Henge and Sauna

Archaeologists in Yorkshire excavating a wood henge have uncovered evidence of what could be a 4000-year-old sauna. The site (above) at Little Catwick Quarry near Hornsea on the Yorkshire coast 15 miles north of Hull is 30m across, with more than 58 post-holes, surrounded by a later ditch with entrance points on the northwest and southeast.

'Three pits in the centre of the site were found to contain a quantity of burnt cobbles of a uniform size,' says John Tibbles of East Riding Archaeology, who led the project. 'There was no evidence of burning in-situ, hence the "sauna" theory being expounded. We think you could have ritual cremation there. It is possible that bodies were brought there to be cremated and then the remains buried elsewhere. There could be links to Sandsfield, a mile away, where there was a cemetery with a ring ditch with 37 urns, dating to the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age.'

The theory that a henge might have contained a sauna surfaced a few years ago at the Marden Henge in Wiltshire, a site 20 times the size of nearby Stonehenge. Here was evidence of an external charcoal fire but on the inside of what had been a central building, the charred floor had no signs of any fuel.

Dr Jim Leary, director of the University of Reading's Field School, who led the excavation, said at the time: 'I think what's happening is that people are heating up the stones on the external fire, and then carrying them into the building and placing them on the internal hearth. And then they're sitting on the ledge, pouring water on the stones to create steam and using the room as a sauna, or sweat lodge. The building is very well made, and the hearth really does dominate the whole space – there's no room to do anything else apart from sitting around it'.

Finnish saunas are known to have existed 2000 years ago, and sweat lodges have long been part of native North American culture. A Bronze Age sauna has already been identified at Westray in Orkney.

The first signs of the henge in Yorkshire were spotted in crop marks in aerial surveys. Three months of excavation work, at the end of 2017, involved hand-sifting through 95 tonnes of material in the surrounding ditches. Other discoveries awaiting full analysis include loom weights, cattle enclosures and a Roman well, from later occupants. Several pits were found to contain crude pottery.

Another henge at nearby Northorpe, Hornsea, which was uncovered in 2015, has an English Heritage listing, but now the archaeologists' work at Little Catwick Quarry has been completed, it will be quarried by the owners, Yarrow Aggregates. It was agreed that the alternative, to quarry around it, would have left it inaccessible. Tibbles, who has known the site for 11 years, says that the company has been fully supportive. Indeed, it seems to be proud of the finds on its land, which included a mammoth tusk and a 4000– 5000-year-old highly polished Cumbrian greenstone axe.

The company takes its name from a meadow of yarrow (Achillea millefolium) that once grew here and was used by Romans as a healing agent. In Greek mythology Achilles was advised to use yarrow leaves on his wounded comrades at Troy.

A second, smaller henge is known to lie to the south of the Little Catwick Quarry site. In the coming season a strip surrounding the area will be excavated, and further finds are expected.

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Roger Williams