Water Under the Bridge

Ancient Mayan methods of water management (no bridges involved)

Man Pumping Water (c. 1937) by Beverly ChichesterNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Water management

Humans need water to drink, cook, for livestock, and to build living structures and create tools.

Especially where humans (and their animals) congregate in larger groups - towns or cities - the supply of water becomes essential (and potentially a powerful tool of rulers and would-be kings).

Wat Sewers Water Works EctLIFE Photo Collection

Water supply (and disposal of waste water) has taken on many different forms throughout human history.

Portrait of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, with a short biography (1891-1896) by R. Taylor & CoBritish Museum

In London, Sir Joseph Bazalgette is famous for his intricate sewer works, which is still a major part of the London sewer system. His work eliminated incidents like the 'Great Stink' of 1858 and helped to decrease epidemics like cholera and typhus.

Water-related structures from ancient times to the modern day can be quite intricate. Take a look at this Pumping Station on London's Isle of Dogs:

Visiting the Maya lowlands and the site of Bonampak in southern Mexico gives you an impression of the verdant, green, and hot tropical environment. Surely that means there is plenty of water, right?

Physical map of the Maya area showing rivers and mountains (2019) by Eva JobbovaBritish Museum

Water supply

The tropical environment of the Maya area actually does not mean that the daily water supply is easily assured, especially during the dry season.

In the Northern Lowlands there are no rivers...

...and although there are some large rivers in the Southern Lowlands, there were also many ancient settlements well away from these water sources.

Some ancient Maya cities had it easy as they were built along rivers – for example Yaxchilan on the Usumacinta River.

Google Earth satellite image of the Usumacinta River region, GMP team, 2019, From the collection of: British Museum
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Alfred Maudslay explored Yaxchilan in 1882 and was one of the first Westerners to arrive at this site on the Usumacinta River.

Photograph of Yaxchilán taken by A.P. Maudslay, Alfred Percival Maudslay, 1881/1894, From the collection of: British Museum
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Even today, it is easiest to reach the archaeological site with a small boat which ferrys people up and down the river.

Lancha ride on Usumacinta River, GMP team, 2018, From the collection of: British Museum
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Yaxchilan, Mexico (2018) by GMP teamBritish Museum


This good location gave the ancient inhabitants not only access to water, but also to major trade routes.

A lot of the trade between the Highlands and Lowlands was conducted along the rivers.

Usumacinta River, the landing spot at Yaxchilan, Mexico (2018) by GMP teamBritish Museum

But such a riverside location also had its disadvantages - the Usumacinta is a fast-flowing river with many bends and shallows.

During the dry season, you can see that the river is quite low, but during the rainy season, it rises meters higher.

Photograph of Yaxchilán taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum


Here is the river at a very low stage in 1882...

...with Maudslay's men making camp in the dry part of the riverbed...

...close to the remains of an ancient structure in the river.

Usumacinta River at Yaxchilan, Mexico (2018) by GMP teamBritish Museum

A bridge?

This was probably a dock or pier and having a city on both sides of the river, you would need a good ferry service to connect the two sides.


This ancient Maya site does not lie on such a large river as the Usumacinta, but has smaller streams running from the mountains in the urban area.

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay, Alfred Percival Maudslay, 1881/1894, From the collection of: British Museum
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Plan of the site centre of Palenque, Mexico, published by A.P. Maudslay (c. 1891) by H.W. Price and A.P. MaudslayBritish Museum


The center of the site of Palenque is crossed by a small stream called Otolum...

...part of which is diverted into an aqueduct.

The acqueduct at Palenque, Mexico, seen from the Palace (2018) by GMP teamBritish Museum


The aqueduct was once covered and ran through the center as a subterranean water source. Most of the corbelled arch covering it has since fallen in though and can only be seen in small sections.

A.P Maudslay journal, Palenque (1891/1891) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum


When Maudslay visited Palenque in 1891, he made a few pages of notes on the aqueduct.

This included a sketch drawing to show the 'bovoidal' form of the closed aqueduct.

Composite photo of the acqueduct at Palenque, Mexico (2019) by GMP teamBritish Museum

You can mostly only see the aqueduct's walls, with very little of the original 'roof' left.

Chichén Itzá

The large site of Chichén Itzá is situated in the Northern Lowlands, on the Yucatan Peninsula. This part of the Maya area can get very dry during the dry season and there are no surface rivers due to the geology of this part of the world.

Photograph of Chichén Itzá taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

Large cities

The people building their large cities here had to be quite ingenious to get access to the amount of water necessary to sustain urban life and commerce.

Schematic cross section of a storage chamber or chultun of the Maya area in Yucatan (2012) by HJPDOriginal Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chultun.jpg


In many archaeological sites you can find these underground storage chambers, called chultun, that were often used for water. These were built by the ancient Maya to collect rainwater during the wet season, to be used during the dry season.

The underground cavern or cenote at the Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, Yucatan, Mexico (2018) by GMP teamBritish Museum

Water underground

But there are also ways of gaining access to groundwater, which is good drinking water and in ample supply underground.

The entrance to the Loltun caves in Yucatan, Mexico, and one of the chambers. (2018) by GMP teamBritish Museum

The Yucatan Peninsula is sometimes compared to a Swiss Cheese = full of holes. There are many caves here, often with access to groundwater. At the same time, the ceilings of these caverns cave in and give access from above.

Composite image of the cenote (natural sinkhole) at the Hacienda Sotuta de Peon in Yucatan, Mexico (2018) by GMP teamBritish Museum

These sinkholes, called cenotes, are today often used as refreshing natural swimming pools. They can be still nearly fully underground, or with a collapsed top, open to the elements.

Photo of the 'Cenote of Sacrifice' at Chichen Itza, Mexico. (2018) by GMP teamBritish Museum


One of these open cenotes is also one of the most famous...

...the so-called Cenote of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza.

Photograph of Chichén Itzá taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

There are other cenotes in and around the site of Chichen Itza...

...but this is by far the largest and is nearly perfectly round.

Photograph of Chichén Itzá taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

Buildings with noses?

With rather distinct dry and wet seasons in the Maya area, the arrival of the annual rainy season has always been important for access to water for agriculture and survival.

Images of the God of Rain and Lightning, Chaahk, can be seen in many places – often very distinguishable by his nearly elephantine nose.

In Central Mexico, the god of rain (Tlaloc) did not have a large nose, but rather 'goggle eyes'. Although in this case not a god, at Chichen Itza we can see a Central Mexican influence in the art, for example in the Sculpted Chamber E you can see persons depicted with the Tlaloc-style circles around their eyes.

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, The British Museum, 2017-2019, From the collection of: British Museum
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Yaxchilan Lintel 24 (723/726)British Museum


The rulers communicated with the gods, for example by sacrificing their blood.

Here you can see Yaxchilan's queen Kabal Xook pulling a thorn-studded rope through her tongue to collect her blood. Their success was also measured by the punctual arrival of the rain.

Credits: Story

All images ©Trustees of the British Museum unless otherwise marked
Text and image selection: Claudia Zehrt, Project Curator: Americas
Thanks to: Ana Somohano Eres, Eva Jobbova and other British Museum Maya Project collaborators  

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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