The great Maya center of Piedras Negras, Guatemala, is justly famous for its sweat baths, which are both numerous and monumental in scale. Eight are known from the site core, most located near palace structures, and Tatiana Proskouriakoff famously imagined how one of these was used (Fig. 1).

Figure 1 Proskouriakoff’s reconstruction (from Proskouriakoff 1978:29)

Mark Child went her one better by reconstructing the whole P-7 sweat bath during the BYU/Universidad del Valle Project, directed by Steve Houston and Hector Escobedo (Figs. 2, 3).  One of the high points during our fieldwork was firing up this royal sweat bath on weekends and using it, ostensibly as an exercise in experimental archaeology, but more importantly for surcease from the interminable boredom of camp life. Veterans of the Piedras Negras project will testify to the wonderful therapeutic qualities of the experience, which we eventually perfected, right down to the proper incense. 

Figure 2 Rebuilding the royal sweat bath (field photo by Webster)

We also discovered the key to ancient Maya air conditioning–one can’t make oneself colder than one’s surroundings, but one can bake oneself so hot that the ambient temperature seems delightful for hours afterwards. No doubt kings and nobles disported themselves in similar ways, and it turns out that ordinary people at Piedras Negras did so as well.  Below is a short and belated report describing the little rural sweat bath that our affiliated Penn State surveys discovered far from the royal purlieus during the 1998-99 field seasons.[1]

Figure 3 The sweat bath in operation again (field photo by Webster)

Ethnographers have long documented quotidian sweat baths built with a variety of materials. For example, about one in four houses in Tepoztlán had a bath shared by neighboring families (e.g., Cresson 1938; Redfield 1930). Aztec (Fig. 4) and other ethno-historically documented communities had small sweat baths that were directly attached to houses, in some cases those of prominent people.

Figure 4 Aztec temescal from the Codex Magliabechiano (Nuttal 1903: 65)

Archaeologists know that many features of the Classic Maya Great Tradition had their roots in much earlier and humbler behaviors. For some reason there appear to have been few sweat baths among the 16th century Maya people of northern Yucatán, but they were widespread among their ancestors.  A little sweat bath at Komchen dates to Mamom times (around 700-650 BC) and another at Cuello, Belize, is even older, about 800 B.C. (Sharer 1994: 129; Hammond and Bauer 2001).  Payson Sheets (2006) found a community sweat bath preserved under volcanic debris at Cerén, where it served several separate households, as at Tepoztlán.  A vast literature documents sweat baths at Classic Maya royal centers such as Piedras Negras.  More modest ones were presumably widely used throughout the central and southern Lowlands, but they are difficult to identify because of their small scale and often flimsy construction. More importantly, they are sometimes physically detached from the civic and household remains we usually investigate and so are likely to be found only fortuitously.

Just such a chance discovery was a by-product of settlement and household research carried out by me, Jennifer Kirker, and Amy Kovak in the near-periphery of  Piedras Negras, where we recorded some 90 sites and 285 structures (Webster and Houston: 2003).   Kovak and I followed up our surveys by extensively excavating five outlying residential habitations.  These were part of what seems to be a small Late/Terminal Classic neighborhood about a 20 to 25 minute walk from the southern edge of the monumental site core of the Piedras Negras polity (Fig. 5).

Figure 5 Settlement south of Piedras Negras monumental site core
(map by Zachary Nelson and Timothy Murtha)

During the 1998 field season I began to strip Site BS-27, a small two-mound group (Fig. 6) overlooking the main solution valley leading south from Piedras Negras toward Yaxchilan. Like many such sites, BS-27 is perched on an artificially leveled ledge projecting from a larger limestone hill, reached by a stiff  25 m climb up from  the valley floor . While initially probing the site, which turned out to have two substantial  buildings, my crewmen began to find small stalactites. These, it turned out, originated in a small rock shelter about 20 m to the southeast and a bit higher up the hillside, as shown in reconstruction drawings by Heather Hurst (Figs. 6, 7, and 13).  We had initially overlooked the rock shelter because it was screened by dense vegetation, but it was only a short uphill scramble from BS-27.

Figure 6 (left) Field plan of Group BS-27 (by Webster)
(right) reconstruction drawing (drawing by Heather Hurst)

Figure 7 Site BS-27 on the left, overlooked by the rock shelter on the upper right
(reconstruction drawing by Heather Hurst)

The shelter faced northwest and was about 20 m long, 4 m deep, and just high enough to stand up in.   Despite the karstic geomorphology of the region it is an unusual landscape feature. The shelter was unusually dry and cool inside, and I mentally noted it as a convenient place to store maize or other perishables. Apart from a few jar sherds there were no obvious surface features, so I ignored it until the last day of the 1998 field season, when I returned to dig a quick test pit into the floor, which I assumed would be a deep accumulation of collapsed and weathered breakdown debris from the ceiling.  To my surprise, within minutes we struck a well-preserved and black-stained plaster floor buried beneath 3-4 cm of fine powdery soil (Fig. 8). Closer inspection revealed crude walls delimiting a small room-like structure. A layer of plaster with a minute trace of red paint was preserved on the base of the outer wall. This was very unusual because plaster surfaces were practically unknown at our peripheral domestic sites. We took a soil sample and then covered up the floor until the following season.

Figure 8: Probing the floor; note black staining on right (field photo by Webster)

Several visits to the rock shelter in 1999 convinced me that the little structure was a sweat bath.  Sweat baths were the subject of Mark Child’s dissertation, so I turned it over to him and his wife Jessica for excavation.[2]  They exposed a small rectangular room about 1.4 x l .9 m, bounded on three sides by very crude walls set in mud mortar, and on the fourth by the rear wall of the shelter (Figs. 9, 10).

Figure 9 (left) The excavated sweat bath and (right) its position under the overhang of the rock shelter
(field photos by Mark Child)

Figure 10: Plan of the sweath bath
(adapted by Webster from project field drawings by Mark Child)

Plaster flooring was preserved over only the western part of the room interior, where it lapped up to meet the wall, and there was a doorway just big enough for a small person to crawl through. Just outside the doorway was a raised area of soil and rubble that seems to have been some sort of exterior vestibule, but it was extremely amorphous and had no well-defined edges.  The three rough stone walls of the little building must originally have served as the low basal supports for some sort of perishable superstructure because there was very little collapse rubble. Presumably this superstructure extended up to the natural, smoke-blacked rock ceiling (Fig. 11). Probably no more than two or three people could have squeezed themselves into the little room (area = 2.7 sq m) at any one time. The Cerén temescal by contrast could accommodate 10-12 people.  

Figure 11: Profile of the sweath bath
(adapted by Webster from project field drawings by Mark Child)

Unlike other small Mesoamerican sweat baths, ours had no formal firebox, either inside as at Cerén or outside.  Instead there were burned and calcified rocks near the rear wall, similar to those found in the royal sweat baths.[3] Water was apparently simply sprinkled on these rocks, preheated elsewhere, to create steam.   Ash and moisture from the hot rocks eventually discolored the plaster floor and blackened the wall and overhang of the rock shelter. Water, of course, was necessary, and the remains of a large broken jar lay just outside the east wall. During the rainy season water could probably have been collected from drip-channels at the front of the rock shelter itself.

That this little building was a special place is shown by several special finds made by the Childs just outside the room (Figs. 10, 12). The first was a fragment of a small circular mirror originally about 8-9 cm in diameter. It had been pierced for suspension and there was orange-painted plaster on its rim. It was not made of obsidian, but rather of some sort of heavy, seemingly ferrous mineral (although it did not deflect my compass needle).  There were also four marine shells.  Two of these, a Busycon contrarium and an Oliva sp., were nested inside an unidentified bivalve shell, possibly from a pelycapod.  Busycon and Olivia are native to the Caribbean and Atlantic coasts.[4]  There were also a fragment of an obsidian blade and part of a bone awl or needle.  While the mirror and the shells might not seem special to most Mayanists, they were the most exotic items found anywhere in our rural excavations, which normally produced household assemblages of numbing monotony.  The general BS-27 artifact collection is otherwise standard for rural Late or Terminal Classic household remains around Piedras Negras, and we found no other hints that the site was any kind of special place.

Figure 12: Special finds associated with sweath bath
(adapted by Webster from project field photos by Mark Child)

­One further feature of the locale deserves mention. At the eastern end of the rock shelter, just a few meters from the sweat bath, is a natural fissure in the limestone (Fig. 13) that during certain times of the day exudes a current of cool air. One can imagine that this was not only physically gratifying to the ancient Maya, but also redolent of earth, wind, and water. And because sweat baths themselves are small, dark, cave-like places, what could be more appropriate than building one in a rock-shelter?

Figure 13: Location of natural fissure
(reconstruction drawing by Heather Hurst)

Clearly the cave was not a mere storage facility, although parts of it could have been used for this purpose. If we have correctly identified our little sweat bath, it is one of the simplest known in the southern Maya Lowlands, although distinguished by unusual construction features such as its painted, plastered walls and some distinctive associated artifacts. Perhaps each of our rural sites had such a detached facility, or perhaps because of its unusual setting our sweat bath, like those of Cerén or Tepoztlán, it served a larger neighboring community.

Our Piedras Negras discovery reminded me of features we found in 1981 while exploring Plaza A of the Copán elite Group 9N-8 (Fig. 14). On a rear terrace of the sprawling eastern platform 9N-81 we exposed a tiny rectangular building called 9N-81A, which we immediately speculated was a sweat bath. It resembles our rural Piedras example in general form, although it is a bit larger and has an interior bench. About 10 meters to the southeast was a much disturbed construction that show signs of burning. I now suspect that it was a firebox used to heat sweat bath rocks. Str. 9N-81B, just to the northeast of 9N-81A, produced much ballgame paraphernalia. We think it was a young-mens’ house attached to the elite residence (Str. 82) of Mak’an Kanal, a high official of the Copán kingdom who bore the noble title of ajk’uhuun.

Figure 14: Plaza A of Group 9N-81,
showing locations of possible sweat bath Str. 9N-81A and associated firebox in red
(adapted by Webster from Hohmann 1995: 60, 108)

In any case, it appears that while kings, nobles, and privileged young men at Piedras Negras, Copán, and elsewhere enjoyed their ablutions, ordinary people perpetuated a more modest but much older folk tradition of sweat-bathing.


[1] I gave a shorter version of this report at the SAA meetings in 2001. My work (1997-2000) was funded by the Piedras Negras Project and by grants to me from the National Geographic Society and the Heinz Family Foundation.

[2] Mark Child chose not to include our little rural sweat bath in his dissertation, hence this brief overview.

[3] We heated the P-7 royal sweat bath by bringing in heated rocks from outside, and apparently this was how the BS-27 sweat bath operated as well.

[4] Randolph Widmer kindly identified the shells.

Cited references

Child, Mark
2006 The Archaeology of Religious Movements: The Maya Sweatbath Cult of Piedras Negras.  PhD dissertation, Yale University, New Haven.

Cresson, Frank M.
1938 Maya and Mexican Sweat Houses. American Anthropologist 40: 1: 88-104.

Hammond, Norman and Jeremy Bauer
2001 A Preclassic Sweat Bath at Cuello, Belize.  Antiquity 75: 290: 683-684.

Hohmann, Hasso
1995 Die Architekture der Sepulturas-Region von Copán in Honduras. Academic Publishers, Graz.

Prouskouriakoff, Tatiana
1978 An Album of Maya Architecture.  University of Oklahoma Press: Norman.

Nuttall, Zelia
1903 The Book of the Life of the Ancient Mexicans.  University of California: Berkeley.

Redfield, Robert
1930 Tepoztlan: A Mexican Village. University of Chicago Press.

Sharer, Robert
1994 The Ancient Maya.  Stanford University Press: Stanford.

Sheets, Payson
2006 The Cerén Site.  Thompson Wadsworth: Belmont, CA.

Webster, David and Stephen Houston
2003 Piedras Negras: The Growth and Decline of a Classic Maya Court Center.  In Urbanism in Mesoamerica, W. T. Sanders, A, G, Mastache and R. H. Cobean, eds.  Joint publication of the Instituto Nacional de Anthroplogía e Historia and the Pennsylvania State University.

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