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Chronicle of Higher ed piece

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  • Popplestone, Ann
    From the issue dated May 17, 2002 Plumbing Ancient Rituals Sweatbaths in Maya cities provide a window into lives long ago By RICHARD
    Message 1 of 1 , May 16, 2002
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      Chronicle of Higher ed piece

      From the issue dated May 17, 2002      

              <<...OLE_Obj...>> Plumbing Ancient Rituals Sweatbaths in Maya cities provide a window into lives long ago  By RICHARD MONASTERSKY  Mark B. Child has sweated more over his dissertation than any other scholar. He has poured out his perspiration in the French Quarter of New Orleans, in tony Georgetown, on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, and in a 1,200-year-old stone building in Guatemala.   Mr. Child, a graduate student in archaeology at Yale University, is studying the use of sweatbaths in ancient Maya civilization. Not one to restrict the research to dry history, he dives right in, "doing sweats" in a portable sweatbath of his own design that he lugs to academic conferences and on trips.  "If I'm going to write a dissertation on this topic, I want to know every aspect of it," he says.   Mr. Child is part of a small group of archaeological researchers using the ruins of sweatbaths as a portal into the world of the ancient Maya, who carved out a civilization from the jungles of Central America and Mexico between AD 250 and 850.  The sweatbaths "are phenomenally interesting because they're telling us about clinical, almost medical, practices of the pre-Columbian period and of entirely different body concepts," says Stephen D. Houston, a professor of archaeology at Brigham Young University. It's a world that might make even today's pierced and tattooed teenagers cringe. Sweating, enema rituals, purgation, even genital bloodletting all came together in the many ways that Maya purified their bodies.   By studying sweatbaths -- buildings fashioned to contain heat and steam generated by hot rocks -- researchers may also gain insight into how Maya royalty maintained authority over their subjects, according to Mr. Child.  Some kings constructed enduring stone sweatbaths in the sacred city centers where the practice played an important and public role. New evidence suggests that rulers turned the sweatbaths into a state institution and exploited them to empower themselves, he says.   Sweatbath Central  Researchers have drawn such conclusions from their studies of "the sweatbath capital of the Mayan world," a Guatemalan site called Piedras Negras, which lies just across the Usumacinta River from Mexico. Situated in the lush lowland jungle, Piedras Negras served as a city-state between about AD 400 and 800, during what is known as the Classic Period.   Although many Maya cities have ruins of sweatbaths, Piedras Negras has them in abundance. In some 70 years of excavations at the site, researchers have found the remains of eight elite sweatbaths, built with stone walls and ceilings and centered in prominent locations.  The ancient Maya weren't the first Americans to sweat it out in specialized buildings. Archaeologists have uncovered ruins of sweatbaths in Mesoamerica dating to 1350 BC. But until the time of Piedras Negras, the sweatbaths were humble affairs, low rooms with walls and ceilings made of sticks and plaster. They often appeared next to modest houses, indicating that they were domestic sweatbaths similar to those still in use today in the Maya highlands where the weather is cool, says Mr. Houston, who directs the excavations at Piedras Negras, along with Héctor Escobedo of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala.  Ethnographic studies of highland communities reveal that contemporary Maya use sweatbaths as part of their beliefs about balancing hot and cold. Their sweatbaths typically have low ceilings and small doorways, designed to hold in heat. Pouring water on heated stones raises the temperature and humidity in the building, and people often put resins or other fragrant items onto the hot rocks. The practice has particular significance around the time of childbirth, says Mr. Houston. "Women who have recently given birth will be taken into the sweatbath and massaged. A lot of this relates to body concepts -- that is, to restore the balances within the body."  One study of modern birthing rituals in highland Guatemala found that villagers often bury a newborn's afterbirth beneath the floor of the family's sweatbath. Once grown, children come back to their familial sweatbath to pray, according to Brian R. McKee of the University of Arizona, who describes excavating a seventh-century Maya sweatbath in Before the Volcano Erupted: The Ancient Cerén Village in Central America, to be published by the University of Texas Press in July.  Royal Sweat  The ancient royalty of Piedras Negras took the ordinary practice and elevated it to a new level, says Mr. Child. The earliest known king, whom archaeologists call Ruler A, devoted considerable resources to constructing a sweatbath out of stone in a prominent civic position next to several temples and a royal ballcourt in the fifth century. Originally about 10 feet high, as seen from the outside, the room had the same basic structure as the sweatbaths in use today in the highlands, with a low ceiling inside, a small doorway, and an interior hearth for holding heated stones, says Mr. Child.  By studying ceramic shards found in the floors of the sweatbaths, the researchers could date when they were constructed. Mr. Child determined that another king, known to archaeologists as Ruler 2, constructed three other stone sweatbaths in the city, about 200 years after Ruler A. In the eighth century, Ruler 4 commissioned four more stone sweatbaths, Mr. Child reported in March at a meeting of the Society of American Archaeology in Denver.  All three of those rulers adopted the name of a particular Maya god, Itsam K'an Ahk, says Mr. Child. He contends that the god was associated with sweatbaths and that by assuming his name and building the stone baths, the rulers were deifying themselves. Other researchers, however, argue that no signs directly connect Itsam K'an Ahk with sweatbaths. "It would be great if it works, but as yet there's no real evidence of that," says Karl Taube, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Riverside.  A Building Reborn  The centuries have not treated the ancient sweatbaths gently. Over time, tree roots broke through vaulted stone roofs, causing them to cave in. But one of the Piedras Negras sweatbaths made it through history intact, even with a tree growing on top of it, sending roots down through a hole in the roof.   The archaeological team there took the tree apart and hired masons to shore up the building, as part of the researchers' agreement with the Guatemalan government to conserve the site. Then Mr. Child's curiosity took over. "After 1,200 years, we wanted to see if this sweatbath still worked. And we were the first people since AD 808 to sweat in it."  He says the Maya sweatbath surpassed all others. "I've done Navajo sweats. I've done Lakota sweats. I've done lots of sweats out there. And this was, by far, the hottest sweatbath I've ever been in. It was incredible."  The sweatbaths, with temperatures reaching up to 200 degrees inside, leave participants feeling, oddly, refreshed and clean, he says. "Your pores open up so wide, [your body] just starts pouring like a sieve. It's amazing because at first you feel sweaty or salty and then kind of greasy. But later, it's just water coming out. You feel cleaner after a sweat than you ever do in a shower," says Mr. Child.  That sense of rejuvenation and cleansing apparently drew the Maya to the sweatbaths, too. "It's hard to believe this isn't part of some kind of almost a cult of purification or healing," says Mr. Houston, who also participated in several sweats at Piedras Negras.  The rulers in that city devoted considerable resources to building the stone sweatbaths and placed them near sacred spots that could be viewed by the public. "At Piedras Negras, you get this feeling of real ceremony attached to it. That people were watching the rulers going in," he says.  Rulers in other cities also purified themselves through rituals, sometimes using sweatbaths and other times making blood sacrifices by piercing their genitals or tongues, says Mr. Child. They performed such acts before engaging in sacred activities, such as dancing, playing in the royal ball game, or conducting religious ceremonies.   A Marxist View of the Maya  What's intriguing to archaeologists is that the kings transformed an ordinary practice into something exalted -- in much the way elites around the world have appropriated other activities, says Mr. Houston. Maurice E. F. Bloch, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science, first brought attention to such ritual politics in his study of royal sweatbaths in 19th-century Madagascar.   "It makes a ritual understandable to everyone in that community, but in some ways, the king is poaching its essence for himself and attempting to control it," says Mr. Houston. Elites exalt the idiom of sweatbath purification, endowing it with religious and political significance. "That's a rather Marxist view. I have to believe that the Maya at Piedras Negras were up to a similar stratagem. They've almost said that 'for some rituals of purification, we have the monopoly.'"  If so, elites at other Maya sites followed a similar path. At the archaeology meeting in Denver, Angela K. Lockard, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, described four sweatbaths uncovered recently during excavations at a site in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Three of the sweatbaths were eventually covered over and used for different purposes. But a fourth, associated with the largest of the houses, was built late in the city's history and retained its function until people abandoned the home altogether. That pattern suggests that the ruling elite may have co-opted the domestic sweatbath ritual as the city developed, says Ms. Lockard.  An even more extreme example of the link between sweatbaths and power appears at the archaeological site of Palenque, in Mexico. In the past, archaeologists had interpreted three temples at Palenque as sanctuaries, but hieroglyphs at the site identify each of them as a pib'-naah, literally "steam structure."  The innermost parts of the temples look architecturally like sweatbaths, but the doors were too big for the rooms to be used as such, says Mr. Houston. He has interpreted them to be symbolic sweatbaths. Just as modern sweatbaths play an important role in the birth process of Maya today, the symbolic sweatbaths at Palenque were associated with the birth of key gods. Human rulers built the structures as the birthing and renewal sites for the particular gods, says Mr. Houston.  Domestic and Divine  Although archaeologists have been digging up Maya sweatbaths for a century, only recently have they begun to focus attention on these seemingly simple structures, which at once combine elements of the domestic and divine. Researchers are paying more attention to sweatbaths for several reasons, says Payson Sheets, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the editor of Before the Volcano Erupted.   On a simple level, scholars are finding examples of sweatbaths in many different contexts, from the elite to the common, says Mr. Sheets, who has excavated a giant sweatbath associated with an ordinary domicile at a city called Cerén.   At the same time, archaeologists are studying sweatbaths because they provide information about religion and ritual, which are "very undeveloped areas of archaeology," he says.  Though researchers believe the ancient Maya entered sweatbaths to purify themselves, it remains unclear exactly what specific activities went on inside the structures. But painted ceramic pots show gods in apparent sweatbaths using enemas (perhaps containing hallucinogens or alcohol), regurgitating food, and getting caressed by consorts.   What's more, one of the stone sweatbaths at Piedras Negras has private vestibules and benches located just outside the small sweating chamber, leaving room for many kinds of activities. "There's even a little bit of a hint of wild license taking place in these sweatbaths," says Mr. Houston of the scenes on the ceramics. "There could be -- dare I say it as a BYU professor -- almost an orgiastic component to this."  Whatever may have transpired inside the stone sweatbaths at Piedras Negras and other Maya sites, some aspects of the sweatbath rituals live on today throughout the indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica and North America, says Mr. Child. In fact, he did his first sweatbath as an undergraduate visiting a Navajo village in Arizona. From there, his interest took off, across both space and time. "I never realized it would go this far."   http://chronicle.com Section: Research & Publishing Page: A22    

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