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While the residents disappeared eons ago, their stone houses have endured the ravages of the sea and time only to be exhumed 5,000 years later. Skara Brae is a stone-built ten-home cluster forming a Neolithic settlement located on the west coast of Mainland, Orkney, Scotland. It was occupied from roughly 3180 BCE–2500 BCE. At 5,000 years old, Skara Brae is the best preserved prehistoric village in Northern Europe. The site was continuously occupied for approximately 600 years (about 3100-2500 BCE), providing unique evidence of the daily life in the Orkneys in the late Neolithic era. Skara Brae is semi-subterranean, with village houses linked by a series of low passageways. It was settled within an old refuse heap - a kitchen midden usually associated with a semi-sedentary Mesolithic lifestyle – probably due to the insulative value of the refuse that may have been accumulating for a thousand years. Most of the household furniture as well as the houses were made of stone rather than wood, probably because of the lack of trees in the Orkney Islands and the availability of local stone. Much of the material has survived in the form of hearths, dressers, tables, and even stone beds. The later phase of the village (which can be seen today), consists of six to seven houses, and what may have been a workshop. It is possible that the settlement was originally larger, and that other houses may have been eroded by the sea. (Scroll to bottom for additional resources)
The neolithic settlement of Skara Brae lies near the dramatic white beach of the Bay of Skaill. Skara Brae is the best preserved groups of prehistoric houses in Western Europe. Skara Brae was discovered in 1850 when a severe storm washed away part of a protective sand dune, uncovering ruins of an ancient community. It was first properly excavated in 1920 by the archaeologist Gordon Vere Childe to present an effective picture of life around 5,000 years ago. Not only are the walls of the structures still standing, and alleyways roofed with their original stone slabs, but the interior fittings of each house give an unparalleled glimpse of life as it was in Neolithic Orkney. A replica construction allows visitors to fully understand the interior of a prehistoric house, inhabited for around 600 years, between 3200BC and 2200BC.
Skara Brae was inhabited before the Egyptian pyramids were built, and flourished for centuries before construction began at Stonehenge. It is around 5,000 years old and its semi-subterranean homes and their furniture survive in impressive condition. The site was given official recognition in 1999 when it was inscribed upon the World Heritage List as part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.
The people of Skara Brae were a largely self-sufficient community who fished, kept cattle and pigs, and grew crops on a small scale, mainly barley and some wheat. They used some stone tools, but flint suitable for the manufacture of efficient stone tools is scarce in the Orkneys, so most of their tools were made from bone or wood. It is not known why the village was eventually abandoned. Three similar sites exist in the Orkneys.
Modern photographs of Skara Brae show a village dramatically situated on the shore. This impression is, however, misleading, and scientists believe that a rise in sea level since the Neolithic period in Orkney brought the ocean closer to the village. Sea level change may have reduced the amount of good quality farmland in the area, or in covering fields with slowly advancing sand dunes.
All the houses are well-built of closely-fitting flat stone slabs. They were set into large mounds of midden (household refuse) and linked by covered passages. Each house comprised a single room with a floor space of roughly 40sq m. that includes a large square room with a central fireplace, a bed on either side and a shelved dresser on the wall opposite the doorway. The ‘fitted’ stone furniture within each room comprised a dresser, where prized objects were probably stored and displayed, two box-beds, a hearth centrally placed and small tanks set into the floor, perhaps for preparing fish bait.
A rich array of artifacts and ecofacts includes gaming dice, hand tools, pottery and jewelry (necklaces, beads, pendants and pins). Most remarkable are the richly carved stone objects, perhaps used in religious rituals. The villagers were farmers, hunters and fishermen, capable of producing items of beauty and sophistication with rudimentary technology. No weapons have been found and the settlement was not in a readily defended location, suggesting a peaceful life.
The End of Village Life
Village life appears to have ended around 2,500 BC. No one knows why. Some argue that it was because a huge sandstorm engulfed their houses, others that it was more gradual. As village life came to an end, new monuments were beginning to rise up on mainland Orkney, including the chambered tomb at Maes Howe and the impressive stone circles at the Ring of Brodgar and Stenness.
In its lifetime, Skara Brae became embedded in its own rubbish and this, together with the encroaching sand dunes, meant the village was gradually abandoned. Thereafter, the settlement was gradually covered by a drifting wall of sand that hid it from sight for more than 40 centuries.
The houses of Skara Brae would seem to bear out the words of Thomas Jefferson regarding stone architecture: "The inhabitants of Europe, who dwell chiefly in houses of stone or brick, are surely as healthy as those of Virginia. These houses have the advantage too of being warmer in winter and cooler in summer than those of wood; of being cheaper in their first construction, where line convenient, and infinitely more durable. . . A country whose buildings are of wood, can never increase in its improvements to any considerable degree. There duration is highly estimated at 50 years. Every half century then our country becomes a tabula rasa, whereon we have to set out anew, as in the first moment of seating it. Whereas when buildings are of durable materials, every new edifice is an actual and permanent acquisition to the state, adding to its value as well as to its ornament.”
Skara Brae Turf Case Study (899 kb)
Skara Brae VSCG Case Study (157 kb)