The Heart of Neolithic Orkney: Skara Brae

In 1927, an Aussie by the name of Vere Gordon Childe showed up at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, with books under his arms and a dapper hat perched on his head, ready to take on his new role as Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology. He was a bookish sort of man, and had little experience working in the field (as is the case with so many academics). Unbeknownst to him, he was about to take on a project that would change all of that and put him on the academic map forever – even Dr. Jones himself would explain the value of Childe’s work.

 

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Childe’s project was actually begun way back in 1850, when a powerful storm pounded the west coast of mainland Orkney. During that storm, a huge section of a sand dune was washed away, revealing a small group of buildings.

Further investigation would prove that these small buildings were a settlement that was incredibly, and almost unfathomably, old. This prehistoric, neolithic village has come to be known as Skara Brae.

 

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When archaeologists first began to study the village, it was suggested that the buildings dated from around 500 AD. When Childe got there, though, more thorough research was done, and the true age of the buildings was deduced: roughly 5,000 years old (at that time, anyway – it’s almost 5,100 years old now), having been built around 3100 BC. If you’re like me, those are just numbers and they mean very little without some historical context, so here it is: The Pyramids of Giza in Egypt had not been built yet; written language was just beginning to develop in Mesopotamia; Homer would not compose The Odyssey for another 2,400 years; and by the time Stonehenge was erected in c.2000 BC, Skara Brae had already been abandoned for several hundred years.

After Skara Brae was revealed in 1850, people were a bit confused as to what it was – after all, some sort of weird, globule-looking construction just appeared on their seashore one day. Upon poking around a bit, it became apparent that it was, in fact, a village, with houses, a workshop, and covered walkways.

 

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The buildings themselves were built out of locally quarried flagstone, and would have been semi-subterranean (i.e., built so that it was partly below ground level. All the buildings had low ceilings made of furs and timber, and all the doors are extremely low. The low ceilings, doors, and semi-subterranean construction of the houses would have conserved heat – which, having visited Orkney in September wearing multiple thermal layers – was an absolute necessity, especially given how close the village is to the sea. The covered walkways between buildings would also have been highly practical: Not only would it have kept the freezing wind from the sea off while you ran out to borrow your neighbor’s Skaill knife, it would also have kept the semi-subterranean streets from being filled up with snow or sand that blew up from the nearby beach during blustery weather.

One of the interesting things about these houses is that they were all built exactly alike. The floor plan for each house is exactly the same as all the others. In every house, there was a hearth in the middle of the floor which would have served for cooking and heating; a dresser or set of shelves built into the wall opposite the door; and several box beds built into the walls around the periphery.

 

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The archaeological evidence at Skara Brae suggests that it was a thriving little village. At one point, it was much larger than it is now. Part of the village has been washed into the sea due to erosion of the same sort that unearthed the village back in 1850. There are also pots and other decorative items which have designs that are common in Ireland, but not in Scotland. This suggests that the people at Skara Brae traded and had contact with the Irish.

 

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For as accurate of a picture as Skara Brae paints of the daily lives of its neolithic inhabitants, it remains shrouded in mystery. The village was abandoned rather suddenly after about 300 or 400 years of inhabitation – of course, scholars are conflicted as to how suddenly this abandonment occurred, some arguing that it happened all at once, other saying that it took a generation. Nevertheless, the people left Skara Brae quicker than most societies leave their homes. The mystery is twofold: Why did they leave, and where did they go? There is no evidence that a natural catastrophe occurred, or that warfare drove the people out, or anything like that. Suggestions have included a plague which affected the people or animals of the area, or a storm which covered the village’s farming ground with so much sand that food wouldn’t grow anymore, but, there is underwhelming evidence for anything like that.

The mystery of the perfectly preserved settlement at Skara Brae continues to fascinate – in my experience, even people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in history or a provincial neolithic village on the edge of an island at the end of the world find this place interesting. The question of why the people of Skara Brae left c.2600 BC suckers people in and fires the imagination.

 

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Visiting Skara Brae

Getting there: The easiest way to get to Skara Brae is by car, but the number 441 bus from Stromness will drop you at the end of the drive leading up to the visitor center.

Admission: Entry is £7.50, concessions £6.00. However, the site is operated by Historic Environment Scotland, so members visit free.

Opening hours: Between April and September, the site is open every day from 9:30 am  to 5:30 pm. From October to March, it’s open every day 10 am to 4 pm.

Going to be in Scotland for a while? I recommend looking into buying a membership with Historic Environment Scotland. I got my money’s worth after visiting about three sites, so even if you’re only in Scotland on vacation, it might be worth it for you.

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