmond.)

A view of Structure 20 temple, part of El Palenque's temple, under excavation from its southeastern end. The hearths and burned floor are visible as is the rear staircase being exposed in the right foreground.

Priestly residences

temple precinct at mexico's valley of oaxaca

(Image credit: Image courtesy of Charles Spencer and Elsa Redmond.)

The archaeologists discovered several structures at the early temple precinct, including priestly residences (such as this one called Structure 27 under excavation, facing northeast.) The paved platform at the front of the priestly residence and the paved passageway lead to the sunken room in the rear. The subfloor hearth (Feature 79) and cache (Feature 78) lie under the sheet of plastic.

Priests' Homes

Priests' residences in Mexican temple

(Image credit: Charles Spencer and Elsa Redmond)

A view of structures 28 (left) and 27 (right), the buildings archaeologists believe were two priestly homes. The trench in the foreground exposes the original ground surface between the main temple and the homes.

Small Temple Building

Small temple in temple complex

(Image credit: Charles Spencer and Elsa Redmond)

Archaeologists excavate a small temple in the El Palenque complex.

Temple Layout

Temple structure in El Palenque

(Image credit: Charles Spencer and Elsa Redmond)

Archaeologists figure out the layout of a temple building at El Palenque. A staircase from the public plaza (right) led to the temple's front hall. The temple's inner room is a step higher than the main entrance.

El Palenque Palace

El Palenque palace excavations

(Image credit: Charles Spencer and Elsa Redmond)

Across from the temple is the El Palenque palace, shown here during excavations.

Elsa Redmond

Archaeologist Elsa Redmond at work

(Image credit: Charles Spencer and Elsa Redmond)

Archaeologist Elsa Redmond measures an excavation level at the El Palenque site.