The steam bath dates back to the Roman empire when public baths heated by natural hot springs were common and filled with hot, sweaty Romans of all social and economic levels. So, what was a steam bath doing in the ancient Mayan city of Nakum in Guatemala? And why did it take archeologists from Poland to find it? And why did the steam bath, which was used continuously for 400 year, suddenly disappear? No more hot water?
“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"
Wiesław Koszkul from the Institute of Archeology of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków told Science in Poland he was supervising excavations in Nakum, a pre-Columbian Mayan city and former ceremonial center in northern Guatemala, by Polish archeologists who were supposed to be looking for temples, pyramids, buildings, palaces and other ruins the area is known for when someone stumbled upon the strange room. Rectangleuar in design, the room had stone benches and a heavily-used hearth for heating the stones that water was dumped on to create steam. It appears the Mayans liked their steam baths piping hot because the rock walls were crumbling in places. The bath was well-built, with a superstructure of wood, stones and mortar surrounding it to prevent the steam from escaping. (Pictures of the steam bath here.)
The researchers initially thought the room was a tomb because only fragments of steam baths had been found at this and other Mayan sites. Surrounding evidence dates the bath to between 700 BCE and 300 BCE and pieces of ceramic vessels and obsidian tools indicate the bath was used for rituals as well as for pleasure and cleansing. The thick soot in the hearth showed the bath was heavily used and, unlike the Roman baths, mostly by the elites and priests. Until it wasn’t.
"Perhaps it was related to the change of dynasty, which ruled in Nakum, or other important changes in the Mayan social and religious life."
Somewhere around 300 BCE, Koszkul says the bath was covered with mortar and rubble and abandoned. Did the Mayans of Nakum no longer feel the need to be clean – physically or spiritually? That’s not likely, since bathing is a popular pastime of modern Mayans. Could something catastrophic have happened to curse the bath? Excavation co-leader Jarosław Źrałka, an assistant professor of New World archeology at Jagiellonian University, has an idea.
"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."
Did a resident of the underworld catch a steamer urinating in the bath and scare everyone out of it? Whatever the case, the discovery highlights the fact that everything has meaning to archeologists – from the lowly bathroom to the worship rooms of the royal temple.
If the shower drain is still a portal to the underworld, you might want to start using a better brand of shampoo.