Aqueducts and reservoirs were part of the Maya civilization's water control strategies, at many of their central cities such including Tikal, Caracol, and Palenque, a famous Classic Maya archaeological site located in the lush tropical forest at the foothills of the Chiapas highlands of Mexico.
Fast Facts: Mayan Aqueducts at Palenque
- The Maya built sophisticated water control systems at several main communities.
- Systems included dams, aqueducts, canals, and reservoirs.
- Cities with documented systems include Caracol, Tikal, and Palenque.
Palenque is perhaps best known for the lovely architecture of its royal palace and temples, as well as for being the site of the tomb of Palenque's most important ruler, king Pakal the Great (ruled 615-683 CE), discovered in 1952 by the Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier (1906-1979)
A casual visitor at Palenque today always notices the rushing mountain stream nearby, but that is just a hint that Palenque has one of the best-preserved and sophisticated systems of underground water control in the Maya region.
Palenque is located on a narrow limestone shelf about 500 feet (150 meters) above the plains of Tabasco. The high escarpment was an excellent defensive position, important in Classic times when warfare was increasingly frequent; but it also a place with many natural springs. Nine separate watercourses arising from 56 recorded mountain springs bring water into the city. Palenque is called "the land where the waters flow out of the mountains" in the Popol Vuh, and the presence of constant water even in times of drought was very attractive to its residents.
However, with so many streams within a limited shelf area, there isn't a lot of space to put houses and temples. And, according to the British diplomat and archaeologist A.P. Maudsley (1850-1931) who worked at Palenque between 1889-1902 when the aqueducts had long since stopped functioning, the water level rose and flooded the plaza and residential areas even in the dry season. So, during the Classic period, the Maya responded to the conditions by constructing a unique water control system, channeling the water beneath plazas, thereby reducing floods and erosion, and increasing living space all at the same time.
Palenque's Water Control
The water control system at Palenque includes aqueducts, bridges, dams, drains, walled channels, and pools; much of it recently discovered as a result of three years of intensive archaeological survey called the Palenque Mapping Project, led by U.S. archaeologist Edwin Barnhart.
Although water control was a characteristic of most Maya sites, Palenque's system is unique: other Maya sites worked to keep water stored during the dry season; Palenque worked to harness the water by constructing elaborate subterranean aqueducts that guided the stream beneath the plaza floors.
The Palace Aqueduct
Today's visitor entering the archaeological area of Palenque from its north side is guided on a path that leads her from the main entrance to the central plaza, the heart of this Classic Maya site. The main aqueduct built by the Maya to channel the water of the Otulum River runs through this plaza and a length of it has been exposed, a result of the collapse of its vault.
A visitor walking down from the Cross Group, on the hilly southeastern side of the plaza, and toward the Palace, will have the opportunity to admire the stonework of the aqueduct's walled channel and, especially during the rainy season, to experience the roaring sound of the river flowing under her feet. Variances in building materials made researchers count at least four construction phases, with the earliest one probably contemporaneous to the construction of the Pakal's Royal Palace.
A Fountain at Palenque?
Archaeologist Kirk French and colleagues (2010) have recorded evidence that the Maya not only knew about water control, they knew all about creating and controlling water pressure, the first evidence of prehispanic knowledge of this science.
The spring-fed Piedras Bolas aqueduct has a subterranean channel of about 66 m (216 ft) in length. For most of that length, the channel measures 1.2x.8 m (4x2.6 ft) in cross-section, and it follows a topographic slope of about 5:100. Where the Piedras Bolas meets the plateau, there is an abrupt decrease in channel size to a much smaller section (20x20 cm or 7.8x7.8 in) and that pinched-in section runs for about 2 m (6.5 ft) before it reemerges in an adjacent channel. Assuming the channel was plastered when it was in use, even relatively small discharges could maintain a quite significant hydraulic head of nearly 6 m (3.25 ft).
French and colleagues suggest that manufactured increase in water pressure may have had a number of different purposes, including maintaining a water supply during drought, but it is possible that there may well have been a fountain springing upward and outward in a display in Pakal's city.
Water Symbolism at Palenque
The Otulum River that runs from the hills south of the plaza was not only carefully managed by the ancient inhabitants of Palenque, but it was also part of the sacred symbolism used by the city rulers. The spring of the Otulum is in fact next to a temple whose inscriptions talk about rituals associated with this water source. The ancient Maya name of Palenque, known from many inscriptions, is Lakam-há which means "great water". It is not a coincidence, then, that so much effort was put by its rulers in connecting their power to the sacred value of this natural resource.
Before leaving the plaza and continuing toward the eastern portion of the site, the attention of the visitors is attracted to another element that symbolizes the ritual importance of the river. A huge carved stone with the image of an alligator is posed on the eastern side at the end of the aqueduct's walled channel. Researchers link this symbol to the Maya belief that caimans, along with other amphibian creatures, were guardians of the continuous flow of water. At high water, this caiman sculpture would have appeared to have floated on the top of the water, an effect that still is seen today when the water is high.
Fending Off Droughts
Although U.S. archaeologist Lisa Lucero has argued that a widespread drought may have caused great disruption at many Maya sites at the end of the 800s, French and colleagues think that when the drought came to Palenque, the below-ground aqueducts could have stored adequate amounts of water to keep the city sufficiently watered even during the severest droughts.
After being channeled and running under the surface of the plaza, the water of the Otulum flows down the slope of the hill, forming cascades and beautiful water pools. One of the most famous of these spots is called "The Queen Bath" (Baño de la Reina, in Spanish).
The Otulum aqueduct is not the only aqueduct in Palenque. At least other two sectors of the site have aqueducts and constructions related to water management. These are areas not open to the public and located almost 1 km away from the site's core.
The history of the construction of the Otulum's aqueduct in the main plaza of Palenque offers us a window into the functional and symbolic meaning of space for the ancient Maya. It also represents one of the most evocative places of this famous archaeological site.
Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst
- French, Kirk D., and Christopher J. Duffy. "Prehispanic Water Pressure: A New World First." Journal of Archaeological Science 37.5 (2010): 1027-32.
- French, Kirk D., Christopher J. Duffy, and Gopal Bhatt. "The Hydroarchaeological Method: A Case Study at the Maya Site of Palenque." Latin American Antiquity 23.1 (2012): 29-50.
- ---. "The Urban Hydrology and Hydraulic Engineering at the Classic Maya Site of Palenque." Water History 5.1 (2013): 43-69.
- French, Kirk D., Kirk D. Straight, and Elijah J. Hermitt. "Building the Environment at Palenque: The Sacred Pools of the Picota Group." Ancient Mesoamerica (2019): 1-22.
- Lucero, Lisa J. "The Collapse of the Classic Maya: A Case for the Role of Water Control." American Anthropologist 104.3 (2002): 814-26.
- Reilly, F. Kent. "Enclosed Ritual Spaces and the Watery Underworld in Formative Period Architecture: New Observations on the Function of La Venta Complex A." Seventh Palenque Round Table. Eds. Robertson, Merle Greene and Virginia M. Fields. San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, 1989.