Saturday, July 28, 2007

Water, Water, Everywhere!

The field work continues in the mighty scrub forest of Yucatan. As in any good scrub forest, water is a vital commodity. For those of you unfamiliar with such an environment, you might imagine it as a forested desert. For a few months a year rain buckets down in almost disastrous quantities, but for the remainder of the year it is nearly bone dry. In addition, northern Yucatan has very thin soils. The solid limestone bedrock is found only a foot or two beneath the surface of the soil, and in the case of Xtobo one can frequently see bedrock right on the surface. So the sum results of these conditions are a forest composed of smaller trees that are quick to grow and reproduce. Thus if they do not survive the dry season they can quickly be replaced in the next wet season. Typically, the only large trees to be found in a region are directly associated with a permanent water source. Which in the case of Xtobo would be a small natural well reaching the water table, or an artificial well dug by the ancient inhabitants of the site. Due to these conditions wells are typically easy to find. Alas, my dear Xtobo has largely bucked these traditional rules.

In previous years spent working at the site it was rare to encounter water sources at the site. I repeatedly badgered local informants asking where water was available in the region, but repeated the only answer was at the “noria,” or colonial well, of Rancho Xtobo. I was forced to conclude that the said noria must have been built on a previous water source, but resigned myself to never being able to prove it. This reluctant conclusion may still be correct, but this last week of work has suggested it may no longer be a necessary assumption.

As the workers from Ucu have continued to cut trails across the site to provide access to its remote corners, they have literally crossed over three previously unknown ground wells. Three new wells is a serious addition when one considers that previously only one was known, with a second hypothetical water source at the noria. Even more remarkable is that these wells have showed up on 1 meter wide trails being cut every 100 meters. The odds of three showing up on the brechas would seem to almost insist that more wells will be encountered as the grids squares being formed by the trails are searched.

In triumphal confirmation of the above hypothesis Dan Griffin and Scott Johnson encountered a fourth water source on Friday afternoon a few meters inside of one of the prepared grid squares. Now both Scott and Dan have claimed responsibility for finding the well, and they have also both proclaimed that the other person found it. They seemed to have lost a bit of perspective as I, as project director, am clearly the individual responsible for having found it, despite being half a kilometer away checking on trail cutting. Nevertheless, this new fourth source of water presents an interesting possibility. Unlike the previous three wells located this season, there is actually water in it. The other wells are filled in with all manner of leaves, rocks, and general sediment, thus blocking access to the water table some 6 meters below. The new well has water only a half a meter or so below the ground surface. One potential reason for this is that it is not a well at all, but rather a “chultun.” That is to say it may be an artificial water reservoir carved by the long ago inhabitants of Xtobo, and lined with plaster to hold water.

Given the aforementioned general scarcity of water in a scrub forest, its conservation would have clearly been of vital importance to the people living at the site. After all, while working at the site, approximately 10 people consume 5 gallons of water in a day. Those sort of quantities start to quickly add up, thus finding viable water sources around the site of Xtobo adds a vital piece to our understanding of the life of those who once lived at this place.


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