The archaeology of religious movements: The Maya sweatbath cult of Piedras Negras

Mark Bradford Child
Dept. of Anthropology, Yale University
July, 2006


This dissertation addresses theoretical issues that are underdeveloped in the field of archaeology---namely, the formation and evolution of religious movements, along with the systemic elements of their religious systems as a whole. These theoretical issues are dealt with in this research through the creation of comparative models that are used for interpreting religious behavior. Because religion is transcendental in nature, the only way to fully understand the dynamics of a religious movement is by first defining the central elements of a religious system through comparative approaches that account for its variables. In this study, a comparative framework has been created to address the widespread religious practice of the sweatbath that is found throughout the New World, which is poorly understood in terms of how this religion developed and spread through time and space. This framework was applied as a method, termed here as the Comparative Historical Approach, to interpret the excavations of the eight monumental sweatbaths of the ancient Maya site of Piedras Negras, Guatemala, in conjunction with the architecture, artifacts, epigraphy, and iconography that is related to sweatbath practices throughout the Maya lowlands. Once the religious system of the ancient Maya sweatbath could be isolated, then a comparative framework of evolutionary dynamics, termed here as the Emergent Cult Model, was applied to the pattern to account for its variables in order to trace the origin point and transcendental reach of this religious movement through time and space.