Scara Brae

Europe’s lost civilization

« on: April 02, 2008, 02:23:47 PM »



In 1866 on the Orkney Islands, a storm uncovered a group of neolithic structures on the west coast of the mainland. The small village, buried under sand for 5000 years, was not explored by an archaeologist until 1928 when Professor Gordon Childe began delving into the ruins. He discovered a cluster of stone huts dating back to prehistoric times.

Skara Brae is called “the Pompeii of the North” because the covering of sand preserved the contents of the village just as the volcanic ash kept Pompeii’s remains intact. At first it was thought that the inhabitants had suddenly perished in a storm, judging from the many everyday objects that were found in place. Now it is believed that the site was gradually abandoned as the climate changed and people sought out better places to fish and farm. The last occupants, still clinging stubbornly to their old ways, simply died out after most of the others moved on to more fertile lands.


The original settlers of Skara Brae probably came across the Pentland Firth from Caithness on Scotland’s mainland. Five thousand years ago, the climate was warmer and the seaside was friendlier. The community found its place just a few hundred feet away from the shore. Fishing was plentiful, with red bream, corkfin wrasse and mussels or oysters readily available. Barley and wheat were cultivated, although today it is hard to imagine anything but grass growing on this barren terrain. Cattle provided meat and milk for Skara Brae. They even kept dogs who accompanied hunters and provided companionship.



The houses of Skara Brae provide a snapshot of domestic life in the neolithic age. The structures were built of native sandstone which, buried under the drifting sands, stood amazingly well against the tests of time. While in other parts of Britain most of the buildings were wooden and did not survive centuries of weather, raids, or human progress, lumber was scarce on Skara Brae. The resourceful migrants constructed their homes of sandstone that was easy to work with their tools of antler picks and stone axes. Although the roofs are long gone (probably thatched) most of the structures are still standing.


pastedGraphic_3.pdfInside those walls, everyday items such as beds, shelves, dressers, and water tanks were also made of stone. The dwellings were not just poor and plain utilitarian “huts”. Whoever lived at Skara Brae obviously enjoyed comfort and style. Each of the single room homes had about 320 square feet of living area in a structure that was partially dug into the ground for stability and permanence. The stone-ringed central hearth heated the home and provided the residents with their own cooking facilities. At one end of the room, each house had a stone tank sealed with clay to make it watertight. This held live bait, mainly limpets. Stone bed boxes around the sides of the room were filled with straw, bracken and feathers with coverings of furs and skins. There were stone shelves and boxes for storage but the central feature in every home was a large sandstone dresser to contain and display what may have been the status symbols of Skara Brae’s society – stone balls carved with intricate patterns of circles and spirals, clay jars and pots with scalloped rims and incised zigzags, beaded necklaces of clay or bone, pins and other decorative ornaments. Channels dug into the floors, running from inside to outside, likely served as basic sanitary plumbing.


Skara Brae was a thriving little community with about fifty residents. From the layout of the village, there were public places and at least one structure that was a workshop. Narrow lanes or alleys connected the private homes. It is a mystery who actually lived there. With only bones and gray Orkney sandstone to use as tools, it would have taken a great deal of time and labor to make the houses, not to mention constructing the great stone circles of Brodgar and Stenness only 10 km away from Skara Brae. This was definitely not a simple, isolated settlement of fisherfolk and farmers. Whoever lived there must have been an elite part of a larger society with the population and power to organize a workforce necessary to create these things.


One of the most significant artifacts found at Skara Brae was the grooved pottery. The deepest and earliest levels of the site contained grooved ware, strong evidence of direct trade with the rest of Britain before 2000 BC. The presence of this type of pottery is revealing because it is strongly associated with ritual sites, and it links Skara Brae with sites in southern Britain, particularly Stonehenge. The earliest grooved ware was found in a ditch at Stonehenge I along with other material that has been dated around 2800 BC. There are several characteristics that set grooved ware apart from other neolithic pottery. There has never been any trace of grain impressions found on grooved ware, which indicates that it was not commonly made in a domestic environment but must have come from separate special potteries. Grooved pottery belonged to the ruling class and is found wherever the elite members of society lived – the priests, shamans or druids. Ordinary pottery had rounded bottoms which was practical for placement in the soft ashes at fireside. The grooved ware had flat bottoms, more suitable for setting on a stone dresser or kitchen shelf. Some archaeologists have even linked the grooved pottery at Skara Brae with similar items found at the Boyne complex in Ireland.


Life in Skara Brae apparently went on in much the same way for hundreds of years. New houses were built on the ruins or middens of old ones, so that the village slowly rose above sea level. Around 2500 BC, climatic changes brought colder and wetter weather. The red bream slowly became less plentiful and finally vanished. Other environmental changes forced Skara Brae’s population to gradually abandon their stone houses. At the same time all over Britain, people began moving in search of better living conditions. We may never know who actually lived at Skara Brae but what remains of the neolithic seaside village continues to fascinate and fire the imagination.