Archaeo aquifers

Cleaning up the ancient acequias of Sierra Nevada, Spain.



Drought is very much in the news these days, which comes as no surprise to students of ancient climate change, where aridity has long been a dominant theme. In recent years, archaeologists in several parts of the world have become involved in efforts to restore traditional agricultural systems that have fallen into disuse in the face of modern-day industrial-scale farming. One notable example comes from Bolivia, where archaeologists have worked closely with local villagers to restore long-abandoned field systems used to grow potatoes.


The quest for sustainable field systems that can be used in seemingly barren landscapes has spread to Spain, where villagers, students, and volunteers from the University of Granada are collaborating to clean 1,000-year-old irrigation channels, known locally as acequias. This is part of a large project by the University to restore water systems in the Alpujarra mountains, part of Spain’s Sierra Nevada.


The acequias were originally constructed by Islamic farmers when they arrived in Spain. The latter were experts at water conservation and management in arid landscapes. They used their carefully dug channels to control water flow during rainstorms so that it did not just soak into the ground. Instead, they diverted it into small, natural sub-surface aquifers for later use. The system was efficient, sustainable, and required little technology. But it did involve the carefully organised labour of local communities to raise dams, conserve springs, and maintain ponds. Much also depended on local ecological knowledge and experience, which worked well in Islamic Spain, colonised by agrarian settlers.


More than 80 kilometres of irrigation ditches have now been recovered with the help of more than 1,500 people. The next objective: restore a system known as the Aynadamar, which supplied water to Granada from at least the 11thcentury until the 1980s. These projects not only restore ancient irrigation systems but also enhance community involvement for the common good.


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Image: Team cleaning organised by the Biocultural Archaeology Laboratory (MEMOLab), coordinated by Professor Dr José María Martín Civantos, from the Department of Medieval History and CCTTHH of the University of Granada.

Credit: MemoLab.