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3 October 2015
Prehistoric 'sauna house' unearthed in Orkney

Archaeologists in Orkney (Scotland) have uncovered the remains of over 30 buildings dating from around 4000 BCE to 1000 BCE, 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 activities such as rites of passage or spiritual ceremonies. It's 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.
     Rod McCullagh, Deputy Head of Archaeology Strategy at Historic Scotland said: "This is a beautifully preserved site with lots of tantalising clues pointing to its use as an important building, central to the community who built it. We know 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 - which could have been used to create a sauna effect. What this would have been used for we don't know exactly but the large scale, elaborate architecture and sophistication of the structure all suggest that it was used for more than just cooking. Whether its purpose was for feasting, rituals, important discussions, or maybe just for the same reasons we use saunas for today, is something we don't yet know. This is just the start of an exciting but painstaking process of analysis and research work but one which gradually adds to our understanding of what activities occurred here 4000 years ago."
     The early analysis work suggested that the building is likely to be a 'burnt mound', which generally comprises of a fireplace, water tank and a pile of burnt stone. Through experimentation and reference to medieval Irish literature, experts have been able to deduce that stones were roasted on a hearth before being placed into the tank of water, bringing the water to a boiling point and producing lots of steam. 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.  
     The hidden nature of the Orcadian building together with its restricted access and tightly packed cells, suggest that it served a more specialised function than most burnt mounds and that rather than being a gathering place for the many, it would have been used by a more select group, and likely used a sauna or steam house.
     In the cold windy conditions in which the Bronze Age people at Noltland, the concept of an underground building, filled with fire and steam, is likely to have stirred the imagination. It may even have been consciously designed as a stage for ritual activity- perhaps in the form of a cult house or sanctuary.  
     The site will now be carefully backfilled in order to best protect it from the harsh Orkney winter, before potentially re-excavating again in Spring 2016.  

Edited from Historic Scotland, Past Horizons (29 September 2015)

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