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Maya steam bath system artist’s image, Guatemala

The First Complete Maya Steam Bath For Ritual Use Found in Guatemala


Archaeologists at a major Maya site in Guatemala have been forced to rethink an important find. What was initially believed to be a tomb has turned out to be a steam bath. This is very important as it is the most complete bath system that has been found at a Maya site and it is helping experts to better understand the ritual and social life of a remarkable Mesoamerican civilization.

The ancient city of Nakum

The discovery was made by a team of experts from the Institute of Archaeology of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland, in the Guatemalan Highlands, not far from the Mexican border. They have been working at the site for several years and excavations are ongoing in the location, which was once the powerful city of Nakum.  Over the last decade archaeologists have unearthed palaces, tombs, temples and a treasure trove of artifacts.

Temple E in Nakum. Construction dates from the Late Classic period. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Temple E in Nakum. Construction dates from the Late Classic period. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Nakum dates from 3000 years ago and was an important city-state in the Pre-Classical and Classical Maya period, between 2500 BC to 1000 AD. It was a very significant political, economic, and ritual center for centuries, however, it was abandoned during the end of the Classical Maya period when environmental change led to cataclysmic famine and war in the region.

The Polish team was working in a large cave-like complex that had been carved in the rock by the Maya, when they made the discovery. Wiesław Koszkul, the team leader stated that, “we initially thought that we were dealing with a tomb,” reports the Science in Poland website. This was because it was thought to be similar to a crypt that was found previously at Nakum. Only when the team found some other structures did they conclude that it was in reality a steam bath.

The bath was accessed by a tunnel and a flight of stairs and it was in a large room, where benches had been cut into the rock walls. There was a hearth in one wall, where rocks were heated to produce steam. There were also channels to drain away excess water and to allow water to flow into the bath.  According to Science in Poland, ‘ fragments of ceramic vessels and obsidian tools’ were found near the steam bath.

The bath was initially thought to be a tomb, until the complete system was discovered. (Image: W Koszkul / PAP)

The bath was initially thought to be a tomb, until the complete system was discovered. (Image: W Koszkul / PAP)

Bathing and Maya beliefs

Bathing is very important to the modern Maya and it is held to be beneficial to the health and soul of the individual, a belief that they inherited from their ancestors. In the ancient Maya worldview, a steam bath was of great religious significance. The bath, that was found was probably used in the ritual cleansing of the body and soul of a member of the elite before the performance of a ritual. Religious ceremonies and rites were critical for the Maya as they were believed to ensure the favor of the gods.

In Maya mythology caves and pools of water were associated with the underworld where the Chthonic deities and the ancestors lived. The complex with the bath in Nakum was probably deliberately designed to resemble a cave like structure because of traditional beliefs about the origin of life.  According to Live Science,  the ancient Maya believed that, “the first people were born and emerged from” bodies of water similar to baths in grottoes. 

The bath was accessed by a tunnel and stairs, into a large, grotto-like room (Image: J Zralka / PAP)

The bath was accessed by a tunnel and stairs, into a large, grotto-like room (Image: J Zralka / PAP)

The mysterious abandonment of the complex

Based on the evidence it is believed that the steam bath was used for over four centuries between 700 and 300 BC.  Sometime in the 4 th century BC, the complex with the steam bath was completely sealed off by a wall of stones and forgotten. This has baffled the experts as there is no evidence of decline or conflict from this period. There is speculation that the decision to wall off the complex was due to a change in the ruling dynasty of Nakum. Whatever the motive for closing the feature, this allowed researchers to discover an intact Maya steam bath, which is unprecedented. Previously only fragments of baths were found, despite their importance in Maya religious and ceremonial life.

The stone bath is allowing experts to have a better picture of the ritual life of the Classical Maya period. It also demonstrates the importance of water in the worldview of this civilization. However, why the bath and the complex were covered over is a mystery that is likely to baffle experts for many years to come.

Top image: Maya steam bath system artist’s image, Guatemala Source: Poitr Kolodziejczyk Jr / Science in Poland

By Ed Whelan



This is a perfect example of how archaeology is not an exact science. Archaeologists make their best guesses given the information that they have, which can sometimes end up being wrong. It's all up to interpretation. But of course, point this out to them and they get all defensive. Information that we have long held as 'gospel' could end up being totally mistaken, a guess tinted by our modern views; And once something has been decided upon, any other possible interpretation is almost violently shunned. This is why, unless there is absolutely iron-clad, irrefutable evidence of something, I take the interpretation with a grain of salt. I feel it's important to keep an open mind.

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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