Skara Brae is a stone-built Neolithic settlement, located on the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago of Scotland. Consisting of eight clustered houses, it was occupied from roughly 3180 BC to about 2500 BC. Europe’s most complete Neolithic village, Skara Brae gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status as one of four sites making up “The Heart of Neolithic Orkney”. Older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, it has been called the “Scottish Pompeii” because of its excellent preservation
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney comprises four sites :
- Maeshowe – a unique chambered cairn and passage grave, aligned so that its central chamber is illuminated on the winter solstice. It was looted by Vikings who left one of the largest collections of runic inscriptions in the world.
- Standing Stones of Stenness – the four remaining megaliths of a henge, the largest of which is 6 metres high.
- Ring of Brodgar – a stone circle 104 metres in diameter, originally composed of 60 stones set within a circular ditch up to 3 metres deep and 10 metres wide, forming a henge monument. It has been estimated that the structure took 80,000 man-hours to construct.
- Skara Brae – a cluster of eight houses making up Northern Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic village.
In the winter of 1850, a severe storm hit Scotland, causing widespread damage and over 200 deaths. In the Bay of Skaill, the storm stripped the earth from a large irregular knoll known as “Skerrabra”. When the storm cleared, local villagers found the outline of a village, consisting of a number of small houses without roofs. William Watt of Skaill, the local laird, began an amateur excavation of the site, but after four houses were uncovered, the work was abandoned in 1868. The site remained undisturbed until 1913, when during a single weekend the site was plundered by a party with shovels who took away an unknown quantity of artefacts. In 1924, another storm swept away part of one of the houses and it was determined the site should be made secure and more seriously investigated. The job was given to University of Edinburgh’s Professor V. Gordon Childe who travelled to Skara Brae for the first time in mid-1927.
Skara Brae’s people were makers and users of grooved ware, a distinctive style of pottery that appeared in northern Scotland not long before the establishment of the village. The houses used earth sheltering, being sunk into the ground. They were sunk into mounds of pre-existing prehistoric domestic waste known as middens. The midden provided the houses with a stability and also acted as insulation against Orkney’s harsh winter climate. On average, each house measures 40 square metres in size with a large square room containing a stone hearth used for heating and cooking. Given the number of homes, it seems likely that no more than fifty people lived in Skara Brae at any given time.
It is by no means clear what material the inhabitants burned in their hearths. Gordon Childe was sure that the fuel was peat, but a detailed analysis of vegetation patterns and trends suggests that climatic conditions conducive to the development of thick beds of peat did not develop in this part of Orkney until after Skara Brae was abandoned. Other possible fuels include driftwood and animal dung. There is evidence that dried seaweed may have been used significantly. At some sites in Orkney, investigators have found a glassy, slag-like material called “kelp” or “cramp” that may be residual burnt seaweed.
The dwellings contain a number of stone-built pieces of furniture, including cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes. Each dwelling was entered through a low doorway that had a stone slab door that could be closed “by a bar that slid in bar-holes cut in the stone door jambs”. A sophisticated drainage system was incorporated into the village’s design. It included a primitive form of toilet in each dwelling.
Seven of the houses have similar furniture, with the beds and dresser in the same places in each house. The dresser stands against the wall opposite the door, and was the first thing seen by anyone entering the dwelling. Each of these houses had the larger bed on the right side of the doorway and the smaller on the left. Lloyd Laing noted that this pattern accorded with Hebridean custom up to the early 20th century suggesting that the husband’s bed was the larger and the wife’s was the smaller. The discovery of beads and paint-pots in some of the smaller beds may support this interpretation. Additional support may come from the recognition that stone boxes lie to the left of most doorways, forcing the person entering the house to turn to the right-hand, “male”, side of the dwelling. At the front of each bed lie the stumps of stone pillars that may have supported a canopy of fur; another link with recent Hebridean style.
One house, called House 8, has no storage boxes or dresser. It has been divided into something resembling small cubicles. When this house was excavated, fragments of stone, bone and antler were found. It is possible that this building was used as a house to make simple tools such as bone needles or flint axes. The presence of heat-damaged volcanic rocks and what appears to be a flue, support this interpretation. House 8 is distinctive in other ways as well. It is a stand-alone structure not surrounded by midden, instead it is above ground and has walls over 2 metres thick. It has a “porch” protecting the entrance.
Originally, Childe believed that the settlement dated from around 500 BC. This interpretation was coming under increasing challenge by the time new excavations in 1972–73 settled the question. Radiocarbon results obtained from samples collected during these excavations indicate that occupation of Skara Brae began about 3180 BC with occupation continuing for about six hundred years. Around 2500 BC, after the climate changed, becoming much colder and wetter, the settlement may have been abandoned by its inhabitants. There are many theories as to why the people of Skara Brae left; particularly popular interpretations involve a major storm.
A number of enigmatic carved stone balls have been found at the site and some are on display in the museum. Similar objects have been found throughout northern Scotland. The spiral ornamentation on some of these “balls” has been stylistically linked to objects found in the Boyne Valley in Ireland. Similar symbols have been found carved into stone lintels and bed posts. These symbols, sometimes referred to as “runic writings”, have been subjected to controversial translations. For example, Castleden suggested that “colons” found punctuating vertical and diagonal symbols may represent separations between words.
Lumps of red ochre found here and at other Neolithic sites have been interpreted as evidence that body painting may have been practised. Nodules of haematite with highly polished surfaces have been found as well; the shiny surfaces suggest that the nodules were used to finish leather.
Other artefacts excavated on site made of animal, fish, bird, and whalebone, whale and walrus ivory, and killer whale teeth included awls, needles, knives, beads, adzes, shovels, small bowls and, most remarkably, ivory pins up to 25 centimetres long. These pins are very similar to examples found in passage graves in the Boyne Valley, another piece of evidence suggesting a linkage between the two cultures. So-called Skaill knives were commonly used tools in Skara Brae; these consist of large flakes knocked off sandstone cobbles. Skaill knives have been found throughout Orkney and Shetland.
The 1972 excavations reached layers that had remained waterlogged and had preserved items that otherwise would have been destroyed. These include a twisted skein of Heather, one of a very few known examples of Neolithic rope, and a wooden handle.
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