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Ancient Sauna Unearthed in Orkney Reveals Long Heritage of Heat Bathing - Secret Saunas

Ancient Sauna Unearthed in Orkney Reveals Long Heritage of Heat Bathing

On a remote windswept island north of Scotland, archaeologists have uncovered an incredibly rare and well-preserved ancient sauna structure. Found on Westray Island in the Orkneys, this Bronze Age burnt mound dates back over 4000 years. Comprised of an underground fireplace, adjacent stone-lined water tank and heaps of fire-shattered rocks, experts believe it functioned much like a modern sauna.

Beautifully preserved cistern ‘Crown Copyright Reproduced Courtesy of Historic Scotland’

This discovery carries great anthropological significance, indicating that steam-bathing and heat therapy arose across early Eurasian civilizations. Similar chambers have been found from Roman bath houses to Native American sweat lodges, pointing to an innate human longing for thermal cleansing and community.

Indeed, saunas have long held cultural and spiritual importance, especially in Nordic regions. The very word “sauna” derives from the old Finnish “savu”, meaning smoke. Early Finnish, Estonian and Latvian homes often had wood-fired saunas for daily bathing. The soothing dry heat played a central community role.

Sauna History

Saunas date back even earlier than the medieval Norse tribes, as evidenced by this Bronze Age relic in Scotland. Built partially underground, the ruined walls and remaining stone hearth and bathing pool reveal a sauna-like setup for generating wafts of cleansing steam. Ritual artifacts found nearby suggest esoteric ceremonial purposes too.

The chamber’s hidden layout indicates exclusive use by a select elite group, either clan leaders or spiritual elders. They likely believed the sauna held transformative powers for healing, cleansing, improving fertility, preparing souls for the afterlife or binding community ties. Sealed underground, practitioners could achieve shamanic-like altered states from the heat, humidity and claustrophobia.

While the exact cultural beliefs remain unknown, ongoing excavation may provide more clues. Chemical analysis can detect ancient medicinal herbs or psychoactive plants burnt on the heated rocks. Tools, artworks or structures nearby may also give more context. For now, it’s clear this specialist sauna-temple formed an integral site for Bronze Age society 4000 years ago in Orkney’s brutal climate.

Saunas in modern society 

Remarkably, the basic features echo modern saunas today - heated stones to release cleansing waves of dry heat, stimulation of sweating to purge bodily toxins and a dark enclosed chamber to transport the mind. This reveals an innate human tradition across millennia and continents...to periodically retreat to special heated spaces, alone or together, emerging renewed in body and spirit.

From Native Americans to Ancient Mayans, Traditional Siberians to Nordic cultures and now Neolithic Scottish islanders, heat bathing links our shared primal past. Hopefully this window to the roots of sauna heritage can inspire people today to respect cultural steam-bathing rituals for health, contemplation and connecting community.

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Jasper Knight the Founder of Secret Saunas photographed in an Auroom Sauna in Estonia

About the Author

I'm Jasper Knight, the founder of SecretSaunas.com. During my travels through Finland and Scandinavia in 2018 I was introduced to the thrilling local ritual of taking daily hot saunas and then cooling off by plunging into the dark icy waters of a frozen lake. This experience was so fulfilling that it felt like an addiction. My desire to return to the forests and lakes of Northern Europe led me to set up Secret Saunas with the mission of bringing that authentic Finnish sauna experiences home.

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