Skara Brae

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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. It consists of eight clustered houses, and was occupied from roughly 3180 BCE–2500 BCE.

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."a Older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, it has been called the "Scottish Pompeii" because of its excellent preservation.<ref>Hawkes, Jacquetta (1986). The Shell Guide to British Archaeology. London: Michael Joseph, 262</ref>


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'.<ref> (accessed 30th June 2014)</ref> William Watt of Skaill, the local laird, began an amateur excavation of the site, but after uncovering four houses the work was abandoned in 1868.<ref> (accessed 30th June 2014)</ref> 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 artifacts.<ref>Bryson, Bill, At Home : A short history of Private Life. (London; New York: Doubleday, 2010)</ref>

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 Vere Gordon Childe who travelled to Skara Brae for the first time in mid-1927.<ref>Bryson, 2010</ref> The site has since been excavated several times and the remains have been consolidated.<ref>Caroline Wickham-Jones, Orkney, A Historical Guide, (Birlinn, 2003) 37</ref>

Lifestyle and Material Culture

Skara Brae house interior

The village dates back to 3100BC.<ref>Wickam-Jones, Orkney, 37</ref> There were two main periods of use.<ref>Wickam-Jones, Orkney, 37</ref>There are six surviving houses and estimates vary as to the size of the community who inhabited them.<ref>Wickam-Jones, Orkney, 37</ref>Given the number of homes, it seems likely that no more than fifty people lived in Skara Brae at any given time. The site was inhabited for over 600 years and during this period the various houses and structures underwent much modification, however the main details of life remained constant.<ref>Wickam-Jones, Orkney, 37</ref>

The houses used earth sheltering but, being sunk into the ground, they were built into mounds of pre-existing domestic waste known as middens. Although the midden provided the houses with a small degree of stability, its most important purpose was to act as a layer of insulation against Orkney's harsh winter climate.<ref>Wickam-Jones, Orkney, 37</ref> On average, the houses measure 40 square metres (430 sq ft) in size with a large square room containing a hearth which would have been used for heating and cooking. Skara Brae's inhabitants were apparently makers and users of grooved ware, a distinctive style of pottery that appeared in northern Scotland not long before the establishment of the village.<ref>Darvill, Timothy (1987). Prehistoric Britain (London: Yale University Press) 85</ref>

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".<ref>Childe, V. Gordon; Simpson, W. Douglas (1952). Illustrated History of Ancient Monuments: Vol. VI Scotland. (Edinburgh: Her Majesty's Stationery Office) 21</ref>

A sophisticated drainage system was even incorporated into the village's design, one that 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 would have been the first thing seen by anyone entering the dwelling. Each of these houses has 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.<ref>Laing, Lloyd (1974). Orkney and Shetland: An Archaeological Guide (Newton Abbott: David and Charles Ltd) 61</ref> The discovery of beads and paint-pots in some of the smaller beds may support this interpretation.

Orkney Skara Brae.jpg

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.<ref>Childe, V. Gordon; Clarke, D. V. (1983). Skara Brae. (Edinburgh: Her Majesty's Stationery Office) 9</ref>

The eighth house has no storage boxes or dresser, but 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. It has been interpreted as a workshop.<ref>Wickam-Jones, Orkney, 37</ref>

House 8 is distinctive in other ways as well. It is a stand-alone structure not surrounded by midden, instead there is a "porch" protecting the entrance through walls that are over 2 metres (6.6 ft) thick.<ref>Clarke, D.V.; Sharples, Niall (1985). Settlements and Subsistence in the Third Millennium BC, in: Renfrew, Colin (Ed.) The Prehistory of Orkney BC 4000-1000 AD. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) 66</ref>

It is by no means clear what fuels the inhabitants used in the stone 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.<ref>Childe, V. Gordon (1931). Skara Brae, a Pictish Village in Orkney. meeting held in London: monograph of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland</ref> Other obvious possible fuel sources include driftwood and animal dung, but there's evidence that dried seaweed may have been a significant source. At a number of sites in Orkney investigators have found a glassy, slag-like material called "Kelp" or "Cramp" that may be residual burnt seaweed.<ref>Fenton, Alexander (1978). Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland. (John Donald Publishers Ltd) 208, 209</ref>


The Grooved Ware People who built Skara Brae were primarily pastoralists who raised cattle and sheep.<ref>Childe, 1931</ref> Childe originally believed that the inhabitants did not practice agriculture, but excavations in 1972 unearthed seed grains from a midden suggesting that barley was cultivated.<ref> Laing 1974, 54</ref> Fish bones and shells are common in the middens indicating that dwellers supplemented their diet with seafood. Limpet shells are common and may have been fish-bait that was kept in stone boxes in the homes.<ref> Childe & Clarke 1983, 10</ref> The boxes were formed from thin slabs with joints carefully sealed with clay to render them waterproof.

This pastoral lifestyle is in sharp contrast to some of the more exotic interpretations of the culture of the Skara Brae people. Euan MacKie suggested that Skara Brae might be the home of a privileged theocratic class of wise men who engaged in astronomical and magical ceremonies at nearby sites like the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness.<ref>MacKie, Euan (1977). Science and Society in Prehistoric Britain. London: Palgrave Macmillan</ref>

Graham and Anna Ritchie cast doubt on this interpretation noting that there is no archaeological evidence for this claim, although a Neolithic "low road" connects Skara Brae with the magnificent chambered tomb of Maeshowe, passing near both of these sites.<ref>Castleden 1987, 117</ref> Low roads connect Neolithic ceremonial sites throughout Britain.

Historian Christopher Harvie has characterized the people of Skara Brae as close-knit, conformist and conservative.<ref>Scotland, A Short History, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000) 15</ref>


At the time in which the Scara Brae was inhabited the sea was further away and there was a shallow lagoon between the village and the sea.<ref>Wickam-Jones, Orkney, 39</ref> Although the visible buildings give an impression of an organic whole, it is certain that an unknown quantity of additional structures had already been lost to sea erosion before the site's rediscovery and subsequent protection by a seawall.<ref>Clarke & Sharples 1985, 58</ref> Uncovered remains are known to exist immediately adjacent to the ancient monument in areas presently covered by fields, and others, of uncertain date, can be seen eroding out of the cliff edge a little to the south of the enclosed area.


Originally, Childe believed that the settlement dated from around 500 BCE.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 BCE with occupation continuing for about six hundred years.<ref>Childe & Clarke 1983, 6</ref> Around 2500 BCE, 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. Evan Hadingham combined evidence from found objects with the storm scenario to imagine a dramatic end to the settlement. <ref>Hadingham, Evan (1975). Circles and Standing Stones: An Illustrated Exploration of the Megalith Mysteries of Early Britain. (New York: Walker and Company) 66</ref> As was the case at Pompeii, the inhabitants seem to have been taken by surprise and fled in haste, for many of their prized possessions, such as necklaces made from animal teeth and bone, or pins of walrus ivory, were left behind. The remains of choice meat joints were discovered in some of the beds, presumably forming part of the villagers' last supper. One woman was in such haste that her necklace broke as she squeezed through the narrow doorway of her home, scattering a stream of beads along the passageway outside as she fled the encroaching sand.<ref>Hadingham, Evan (1975). Circles and Standing Stones: An Illustrated Exploration of the Megalith Mysteries of Early Britain. (New York: Walker and Company) 66</ref>

Anna Ritchie strongly disagrees with catastrophic interpretations of the village's abandonment. She states: 'A popular myth would have the village abandoned during a massive storm that threatened to bury it in sand instantly, but the truth is that its burial was gradual and that it had already been abandoned — for what reason, no one can tell'.<ref>Ritchie, Anna (1995). Prehistoric Orkney. (London: B.T. Batsford Ltd) 29</ref>

World Heritage Status

Skara Brae is listed as a site of World Heritage Status by UNESCO. Along with other Orcadian monuments it is described as an outstanding testimony to the cultural achievements of the Neolithic peoples of Northern Europe. <ref> (Accessed 30th June 2014)</ref>