The island of Westray in Orkney shot to fame in 2009 when archaeologists discovered a tiny Neolithic figurine known as the Westray Wife, or Orkney’s Venus Figure. This thumb size figurine carved in sandstone is believed to be the earliest depiction of a human face in Britain. Now, archaeologists believe they have uncovered the remains of a Bronze Age sauna or steamhouse.
This curious and remarkably well-preserved building is just one of 30 that date from about 4000BC to 1000BC which have been discovered alongside field systems, middens and cemeteries on Westray, and researchers believe it may have served a very particular function for the Bronze Age people who built and used it.
Early analysis suggested that the building included a burnt mound – a set of features made up of a fireplace, water tank and a pile of burnt stone.
Based on previous experiments and references found in medieval Irish literature, the archaeologists have suggested that the stones were roasted on a hearth before being placed into the water, bringing it to the boil and producing steam in an enclosed environment. The hot water could then be used to cook large quantities of food or for bathing, brewing, textile working, or any other of a range of activities.
This time, however, archaeologists are suggesting the steam was used to turn the building into a sweathouse or sauna. But was it just for relaxation? The team says not necessarily – Bronze Age people may have used the sauna for anything from basic healing and cleansing, to somewhere women could give birth, or where the sick and elderly could go to die, or to perform cleansing rituals on bodies before burial.
The next question is who had access to the sauna? Was it for everyone? Or only certain individuals? The team suggests that the hidden nature of the building, together with its restricted access and tightly-packed cells, make it different to most burnt mounds. Rather than being a gathering place for the many, it may have been used by just a select few.
The structures were first exposed by natural erosion, and with the impending threat to their survival, Historic Scotland decided it was time to investigate the remains in greater detail.
The site will now be carefully backfilled to protect it from the harsh conditions of an Orkney winter. Fingers crossed there’ll be another season of excavation next year!
DigVentures crowdfunds archaeological projects that everyone can be part of, in the UK and overseas. With help from people all over the world, we investigate the past and publish our discoveries online for free. Become a DigVentures Subscriber and be part of great archaeology - all year round!Subscribe