Mayan plumbing: world’s first pressurised water feature


Washington : A water feature found in the Maya city of Palenque, Mexico, is the earliest known example of engineered water pressure in the new world, say researchers.

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The finding is the outcome of a collaboration between two Penn State University researchers, Christopher Duffy, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Kirk French, lecturer in anthropology.

“Water pressure systems were previously thought to have entered the New World with the arrival of the Spanish,” they wrote.

“Yet archaeological data, seasonal climate conditions, geomorphic setting and simple hydraulic theory clearly show that the Maya (city) of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, had empirical knowledge of closed channel water pressure predating the arrival of Europeans,” they added.

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, was also 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,” said Duffy.

“They were apparently using engineering without knowing the tools around it. This does look like a feature that controls nature,” Duffy said.

Underground water features such as aqueducts are not unusual at Palenque. 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,” said French. “There are streams in the area every 300 feet or so across the whole escarpment. There is very little land to build on.”

These spring-fed streams combined with approximately 10 feet of rain that falls during the six-month rainy season also presented a flooding hazard that the aqueducts would have at least partially controlled, said a Penn State University release.

These findings appeared recently in the Journal of Archaeological Science.