Recent research on an intriguing assemblage of artefacts excavated from a Classic Maya sweat bath in Guatemala is revealing new details about ritual activity at the unusual structure.
This sweat bath at Xultun, named Los Sapos (‘the toads’), was explored by archaeologists from the San Bartolo-Xultun Archaeological Project (directed by Heather Hurst and Boris Beltran), the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and Boston University. On the façade of the structure, an amphibian goddess – possibly the little-known deity ‘ix.tzutz.sak’ – appears in a crouching, toad-like position, with the door between her legs. Her legs are covered with iguanas and toads. Inside, archaeologists found the remains of iguanas, cane toads, and other toads and frogs.
Sweat baths are considered to be embodied by deities, and, in the case of Los Sapos, the people entering the structure would essentially have been entering the goddess. It dates back to the Early Classic Maya (AD 250-550) period, but stopped being used around AD 600, when an adult was interred in the doorway and the whole sweat bath was ceremonially buried, even though people still lived in Xultun. Then, around the 10th century AD, people revisited the entombed sweat bath, removing most of the human remains and presenting a large offering to the building and its associated goddess. This offering contained the toads and iguanas, but also a human infant, a puppy, young birds, stone tools, and fragments of ceramics.
In Maya communities today, sweat baths are viewed as grandmother figures and used by midwives for care during pregnancy and labour. Ashley Sharpe from the STRI said, ‘The connection between water and birth/death is important throughout most of Mesoamerica, from central Mexico to the Maya area. The place where everything is born and eventually goes after it dies is the watery underworld. The sweat bath’s association with water was likely symbolic of this belief.’ As the study of Los Sapos, led by Mary Clarke of Boston University and recently published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, shows, the site offers early evidence of this association of birth, water, and the sweat bath, through the juvenile offerings and the depiction of the amphibian goddess.