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National Archaeology Day - Building a Sweat Lodge

On 17th July 2004, to celebrate National Archaeology Day we helped to create a fully working ‘sweat lodge’ based on the Bronze age remains found in Sutton Park. Sweat lodges are or have been used all over the world since prehistoric times as a means of cleansing, spiritual centres, places to hold meetings, and for healing.

They usually take the form of a structure with a central pit in which hot stones can be placed, which when doused in water create steam. This is trapped in the structure and creates a sauna effect. A series of mounds of stones were found in Sutton Park after a fire in the 1920’s,  they were formed from hundreds of shattered stones. Charcoal found with the stones has been dated from 1500BC to 1000BC…..the Bronze Age.

Two theories of how the stones came about:

·        For a long time it was thought these stones were relics left from ancient cooking methods – Experimental archaeology has shown that stones heated up in a fire then dropped into water, will cause the water to boil. The water stays hot long enough to cook vegetables and meat.

·        However, by looking at other cultures such as the Native Americans, another explanation for the shattered stones was found…. If water is poured onto hot stones, it causes the water to evaporate into steam. The process fractures the stones into the same pieces that are found in the burnt mounds.

This specific shatter pattern can only be made when the stones are heated to a great temperature and then cooled rapidly with water.

Bronze age method of lighting a fire

Fire heating our stones

We used a flint knife to cut string


Next, we constructed a ‘Bender’ from Hazel. This consisted of long poles placed in the ground in a circle about 10 feet wide, these were then bent over and tied together to create a dome shape. Weaving hazel rods between gave the structure extra strength.

In the Bronze Age this would have been covered with animal skins to keep the moisture in, as these are rather more expensive today we settled for a tarpaulin (generously donated by B&Q), which does the same job!

 

A framework is constructed of a flexible wood such as willow or hazel. This is then woven with more wood to create a solid structure.

The frame would then have been covered with skins but we improvised.

 


When the structure was complete, a hole was dug in the centre of the lodge.
The stones were heated in the middle of a specially stacked fire, after about 2 hours, the wood collapsed and we could hear the stones falling into the fire pit. We raked out the stones, and placed them in a specially made carrier (Hodd). The stones were carried into the middle of the sweat lodge, and placed in the pit. This was covered with a barrier to stop anyone getting burnt on the stones.  

Once everyone had entered the sweat lodge, water was poured on the stones to create steam. The effect was fantastic!

Collecting the stones from the ashes of the fire

Finally we had our chance to experience a bronze age sauna

Once you are inside the sweat lodge, and the opening is covered over, it is so dark the only thing you can see are the stones glowing! Once the water is poured on, it immediately evaporates, and the air is filled with clouds of steam. We tried throwing herbs onto the stones, lavender and sage….it filled the sweat lodge with a wonderful scent. It is quite a nice feeling though, it does get extremely hot, and in the first steam can be uncomfortable.  However when you return to the outside, you feel extremely refreshed, if a little pink cheeked!

We also tried a host of other Bronze Age activities:

We tried recreating some Bronze Age pottery. We made the pots by coiling sausages of clay round a flat base. The sides of the pot were built up layer by layer, and then smoothed to create a clean finish. We marked the pots with bits of string, wood and our fingernails, just as they would have done 3 thousand years ago!

          

 

Here is an example of our attempt to tie-dye some cloth with Onion Skins. We peeled the skins and boiled them up on the fire, the result was quite impressive, with a pale yellow brown colour resulting.

Although they may not have used onion skins, the Bronze age people could have used other plants to dye their cloth.

 

…and some of our weaving………. (a few mistakes apparent….but it was the first attempt!) We used a traditional warp weighted loom, it was made with rather more modern materials than would have been found in the Bronze Age, however the overall design is the same.

We will be using this later on in the year to try and weave wool that we have spun and dyed ourselves.

Finally here are some members' comments about the day.....

"I really enjoyed it. The sweat lodge itself was fantastic; the day wouldn't have been complete without it. It's amazing how they ever thought of it!"

"My Mum really enjoyed it, so did I, but I did get rather hot! I enjoyed making Bronze Age pottery too, I have just finished painting my plate. I am really, really pleased with it. I tried some of the Bronze Age bread too and it was really quite nice. I wouldn't mind eating bread like that every day!"

"I didn't actually do the weaving, but my dad and I found ourselves wondering how they managed to think out how to use things like wood and stone to make a lump of sheep hair into fine thread. Altogether the whole family really enjoyed the day."

"Sweating was fun! I thought it was a relaxing and magical experience - especially when the herbs were put on the stones!"

"The Sweat Lodge was really hot that's probably why it has sweat in the name. In the Sweat Lodge you had to keep on putting different spices in the fire .The Clay Making was really fun where you rolled out long peices of clay and pieced them on to the base."

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