SCRAP Reading Group Week 24: Soundscapes & Sweatbaths

Last week’s reading group focused on the issue of soundscapes–and, in particular, those of sweatbaths in the Maya world. Thank you to all who participated, and welcome back to Alson Ovando who has been away from our group due to his busy schedule. Alson has completed his undergraduate degree at University of Belize and is currently undertaking an internship with the Institute of Archaeology in Belize, stationed at the Serpon Sugar Mill Site in Stann Creek District. If you are ever in Belize, make sure to take the trip to Serpon–you won’t be sorry!

Below you will find a summary of this week’s article plus discussion questions, written by Meaghan.

Sheets, P., & Mahoney, R. (2021). THE SOUNDSCAPE IN THE REPLICA OF THE CERÉN TEMAZCAL. Ancient Mesoamerica, 1-15. doi:10.1017/S0956536120000383

I chose this article because I have long been interested in soundscapes (and smellscapes) in archaeology, mainly since working at a small house group far downhill from the acropolis at Minanhá and noticing that I could easily hear the activity and laughter occurring ‘up top.’ Like so many others, I’m also fascinated with the amazing archaeological record of Cerén. Also, as a Finnish-Canadian, I’m obsessed with saunas. So, this article seemed to have it all!

Sheets and Mahoney present results of an acoustic study of the temazcal (sweatbath) replica at the village site of Cerén in El Salvador. They provide a brief review of sweatbath studies in the Maya world, along with some key archaeoacoustic studies (though, amazingly managed to avoid using the word “phenomenology” at any point). Following their study, they conclude(?) that the unique domed ceiling and highly reflective surfaces of the temazcal were likely intentional constructions related to the alteration/enhancement of voices, in particular those of “mature males.” From this they suggest discussions of temazcals should expand from solely focusing on the connection of such location with women/females (primarily linked to birthing), to consider the role of males/men.

Discussion Questions

  1. What other archaeoacoustic studies are you familiar with in the Maya world (or beyond)? How have they helped to shape your understanding of ancient life? What of other studies that focus on the other senses (e.g., smell, taste, sight)?
  2. Would the speaking of different languages cause different acoustic results (e.g., tonal differences)?
  3. Could the possible ‘hushing’ (for lack of better word) of women’s voices in the temazcal be of benefit to them (vs. just benefits to men)? For example, hushed voices to have sensitive conversations? Reminds me of the mother-daughter temazcal scenes in the film Ixcanul.
  4. How are soundscapes experienced at Alabama and how could they be studied?
  5. How are Maya sweatbaths similar to/different from various sweatlodges of North America or saunas of Nordic regions? Consider construction, pheonomenological elements, activities, etc.
  6. Has anyone examined the temazcal as a great equalizer and political venue? That is, everyone together, naked, discussing important matters (at a community level or higher). If disrobing a royal prisoner/captive is part of their social death, what if multiple rulers strip down together? Could this be a way of creating a neutral power setting for political talks? Check out this news article about “sauna diplomacy” in Finland.
  7. To what degree have puritanical colonial ideals shaped the construction or use of sweatbaths as recorded in the ethnographic record? Does this article decolonize our understanding of sweatbaths in any way? Does it recolonize?
  8. In this article, the authors propose a model for reconsidering the social use of the temazcal at Joya de Cerén, based on a single but all-encompassing assumption: that the acoustic properties of the structure have any bearing on its use. What responsibility does the researcher have when proposing such models? What best practices should we adhere to as producers, in order to make sure that our musings do not become defacto truths in the great tide of academic literature?
  9. Is there a balance that we should be seeking between “just-so stories” of local relevance and broader synthetic works? Are individual scholars responsible for maintaining this balance, or does it all just work out in the wash?