A Preclassic Maya Sweatbath at Cuello, Belize. (News & Notes)

Article excerpt

The sweatbath, temescalli, literally `steam house', to the Aztecs, and pib na -- `cooking-pit house' -- to the prehispanic Maya, was a noted feature of the ceremonial and social life of prehispanic and colonial Mesoamerica, with a cosmologically liminal location between the surface world of the living and the underworld of the ancestors and gods. It functioned situationally as a place of recreation or purification, used by both sexes -- usually separately -- for bodily cleansing both practical and ritual, the latter including post-partum bathing for women and solidarity rites before communal action for men. The sweating could be dry, as in the Roman laconicum, or enhanced by splashing water on hot stones, as in the Finnish sauna.

Most historically and ethnographically observed sweatbaths are quite small, holding at most half-a-dozen people, and have several defining architectural features. These include a sweating room with a low, narrow doorway to keep the heat in, and a separate firebox, linked by a channel along which hot air can flow and hot embers or stones be raked. The Codex Magliabechiano illustrates an Aztec temescalli with a bottle-shaped firebox being fed through an exterior aperture, a rectangular sweatroom with a water symbol visible through the low doorway, and a bundle of fuel lying outside (FIGURE 1).


In the Maya Area, Late Classic period (AD 600-900) masonry sweatbaths are known from major sites including Tikal, Piedras Negras and Chichen Itza. Most are small, rectangular in plan, and with the firebox contained as a separate construction within the walls; the royal sweatbaths of Piedras Negras, best-known from Proskouriakoff's (1946: plate 7) reconstruction, were housed within a larger building which may have acted as a changing room. Stephen Houston (1996) has shown that the Cross Group temples at Palenque are `symbolic sweatbaths' of similar form, but lacking the firebox and floor channel.

A more demotic sweatbath, built of wood and clay, was preserved by volcanic ash at Joya de Ceren in El Salvador (Sheets 1992: 97-102), the internal firebox being covered by a dome. The tiny BS-27 structure under a rock shelter at Piedras Negras (Webster 2001) simply had the fire in one corner, a feature shared with the earliest example hitherto reported, of c. 500-400 BC at Dzibilchaltun in northern Yucatan (Andrews & Andrews 1980:31 & figures 14-17).

We report here a substantially older Preclassic sweatbath of more complex plan, discovered in March 2000 on the east side of a courtyard at Cuello, which appears to be the earliest construction on that spot; stratigraphy and associated pottery indicate a date of c. 900 BC.

East is the prime direction in Maya cosmology: important structures including ancestor shrines and funerary temples often occupy the east sides of plazas. At Cuello, the successive Structures 342,338,339 and 334 were superimposed, the last of these (Hammond et al. 2000) being a substantial rectilinear platform overlying two subcircular precursors, all oriented to about azimuth 255 [degrees]. Structure 342 also was subcircular, 2.5 m across but with an apsidal extension to the northeast, 1.3 by 0.9 m; its front and putative entry from the courtyard lie beyond the 2000 limit of excavation (FIGURE 2).


The curving rubble walls, with plaster facings turning out to form an external surround and an interior floor, were interrupted by a parallel-sided channel just under 1 m wide, cut down through the old land surface to bedrock and dry-walled with small limestone slabs. …