Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Week 1 Recap

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

-- from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

            A first principle of archaeology is that research designs can and will change. Despite preparations for a dry excavation, including the use of a gas powered bilge pump, we've found ourselves waist deep in Palenqueño water, what it means to be from Maine, Chiapas. Our PI, Kirk French, quickly realized that the ancient pool was built into bedrock, its limestone basin dipping beneath the water table. When the pool's depth leveled off soon into draining, the team was quickly disabused of illusions for neatly defined strata (goodbye, Harris matrix), and was encouraged to look for creative solutions. We decided that the best possible approach involved the feature's division into neatly defined sections, with wet screening of removed sediment for artifact recovery. This required that we shift gears from more traditional dry land archaeology, to a type of underwater work (well half underwater, anyway). And this is most welcomed: shaded by dense jungle and cooled with spring water, the change in methods has offered a welcome respite from unrelenting humidity in the tropical environment).

Kirk French, attempting to get a better view

            Between donning bathing suits and transporting frogs from one water source to another (more on that in another post), the excavation has proved to be unique in every way, with each moment presenting a new learning experience. To begin with, we knew from earlier studies that the ancient Maya of Palenque were ingenious hydrological engineers. Since the beginnings of habitation, water was an abundant resource, even in excess at certain times of the year. This ecological fact surely played into the site's ancient name, Lakamha,' or "Big Water." And as a result, the Palenqueños had to devise a means to control runoff during the rainy season, diverting streams into underground aqueducts that ran beneath plaza floors, thereby practicing flood control and, significantly, expanding inhabitable space (on what was then, and remains today, a relatively restricted escarpment).

            The exact timing and degree of Palenque's waterworks, however, remain poorly understood, though our work is already shedding light in this important area of research.  We have located a monumental staircase on the eastern side of the feature, leading down into the pool. Its stones are monolithic, single-coursed blocks, some of which remain in excellent condition. An impressive wall, fashioned with at least some terracing, faces the southern side of the pool, though it's still too early to speak to its original design. Overall, the structure required a much greater degree of engineering and planning than we originally envisioned. 

Kirk Straight, project ceramicist, drawing the staircase

            To back up a bit, our feature, located in the Picota Group, is recharged from the stream of the Arroyo Picota, and sits astride an ancient aqueduct. That aqueduct remains largely intact, continuing to channel water beneath an early plaza floor, just to the southeast of the pool. These architectural phenomena are just over a kilometer from polity center, forcing the observer to reconsider notions of a centralized site plan. In addition, the pool is within meters of Palenque's only known stela, a type of stone monument presumed to be associated with kingship. The seeming monumentality of the pool, made apparent with little more than a week's worth of work, and its location in and articulation with other features from the Picota Group, clearly signals an important role of water ritual and technology for early Palenque.

Stela in the Picota Group, just beyond the pool (photo taken by author)

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