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14th-Century Steam Bath Found in Mexico City

The discovery has helped archaeologists pinpoint the location of the ancient neighborhood of Temazcaltitlan

The remains of a pre-Hispanic temazcal recently found in Mexico City (Edith Camacho/INAH)
smithsonianmag.com

Mexico City stands on the ancient site of Tenochtitlán, which, by the late 15th century, had emerged as the bustling capital of the Aztec Empire. One of the city’s oldest neighborhoods was Temazcaltitlan, known as a spiritual hub for the worship of female deities. Now, thanks to the discovery of a 14th-century steam bath, archaeologists have finally confirmed the mysterious neighborhood’s location.

As George Dvorsky reports for Gizmodo, the temazcal, as steam baths are called in the indigenous Nahuatl language, was found near Mexico City’s modern La Merced neighborhood. It is a domed structure, spanning about 16.5 feet long by 10 feet wide, and was made from adobe blocks and stucco-coated tezontle, a type of volcanic rock. According to BBC News, the main components of the temazcal are still intact.

“[Y]ou can see the tub or water pool for the steam bath, as well as one of the sidewalks that were part of it,” says the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in a statement.

Natural hot springs underneath the structure fed into the temazcal.

In addition to the steam bath, archaeologists discovered the remains of a house built in the 16th century, after the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The home’s stucco walls were decorated with red motifs indicating the property belonged to “an indigenous family, possibly of noble origin,” says Víctor Esperón Calleja, who headed the excavation. The team also found a tannery equipped with eight tubs where cattle skins were processed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But it is the temazcal that represents arguably the most intriguing discovery. Other architectural structures from Tenochtitlán’s heyday had previously been found near the site, but the steam bath has helped archaeologists pinpoint the exact location of the ancient Temazcaltitlan neighborhood.

The area was known for at least one temazcal, mentioned in the Crónica Mexicáyotl by Hernando Alvarado Tezozómoc, a 16th-century Nahua nobleman who wrote about the ascendance and fall of the Aztec capital. According to Tezozómoc, a temazcal was built in the area to purify a noble girl named Quetzalmoyahuatzin; the neighborhood got its name, Tezozómoc notes, because “all the Mexicans bathed […] there.”

The temazcal was likely used for medicinal purposes, rituals and childbirth, according to Mexico News Daily. Earlier evidence suggested that Temazcaltitlan was associated with the worship of female deities of fertility, water, and pulque, a fermented agave drink with ancient roots; the Aztec goddess Mayahuel is often depicted with agave sap pouring from her breasts. The discovery of the temazcal, experts say, confirms the neighborhood’s status as a spiritual center.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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