History & Culture

Polish archaeologists discover a unique Mayan bath in Guatemala

Piotr Kołodziejczyk Jr.
Piotr Kołodziejczyk Jr.

Polish archaeologists discovered a unique steam bath carved in rock in the ancient Mayan city Nakum in Guatemala. It is over 2.5 thousand years old. According to scientists, religious rituals could also take place here.

Archaeologists found the complex carved in rock five years ago, but the research is still ongoing.

"We initially thought that we were dealing with a tomb. But while gradually uncovering subsequent parts of the structure, we came to the conclusion that it was a steam bath" - told PAP Wiesław Koszkul from the Institute of Archeology of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, who supervised the excavations.

According to the scientist, in the beliefs of the ancient Maya, as well as the Maya living today, in addition to their purely practical function, steam baths were associated with ritual activity. Even today, pregnant women use them, believing that it will contribute to an easier delivery.

"In the Maya beliefs, caves and baths are treated almost the same way: the places where not only the gods, but also the first people were born and emerged from. They are also considered to be entries to the underworld, the world inhabited by gods and ancestors. Caves and steam baths were also associated with the harvest and the place of origin of life-giving water" - added Dr. Jarosław Źrałka from the Institute of Archeology of the Jagiellonian University, who co-leads the excavations.

The bath discovered by Polish archaeologists consists of several parts. Archaeologists initially discovered a tunnel carved in rock and exiting to the slope - this is where the excess water would flow out. After a few meters, on both sides of the tunnel there are stairs to enter the bath. A two-meter connection tunnel leads to the bath, which is a rectangular room. On the sides there are rock-cut benches where steam bath users could sit.

Across from the entrance, the archaeologists found an oval niche in the wall - it was a large and long-used hearth, as evidenced by a very thick layer of burning. Archaeologists determined that the temperature in this place had to be very high, because the rock crumbled in some places under its influence. Large stones were probably placed around the hearth to heat them up. Water was poured onto them, the resulting steam spread throughout the room, and the excess water would flow down into a special hollow in the middle part of the bath, and further down the channel to the slope.

The lower part of the bath was carved in rock, but it was not an artificial grotto, because the rocks did not cover its upper part. Archaeologists believe that the Mayans made a superstructure of wood, stones and mortar to prevent steam from escaping the room.

In the drain canal, apart from a dark layer of ash, Polish researchers also found fragments of ceramic vessels and obsidian tools. They may have been used for rituals held during steam baths.

The bath functioned from approx. 700 BC probably to approx. 300 BC. Then it was completely covered with mortar and rubble. "Perhaps it was related to the change of dynasty, which ruled in Nakum, or other important changes in the Mayan social and religious life" - says Koszkul.

The bath is located in the northern part of the ancient city of Nakum, on its main north-south axis. It is surrounded by ruins of temples, pyramids and buildings (including palaces) from the same period and later. The researchers assume that the bath was used by the local elites, perhaps the priests, not only for body washing and health purposes, but also for performing important religious rituals. In addition to washing the body, steam baths were the places of symbolic cleansing of the soul before participation in important celebrations.

Researchers specialising in the Maya know that similar baths were used by the Mayans over the last millennia but so far they have mostly discovered only their small fragments and drew broader conclusions on this basis. "That is why our discovery of an almost completely preserved complex is so important" - emphasises Źrałka.

Archaeologists from the Jagiellonian University have been studying the ruins of the ancient city in Nakum for over a dozen years. So far, they have examined and revealed architectural structures with various functions: tombs, temples, palaces and residential buildings.

The most interesting discoveries include unique sacrificial deposits containing, among other things, nine clay heads depicting Mayan deities, ceramic discs, human bone pendants. Underneath one of the buildings they also discovered a polychrome frieze depicting a mythical scene. The most spectacular success the 2006 discovery of a non-robbed royal tomb from around 1300 years ago in the Pyramid No. 15. Among the burial gifts was a jade pectoral with hieroglyphic inscription.

PAP - Science in Poland, Szymon Zdziebłowski

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