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Ancient Bathrooms

For a couple of weeks, I’ve had this article open in a tab on my desktop, about a 1,600 year-old bathhouse recently discovered in Israel. It’s just a feature piece, but the photo is captivating, as is the whole concept.

"The remains visible in the field include the frigidarium (cold room), tepidarium (warm room) and caldarium (hot room), as well as a courtyard attached northeast of the bathhouse rooms."

It’s discoveries like these that really make me wish I had a time machine. I yearn to go back 2,000 years and see what this place looked like, what the people who used it looked like, how they sounded and, yes, even how they smelled before and after they used this facility. These places are so resonant because they are incredible feats of engineering and ingenuity, but also because they are really rather ordinary. Do you think the people who built this bathhouse thought that, two millenia in the future, people would be marvelling over their plumbing? Probably not. But the fact that this plumbing remains — such a simple, earthy, human piece of construction — and is marvellous is something that just blows my mind.

It also reminds me of the Brough of Birsay, a small isle in the Orkney Islands that can only be reached at low tide, which I had the sheer delight of visiting back in 2008. The isle was dotted with ruins of Norse structures — foundations, mostly, but if you squinted your eyes and used your imagination you could see the longhouses there — along with a few Pictish stones. I was fascinated with the place because it features in Orkneyinga Saga — I was standing in a place from the sagas! I was touching the stones that the characters from the stories had touched!

I literally rolled around in the grass with delight (but here’s me trying to act a bit more demure, sitting in a 10th-11th century Viking building. And yes, I once had blonde hair…)

Happiness, thy name is Orkney...

We could walk all over the ruins, which was incredible — and even better was that it was just us, one other couple, and the man who sat in a little shack by the waterside waiting for people to arrive. And while we were traipsing around the island, we found this:

Norse sauna?

In case you can’t read the little sign on the grass, it says, “Norse sauna? This building may have been a bath-house or sauna. With a central hearth and foundations for benches.” This was really exciting at the time because it resonated with a scene in Eyrbyggja Saga I was studying, in which two berserkrs get trapped and killed in just such a sauna. (I know it sounds macabre, saying that this was exciting… But I wrote my PhD about Icelanders getting burnt to death in their houses, so a bit of steaming berserkr was really just part and parcel of my research.) But even now that my PhD is done and dusted, I still get a frisson looking at this picture.

Man, what I wouldn’t give to get the chance to go back and see this place when it was whole.

And to see if there were berserkir inside…

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