Stepping Back in Time at Skara Brae: A Neolithic Settlement in the Heart of Prehistoric Orkney
In 1850, a fierce storm hit the Bay o’ Skaill on the main island of the Orkney island archipelago. In doing so, it ripped grass from a hill, then known as Skerrabra, to reveal the remnants of an ancient stone house. Further investigations revealed that the hill and its immediate vicinity had once been the site of a long-forgotten farming village. However, with all the important ritual sites nearby, there may be more to the story of Skara Brae’s inhabitants than just farming.
Excavating Skara Brae
Excavation of the village that became known as Skara Brae began in earnest after 1925 under the direction of the Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe (who took charge of site excavations in 1927).
An interesting fact about the village of Skara Brae is that it is close to a major ritual complex. This may indicate something about the status of the people who once lived there. The excellently preserved village site is part of the heart of prehistoric Orkney, which includes a passage tomb and two henge structures. One of the henges is among the oldest henge structures in the British Isles.
The Skara Brae settlement on Orkney Island, Scotland. (XtravaganT /Adobe Stock)
Climate Change Threats
Unfortunately it seems that Skara Brae is currently under threat by the elements. A recent report suggests that the rising sea levels and heavier rains that are accompanying climate change are a cause of concern for the archaeological site.
"The threat here is very real in terms of survival of the site. The global projections for sea level rise are quite astonishing," said Ewan Hyslop, head of technical research and science at Historic Environment Scotland. And it’s believed that the rising sea levels have a strong potential to create damage at the settlement.
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Who Lived in Skara Brae?
V. Gorgon Childe originally thought that the site was an Iron Age village and dated it to around 500 BC, but radiocarbon dating in the early 1970s revealed it was, in fact, a late Neolithic site which was inhabited sometime between 3200 BC and 2200 BC. The site was occupied for about 600 years.
After it was abandoned, the settlement was inundated with sand from the nearby coastal dunes. There is a debate among archaeologists about whether the site was rapidly buried in a storm and thus quickly abandoned, or left for other reasons and then slowly covered with sand by the encroaching dunes.
The site consists of eight stone houses which are connected by enclosed passageways. Each house has the same layout - a square room with a fireplace in the middle. There is a large bed on the right corner of the room farthest from the entrance and a smaller bed on the left corner of the room farthest from the entrance.
Detail showing a passageway linking houses. (Jule_Berlin /Adobe Stock)
Some archaeologists have suggested that men and women had designated sides of the room and that the smaller bed was for the woman, or wife. Pots and beads which would have been kept by women have been found in the smaller bed - providing possible support for this theory. There is also a dresser directly opposite the entrance.
There’s also an interesting theory about the heat-crazed stones and large pots found at Skara Brae which date back to 3000 BC. Local archaeologist Merryn Dineley believes that the pottery was once used for heating malt, “the germinated and heated cereal grains that ferment to produce alcohol.” By examining the material culture recovered at the site, researchers have suggested that the people of Skara Brae were probably farmers and pastoralists.
A view inside one of the houses at Skara Brae. (DorSteffen /Adobe Stock)
Other Important Local Archaeological Sites
An ancient low road dating to the same period goes from the village to a nearby tomb complex known as Maeshowe. Maeshowe is a passage tomb similar to the tombs at Newgrange and Loughcrew and its passage is aligned so that light enters it on the winter solstice.
Another important archaeological site located near Skara Brae is the Standing Stones of Stenness, a ritual site which has long been associated with magic and the Norse god Odin. This site may also have archaeo-astronomical significance.
In addition to the Standing Stones of Stenness, there is also the Ring of Brodgar, a related henge. The Standing Stones of Stenness date to about 3100 BC (while the village of Skara Brae was inhabited) and the site is one of the oldest henge structures in the British Isles.
The Standing Stones of Stenness. (Public Domain)
The proximity and number of megalithic structures implies that this was a landscape of ritual significance. With this information in mind, some investigators, such as Euan MacKie, suggest that the village of Skara Brae housed a group of astronomer-priests who were responsible for maintaining the sacred sites.
Other scholars reject this idea and say the material culture of the site reveals a fairly typical Neolithic farming village – nothing more. Another possibility could be that this was a sort of lodging for pilgrims during their visits to the ritual sites - though this hasn’t been suggested by any prominent investigators.
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Inside a reconstruction of a Skara Brae Neolithic house. (Barry /Adobe Stock)
Stones for Convenience or Significance?
Another reason that Skara Brae is believed to have been particularly important is because it was made predominantly of stone. This stands out because most village settlements in the British Isles during the Neolithic were probably made of wood or other perishable materials.
On the other hand, it could just be that trees for timber were not abundant at the time when Skara Brae was built. The Loughcrew Cairns and Stonehenge were both built in regions which probably had abundant trees during the late Neolithic. Skara Brae, on the other hand, was built near a coastal dune field, where trees tend to be scarce.
The lack of timber may have compelled the inhabitants to build the village out of stone. Stone structures are better preserved and, as a result, will be more likely to be found adjacent to ritual sites than settlements built out of wood.
It is possible that none of these explanations are correct, but the fact remains that Skara Brae is quite unusual in its proximity to a ritual site – suggesting that the people who lived there may have had a unique society as well.
Top Image: A section of the Skara Brae Neolithic settlement. Source: johnbraid /Adobe Stock
By Caleb Strom
Updated on January 7, 2021.
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