A water feature found in the Maya city of Palenque, Mexico, is the earliest known example of engineered water pressure in the new world, according to a collaboration between two Penn State researchers, an archaeologist and a hydrologist. How the Maya used the pressurized water, however, still is unknown.
"Water pressure systems were previously thought to have
entered the New World with the arrival of the
Spanish," the researchers say in a recent issue of the Journal of
Archaeological Science. "Yet, archaeological data, seasonal climate
conditions, geomorphic setting and simple hydraulic theory clearly show that
the Maya of Palenque in Chiapas,
empirical knowledge of closed channel water pressure predating the arrival of
The feature, first identified in 1999 during a mapping
survey of the area, while similar to the aqueducts that flow beneath the plazas
of the city, also was unlike them. In 2006, an archaeologist returned to Palenque with a
hydrologist to examine the unusual water feature. The area of Palenque was first occupied about the year
100 but grew to its largest during the Classic Maya period 250 to 600. The city
was abandoned around 800.
"Under natural conditions, it would have been difficult
for the Maya to see examples of water pressure in their world," says
Christopher Duffy, professor of civil and environmental engineering. "They
were apparently using engineering without knowing the tools around it. This
does look like a feature that controls nature."
Underground water features such as aqueducts are not unusual
Because the Maya built the city in a constricted area in a break in an
escarpment, inhabitants were unable to spread out. To make as much land
available for living, the Maya at Palenque
routed streams beneath plazas via aqueducts.
"They were creating urban space," says Kirk
French, lecturer in anthropology. "There are streams in the area every 300
feet or so across the whole escarpment. There is very little land to build
These spring-fed streams combined with approximately 10 feet
of rain that falls during the 6-month rainy season also presented a flooding
hazard that the aqueducts would have at least partially controlled.
The feature the researchers examined, Piedras Bolas
Aqueduct, is a spring-fed conduit located on steep terrain. The elevation drops
about 20 feet from the entrance of the tunnel to the outlet about 200 feet
downhill. The cross section of the feature decreases from about 10 square feet
near the spring to about a half square-foot where water emerges form a small
opening. The combination of gravity on water flowing through the feature and
the sudden restriction of the conduit causes the water to flow out of the
opening forcefully, under pressure.
"The conduit could have reached a theoretical hydraulic
head limit of 6 meters (about 20 feet)," says Duffy.
At the outlet, the pressure exerted could have moved the
water upwards of 20 feet.
"The experience the Maya at Palenque had in constructing aqueducts for
diversion of water and preservation of urban space may have led to the creation
of useful water pressure," says French.
The Piedras Bolas Aqueduct is partially collapsed, so very
little water currently flows from the outlet. French and Duffy used simple
hydraulic models to determine the potential water pressure achievable from the aqueduct.
They also found that aqueduct would hold about 18,000 gallons of water if the
outlet were controlled to store the water.
One potential use for the artificially engineered water
pressure would have been a fountain. The researchers modeled the aqueduct with
a fountain as the outlet, and found that even during flood conditions, water
would flow in the aqueduct, supplying the fountain, and aboveground in the
channel running off the slope. Another possibility could be to use the pressure
to lift water onto the adjacent residential area for use as wastewater
"The palace has features that suggest something
similar," says French.
The National Science Foundation and the Foundation for the
Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies supported this work.
Mayan Pressurized Water Feature Found
May 6, 2010