The Secret Sea: Uxmal Reveals More Secrets
Water was the vital life force behind the classic Maya civilization just as it is to our own civilization today. Take away water and what is left?
Uxmal holds many secrets. From the hidden passage recently discovered inside the Governor’s Palace to the little known light and shadow effect that takes place at the Dovecote, the archaeological zone best-kept secrets are not hidden in plain sight. The run of the mill maps and typical tourism guidebooks often omit what is hidden. For example, the second Mayan Ball Court and the Round Structure are off the beaten path. Few eyes have actually seen the Pyramid of the Old Woman now restricted from view.
The out-of-sight architecture is wonderful indeed. It is only when the importance of water is considered, that the most important secret becomes this little known artificial sea.
A product of Mayan engineering, the man-made Pit of the Serpent is an ancient dam. It hasn’t been filled for decades and there is no modern photographic record. Now for the first time in decades, it is being observed, studied, and revered.
Magic of the Maya Water Wizards
Water was not only a sacred substance but it was a gift given by Chaac the rain God, the nourishing principle who was the personification of rain itself. It was also critical for the Maya civilization.
The Puuc-style ancient architects could not have built the highly sophisticated stone structures that today leave us in awe without the element of water.
We marvel over the pyramids, temples, ball courts, and other stone monuments, but it’s not often the water wizards are acknowledged for their achievements concerning water. For the Maya constructed highly sophisticated hydraulic systems built to harness the liquid gift of the gods. We observe the stone structures, the step fret motifs, geometrical designs with great adoration, but what often goes unnoticed is the key to it all – the water.
In fact, recent studies have shown how a lack of water resulting from severe droughts may have played a critical role in bringing the classic Maya civilization to its knees. However, what may seem like the elusive obvious answer continues to remain a mystery.
Uxmal has managed to keep a secret concerning water for decades.
The Pit of The Serpent
One of the most spectacular hidden gems in the archaeological zone of Uxmal: the secret sea, a crescent-shaped lake, baptized as the Chen Chan Akal, “Pit of the Serpent” was a great liquid treasure chest for the ancient Mayan metropolis.
This secret sea is located only a few steps from where tourists walk, yet so few are aware of the man-made damns existence. The Pit of the Serpent is hidden from view for obvious reasons.
To meet the water needs of the residents of Uxmal, whose occupation reached approximately 20,000 during the Late Classic Period (600-900 AD), the ancient architects depended upon three complementary water system.
First of all, they constructed chultunes, man-made bottle-shaped underground cisterns. Over 200 chultunes have been identified at Uxmal. These chultunes have helped archaeologists determine the numbers for any given site population.
Next, they built bukteoob. In comparison to the chultunes they were smaller in size and built at the bottom of rainwater damns. They served as a last resort when other sources were depleted during the dry season.
Finally, the backbone of the entire operation was the akalches, man-made damns constructed with wide wooden boards that stored millions of liters of water. The largest of all akalches at Uxmal was Chen Chan Akal, The Pit of the Serpent.
An Adept Expedition
Although the Pit of the Serpent is less than 1/2 a kilometer from the tourist boundary of the archaeological zone, it is far from easy to reach.
The team had to trek through dense, thorny vegetation carrying kayaks, paddles, and photography equipment. The mosquitos are unforgiving and at the face, height is wasp nests. Every 20 to 30 steps or so the team had to stop walking in order to avoid them.
By the time everyone reached the enclosure wall – another one of Uxmal’s hidden secrets – everyone was drenched in sweat. However, demanding the path has not yet even started at this stage. After another 30 to 40 minutes after the Pre-hispanic hieroglyph laden enclosure wall, the dry land ends and the mud begins which very soon gives way to the wetland. The water is now knee-high for the team.
Each step is a victory over vegetation. It is a succession of moving branches, pulling, pushing, and paying close attention to where your foot sinks in very dark, murky brown water. One begins to better understand what the Maya went through. You develop a deeper appreciation for the ancient people who lived among this jungle terrain.
A half-hour has passed and the team is only a few meters in.
Archaeologist Jose Huchim and Abraham Che, advance forward with their machetes looking for a practical route. For a moment communication is lost. The remaining members go the team to raise their voice but the archaeologists do not respond. Five to ten more minutes pass leaving the team stranded in the swamp. Finally, the archaeologists return.
The party splits up and communication is lost. Voices of the team are raised but no response. They spend 5 to 10 mins stranded in the swamp and finally, the archaeologists reappear from the vegetation. They have blazed a trail and prepared to continue leading the group out of the thick and into the Pit of the Serpent.
At Chen Chan Akal, ancient engineering was applied to capture rainwater on a monumental scale. Thousand-year-old boards of wood, wide and firm made to walk with heavy loads of water demonstrate pre-Hispanic knowledge. The Maya possessed deep knowledge of currents, rain runoff, elevations, and the depressions in terrain. They also understood the impervious characteristics of the soil and subsoil as well.
The sheer size of Chen Chan Akal is larger than one may expect. The edges to the pit are not weak in form or merely made of muddy mounds, but rather well-established boards despite centuries of collapse and fissures.
This reservoir of water sustained an entire population of people, giving life to the Maya. It has not been visible for decades.
The team takes measurements of the pit and determines it’s about 5 meters deep. However, years ago studies indicated the pit was 6 meters at maximum depth. This was first documented by pioneering American explorer John Lloyd Stephens and his travel companion Frederick Catherwood. In fact, Catherwood made mention of bathing in the pit at Uxmal.
The team request permission from the ancestors of these vestiges and, with great care, place the kayaks on the sacred water of this surreal space.
The Secret Sea at Uxmal Revealed
In June 2020 the tropical storm of “Cristobal” left a devastating impact in the land of the Mayab. However, Chaac managed to leave the modern Maya another gift – the secret sea with its ancient dam in original conception to be admired in its true ingenuity and magnitude. Only the incessant rain of days and nights could recharge the system after centuries of decline.
From the western shore of Chen Chan Akal the team was able to look through the lens of the drone to see the damn the way the Maya intended. The team discovered a different Uxmal.
From an ariel point of view, we can now see for the first time, what the city truly is. An ancient city on the edge of the water and the water on the edge of an ancient city.
It is inevitable that our view of Uxmal must change. It is true that the city is not only an architectural beauty but an engineering treasure. The artificial sea is just important to Uxmal’s glory as of the Pyramid of the Magician or the Governor’s Palace.
The Pit of the Serpent always figured prominently among the treasures of Uxmal, but now we finally get the full view.