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Getting clean… the old fashion way

August 8, 2014

On Monday, after a disappointing start due to heavy rain and thunder storms, we were confined to indoor finds processing which involved careful and laborious cleaning of pottery and lithics. As a result of not being on site, spirits were low. Luckily Jamie, one of the Qanirtuuq Corporation employees arrived and honoured us with an invitation for five women to join her and her female relatives for an evening’s Maqii (a steam bath). Celeste, Ella, Leonie, Alex and Anna S. were delighted to accept this invitation to take part in what is both a bathing and cultural opportunity.  It was a special experience to have female community members invite women from the excavation team to a social event.

After pre-hydrating for several hours, the five of us, armed with towels and bottled water, crossed the threshold into the steam house. We collected with Jamie and her relatives in the small ante chamber to undress and were instructed as to how to take a steam bath. Due to our lack of experience they needed to train us in ‘steam bath etiquette’ as though we were children. In small groups of four or five we entered through a small wooden door into the 121 C (250 F) heat where we were greeted with a wall of steam. In the room there was a wood stove over which lay a covering of hot rocks; by the rocks there were two basins, one filled with cold water and the other with boiling water. Jamie used a dipper to pour the hot water onto the rocks several times. This raised the heat dramatically, and being novices, we had to splash ourselves with what Jamie called ‘Yup’ik cheat water’ (cold water). When this was no longer effective, the exit to the ante chamber was swift.  For novices such as ourselves, this usually didn’t take long. We went in and out several times with breaks in between where we chatted with the ladies, learning about their lives and culture. During these breaks Jamie and her family chewed Black Ball (a local tobacco combination). In one break Jamie said that she’d mentioned to her friends that at Maqii that night she was cooking white meat, a statement that was met with raucous laughter from all.

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A steamy night: Leonie, Ella, Alex, Anna S. and Celeste with Jamie after the maqii

In the final steaming it is customary to use a basin, wash cloth and soap to take a sponge bath. Unaware of this we were totally unprepared but Jamie generously offered us the use of some soap and wash cloths so we could fully experience all that a steam bath has to offer.

Afterwards we all felt fantastic – clean, relaxed and purified. This was the perfect end to our first week of excavation.

Quyana Jamie, and Josephine….!

Celeste, Ella, Leonie, Alex and Anna S.

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