Sweat baths or sweat lodges have a long history of use among the cultures that once dominated Mesoamerica. From the Maya to the Aztecs, sweat baths were built for spiritual and health reasons and were often used by midwives before, after and during birth. Traditionally, rituals carried out inside the baths would induce a state of sweating in their occupants, through a combination of fire, chant and prayer.
Archaeologists have now learned more about how these baths linked to Maya beliefs and rituals, after discovering a trove of bones and tools at an ornately decorated sweat bath at the site of Xultun in Guatemala.
The discovery was led by archaeologists from the Smithsonian Tropical Institute (STRI) and the Archaeology Program at Bostom University in the US, who described their findings in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.
According to the study, the Maya sweat baths were seen as more than just buildings as they were looked upon as physical embodiments of relatives, ancestors and even supernatural beings.
In many cases, the indigenous people of Mesoamerica believed spirits were inhabited both natural features and man-made structures.
The sweat bath at Xultun, in particular, appears to have been an embodiment of a toad-like Maya goddess linked to the cycle of birth and creation.
Named Los Sapos, the sweat bath has been dated to the Early Classic period between 250 to 550 AD.
Outside the structure, the researchers encountered a detailed representation of a poorly-known Maya deity, possibly named “ix.tzuz.sak”.
The Maya goddess enveloped the sweat baths’ facade and was depicted in a squatting position, like a toad, with legs decorated with iguanas and cane toads.
Ashley Sharpe, study-co author and STRI archaeologist, said: “No other structure in Mesoamerica – sweat bath or otherwise – looks like this building.
“It would seem that when someone enters the front of the structure, they are entering the amphibian goddess who personified the sweat bath.”
Mary Clarke, lead author and Boston University archaeologist, said: “Although this goddess’ name remains undeciphered, proposed readings suggest she was responsible for gestation cycles, both of time and human life.
“Linking notions of birth to reptilian figures, however, is not uncommon among the Classic Maya as they express the verb ‘to birth’ as an upended reptilian mouth glyph
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“What we see at Xultun is an example where this reptilian goddess, as well as the ideas and myths she embodied, are expressed as a physical place.”
The Los Sapos sweat bath was most likely active for about 300 years.
Then around the year 600 AD, the remains of an adult individual were interred within the structure’s doorway, after which the structure was buried.
Despite this, the Maya continued to live at Xultin for several more centuries.
And about 300 years later, the sweat bath was excavated and the remains interred inside were removed.
New remains were then laid inside, including those of a child, a puppy, birds, toads, iguanas and other young animals.
The archaeologists believe this shows the sweat bath was seen as a grandmother figure as well as a place of birth and human creation.
Dr Sharpe said: “Maya archaeologists often find artefact concentrations like these that were likely dedications to structures, but there is rarely an obvious link between the objects and the structure.
“Because of the iconography on the outside of Los Sapos and because we know it was a sweat bath, we have a rare case where we can associate the offerings – an infant, figurines of women, and frogs and iguanas – with the role the structure played in the community.”
Dr Clarke added: “This supernatural figure is a ferocious embodiment of the Earth.
“When displeased, she may take revenge or withhold the things people need to survive.
“The offering at Los Sapos was both an attempt to appease this goddess and an act of resilience.
“Rather than seeing a population succumbing to collapse, we see them trying to negotiate with this goddess for their survival.”