Orkney sauna

A sauna? In Scotland? Well I never! It does sound bizarre, but it’s not the only evidence that ancient people heated water with hot rocks and steamed themselves together.

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.

Rod McCullagh, deputy head of archaeology strategy at Historic Scotland, said: “This was a large building, with a complex network of cells attached to it and a sizeable tank of water in the central structure, which would likely have been used to produce boiling water and steam.
While they’re still unsure of what the sauna effect would have been used for, Rod reckons “the large-scale, elaborate architecture and sophistication of the structure all suggest that it was used for more than just cooking.”

Burnt mound prior to excavation.  Links of Noltland Ôsauna houseÕ. ÔCrown Copyright Reproduced Courtesy of Historic ScotlandÕ   Archaeologists uncover Bronze Age Ôsauna houseÕ in Orkney   Archaeologists in Orkney have uncovered the remains of over 30 buildings dating from around 4000 BC to 1000 BC, together with field systems, middens and cemeteries. The find includes a very rare Bronze Age building which experts believed could have been a sauna or steam house, which may have been built for ritual purposes.  EASE Archaeology recently made the exciting discovery on the periphery of the prehistoric Links of Noltland, on the island of Westray in Orkney, next to where the famous ÔWestray WifeÕ was found in 2009, which is believed to be the earliest depiction of a human face in Britain.  The work is being funded by Historic Scotland, who are this week merging with the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) to form a new heritage body called Historic Environment Scotland.  Work has been carried out at the Links of Noltland for several years now but the most recent discovery, and one of the most remarkable to date, is that of an almost complete and remarkably well-preserved, very rare Bronze Age building which experts believe had a very specialised function and was used by select groups for activities such as rites of passage or spiritual ceremonies.  ItÕs also possible that the building could have been used as a sweat house or sauna, for a number of activities ranging from basic healing and cleansing, or as a place where women could come to give birth, the sick and elderly could come to die, or where bodies were taken before burial.

Burnt mound prior to excavation. Copyright Reproduced Courtesy of Historic ScotlandÕ

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 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!

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Maiya Pina-Dacier

Community Manager at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She looks after our Site Hut, reporting on all our discoveries live from the field. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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