Visit Skara Brae

Image courtesy of WKnight94 via Wikimedia Commons.Skara Brae is a Neolithic settlement in Orkney, Scotland. One of the more preserved Stone Age villages in Europe. After Skara Brae was abandoned, the living structures were slowly filled in by wind-blown sand until it was entirely covered, ensuring preservation. Sand accumulated on the shore of the Bay of Skaill, until it was exposed by the erosion action of a storm in 1850. Four buildings were excavated during the 1860s by William Watt. the laird of nearby Skaill House (this has the makings of a Regency Romance if we thrown a girl into the story – and probably a villain). Realizing the significance of what the storm had exposed, in his desire to protect and explore the site, Watt set into motion the excavation that yet continues. Archaeologists estimate the current Skara Brae was built between 2000BC and 1500 BC, atop at least one previous settlement.

Image courtesy of John Burka.

Erosion changes some landscapes in remarkable ways. Back then Skara Brae would have set some distance inland but today it lies right on the edge of the water. The site is protected from the sea only by the artificial barriers erected for that purpose.

The dwellings at Skara Brae are built from undressed slabs of stone, transported from the beach and positioned without mortar. The drift sand that filled the interiors preserved the walls in places up to a height of eight feet. Because no trees grew on the island, furniture was also made of stone and survived as well. Imagine lounging around on stone benches and you’ll have an idea that comfort levels have changed. The village consisted of several one-room dwellings, each a rectangle with rounded corners, entered through a low, narrow doorway that could be closed by a stone slab.

Those of you who have never tried to build with stone or carve furniture from the same, should be thinking “holy crow, that sounds like a lot of labor!” because it surely was.

Image courtesy of WKnight94 via Wikimedia Commons.

Built in at least two stages, what you see of Skara Brae today is mostly from the second stage of occupation. The village was built by forming a large pile of domestic rubbish (archaeologists call this garbage heap a midden). Like ancient people all around the globe, they burrowed into the midden in order to create spaces for the houses and the passageways linking them, which they also lined with stone. This image tends to gross people out today, but in truth, domestic refuse three or four thousand years ago would be fairly similar to the garden compost we create today. In a largely sandy environment, midden would have been ideally stable material in which to place a village, and provided a wind break in such an exposed location.

Carved Stone Objects from Skara Brae, image courtesy of Odyssey Adventures.The village appears to have been abruptly deserted, but that might be our own skewed impression because it isn’t like they would have taken the furniture when they left. At that time the site consisted of seven or eight houses linked together by paved alleys. Six of the homes had been constructed partly underground by banking the midden materials. The alleys eventually became tunnels roofed with stone slabs. The whole residential complex was drained by a sewer into which individual houses discharged. Despite the propaganda, ancient Greeks and Romans were not the only ones to figure this stuff out.

Plan of the Neolithic Village at Skara Brae, image courtesy of Odyssey Adventures.

The inhabitants of Skara Brae subsisted mainly on cattle and sheep herding, and harvesting resources such as shellfish from the sea. They probably dressed in finely sewn clothing made of animal hides. Relying exclusively on local materials like stones, beach pebbles, and animal bones, they fashioned household goods and ornaments – including games and personal adornments. Vessels were made of pottery, and although the technique was poor, most featured elaborate decoration. A number of the stones used in constructing house walls and alleys show roughly scratched lozenge and similar rectilinear patterns along the surface. Beneath the walls, foundations of older homes were discovered, indicating an earlier occupation site.

Check out the official visitors page for Skara Brae to learn more about this fascinating Neolithic site. If that doesn’t satisfy your interest, then move along to Historic Scotland’s entry. And for those of you who prefer your learning imbedded in fun, you should take a minute to play the interactive Skara Brae game. There are many fabulous pictures on the Adventures in Archaeology website, so don’t forget to click through.

Want to see it for yourself? Watch as Simon Schama explores Skara Brae:

One of the most striking aspects of the site are the domestic details. For most visitors, these are deeply touching. There is a sense of glimpsing the day-to-day lives of people who lived almost 5000 years ago. After touring Skara Brae you have no difficulty realizing that its inhabitants were very similar to ourselves. Yes, they might have lived in a stone village half buried in a large pile of midden, but when you view the houses and furnishings, you realize that if we knew their names we could easily identify with these people. Don’t you want to go see?

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