Archaeologists believe they have found a Bronze Age sauna or steam house on an Orkney island, which could have been built for ritual purposes.

It is among the remains of over 30 buildings dating from around 4000 BC to 1000 BC, together with field systems, middens and cemeteries excavated on the island of Westray .

It was on the periphery of the prehistoric Links of Noltland, next to where the famous Neolithic carved sandstone human figurine the Westray Wife, was found in 2009. It is believed to be the earliest depiction of a human face in Britain.

EASE Archaeology recently made the discovery in a project funded by Historic Scotland.

The work has been ongoing at the Links of Noltland for several years but the most recent discovery, seen as one of the most remarkable to date, is this almost complete and remarkably well-preserved, very rare Bronze Age building.

Experts believe it had a very specialised function and was used by select groups for activities such as rites of passage or spiritual ceremonies.

It is also thought possible that the building could have been used as a sweat house or sauna, for a number of activities ranging from basic healing and cleansing, or as a place where women could come to give birth, the sick and elderly could come to die, or where bodies were taken before burial.

Rod McCullagh, deputy head of Archaeology Strategy at Historic Scotland said: “This is a beautifully preserved site with lots of tantalising clues pointing to its use as an important building, central to the community who built it. We know this was a large building, with a complex network of cells attached to it and a sizeable tank of water in the central structure which would likely have been used to produce boiling water and steam – which could have been used to create a sauna effect.

"What this would have been used for we don’t know exactly but the large scale, elaborate architecture and sophistication of the structure all suggest that it was used for more than just cooking. Whether its purpose was for feasting, rituals, important discussions, or maybe just for the same reasons we use saunas for today, is something we don’t yet know. This is just the start of an exciting but painstaking process of analysis and research work but one which gradually adds to our understanding of what activities occurred here 4000 years ago.”

Historic Scotland is merging this week with the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland to form a new heritage body called Historic Environment Scotland.