Smerquoy excavation diary — Entry Seven

Some of the water channels and the water heating pit are visible in the nearest end of the house.

Some of the water channels and the water heating pit are visible in the nearest end of the house.

May 24
Chris Gee

What a lovely warm day today. Seren took the bulk soil samples to float off the charred plant remains and wet sieve the rest. We await the results but it looks like she has some good material for carbon dating.

I came back to the dig this afternoon to find the southern end of the house floor peppered with sectioned holes and pits, two stake holes were spaced out one at each end of the hearth, maybe to support a spit, drying line – for meat or fish possibly. In Orkney’s recent past at least, fish and meat were preserved by suspending them in the fire smoke.

Hot and cold running water?

The Hearth with the and older setting excavated.

The Hearth with the and older setting excavated.

In the north end of the house some of the volunteers were sectioning and excavating the “drainage” channels that are cut into the natural clay across the floor.

I reached the bottom of a large pit in the north end and discovered around eight bits of igneous dyke rock. They looked heat-affected shattered and it occurred to me that they had possibly been used to heat water. Suddenly all the strange little channels across the floor started to make sense.

There seems to be a main channel taking water into the house from the east. It passes under the wall, into the house and along the edge of our pit with the hot igneous stones.

The thermal properties of igneous dyke rock were known in the Neolithic, with it being ground up and used as temper in pottery. Here, I think, we might be seeing it placed in the fire and then used to transfer the heat to water.

There is a slight bank of clay between the channel and the pit but it is a bit lower than the rest of the channel. This pit has a channel leading out its west side, which only cuts into its very upper edge, I would say to create an overflow or intentional outflow of warm water. This overflow passes out of the house through a drain to the west.

There are two more channels which either flow into this pit past another pit at the east of the hearth or the other way. This has to be established with levels as the last mentioned channel was not as obviously inclined.

This hot water system is brilliant. The channels were maybe under flags or boards that could be lifted. I feel quite sure that we will find a sluice at the east side of the house that could have been opened or closed to regulate the water flow into the house’s water system. There will possibly be another drain forking around the north east of the house to divert excess water.

It will be interesting to see if this theory proves right or wrong.

The apparent deliberate channelling of water into the house for use, rather than just trying to channel it past or through then raises some interesting follow up questions.

The wider topography of the Smerquoy house’s setting would tend to run water towards the house site – although it itself seems to be slightly out from the hill face and direct run off. If this is the case, could the topography of the house site and its setting, in terms of its effects on water flow, have been a deciding factor on where to build a house in the first place?

It seems as if it must have been important to have a natural clay floor which was not to permeable to water – and was fast enough to hold stakes. What would have happened if there was no natural clay at an otherwise desirable house site. Is there a water catchment or storage system upslope from the house?

There is something very satisfying making dams, cutting channels and controlling the flow and nature of water. It’s what and my little boys and I do, on a small scale, every time we find running water.

If it is established that the pit was to heat the water then the next question might be, what was the hot water or steam used for or what did it mean?

It could be for cooking, washing, cleansing, or maybe to create steam for a sauna or sweat lodge, and it could also be all, some or none of these things.

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