Skara Brae

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UNESCO World Heritage Site
Heart of Neolithic Orkney
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
Skara Brae, looking north
TypeCultural
Criteriai, ii, iii, iv
Reference514
UNESCO regionEurope and North America
Inscription history
Inscription1999 (23rd Session)
 
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UNESCO World Heritage Site
Heart of Neolithic Orkney
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
Skara Brae, looking north
TypeCultural
Criteriai, ii, iii, iv
Reference514
UNESCO regionEurope and North America
Inscription history
Inscription1999 (23rd Session)

Skara Brae /ˈskærə ˈbr/ 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 BCE2500 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.[1]

Discovery and early exploration[edit]

In the winter of 1850, a severe storm hit Scotland causing widespread damage and over 200 deaths.[2] In the Bay of Skaill, the storm stripped the earth from a large irregular knoll, known as "Skerrabra". When the storm cleared, local villagers found the outline of a village, consisting of a number of small houses without roofs.[2][3] 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.[3] 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.[2] 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.[2] 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.[2]

Neolithic lifestyle[edit]

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.[4] 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. 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. Given the number of homes, it seems likely that no more than fifty people lived in Skara Brae at any given time.[5]

Excavated dwellings at Skara Brae

It is by no means clear what fuels the inhabitants used in the stone hearths. Gordon Childe was sure that the fuel was peat,[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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".[9] 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.[10] The discovery of beads and paint-pots in some of the smaller beds may support this interpretation. (Central Asian yurt dwellings have an identical internal spatial gender assignment, central fire and storage chest opposite the entrance.[citation needed]) 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.[11] 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.[12]

Evidence of home furnishings

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.[13] The presence of heat-damaged volcanic rocks and what appears to be a flue, support this interpretation. House 8 is distinctive in other ways as well. It is a stand-alone structure not surrounded by midden,[14] instead there is a "porch" protecting the entrance through walls that are over 2 metres (6.6 ft) thick.

The site provided the earliest known record of the human flea Pulex irritans in Europe.[15]

The Grooved Ware People who built Skara Brae were primarily pastoralists who raised cattle and sheep.[6] 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.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18] Graham and Anna Ritchie cast doubt on this interpretation noting that there is no archaeological evidence for this claim,[19] although a Neolithic "low road" connects Skara Brae with the magnificent chambered tomb of Maeshowe, passing near both of these sites.[20] Low roads connect Neolithic ceremonial sites throughout Britain.

View over the settlement, showing covering to house No. 7 and proximity to modern shore line. The glass roof has now been replaced by a turf one, as the humidity and heat caused by the glass roof was hindering preservation.

Dating and abandonment[edit]

Originally, Childe believed that the settlement dated from around 500 BCE.[6] 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[21] with occupation continuing for about six hundred years.[22] 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:

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.[23]

Anna Ritchie strongly disagrees with catastrophic interpretations of the village's abandonment:

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.[24]

The site was farther from the sea than it is today, and it is possible that Skara Brae was built adjacent to a freshwater lagoon protected by dunes.[21] 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.[25] 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.

Artifacts[edit]

Symbols found at Skara Brae and other Neolithic sites.

A number of enigmatic Carved Stone Balls have been found at the site and some are on display in the museum.[26] Similar objects have been found throughout northern Scotland. The spiral ornamentation on some of these "balls" has been stylistically linked to objects found in the Boyne Valley in Ireland.[27][28] Similar symbols have been found carved into stone lintels and bed posts.[6] These symbols, sometimes referred to as "runic writings", have been subjected to controversial translations. For example, Castleden suggested that "colons" found punctuating vertical and diagonal symbols may represent separations between words.[29]

Lumps of red ochre found here and at other Neolithic sites have been interpreted as evidence that body painting may have been practiced.[30] Nodules of haematite with highly polished surfaces have been found as well; the shiny surfaces suggest that the nodules were used to finish leather.[31]

Other artifacts excavated on site made of animal, fish, bird, and whalebone, whale and walrus ivory, and killer whale teeth included awls, needles, knives, beads, adzes, shovels, small bowls and, most remarkably, ivory pins up to 10 inches (25 cm) long.[32] These pins are very similar to examples found in passage graves in the Boyne Valley, another piece of evidence suggesting a linkage between the two cultures.[33] So-called Skaill knives were commonly used tools in Skara Brae; these consist of large flakes knocked off sandstone cobbles.[34] Skaill knives have been found throughout Orkney and Shetland.

The 1972 excavations reached layers that had remained waterlogged and had preserved items that otherwise would have been destroyed. These include a twisted skein of heather, one of a very few known examples of Neolithic rope.[35] and a wooden handle.[36]

Related sites in Orkney[edit]

A comparable, though smaller, site exists at Rinyo on Rousay. Unusually, no Maeshowe-type tombs have been found on Rousay and although there are a large number of Orkney–Cromarty chambered cairns, these were built by unstan ware people.

Knap of Howar on the Orkney island of Papa Westray, is a well preserved Neolithic farmstead. Dating from 3500 BCE to 3100 BCE, it is similar in design to Skara Brae, but from an earlier period, and it is thought to be the oldest preserved standing building in northern Europe.[37]

There is also a site currently under excavation at Links of Noltland on Westray that appears to have similarities to Skara Brae.[38]

World Heritage status[edit]

"The Heart of Neolithic Orkney" was inscribed as a World Heritage site in December 1999. In addition to Skara Brae the site includes Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness and other nearby sites. It is managed by Historic Scotland, whose 'Statement of Significance' for the site begins:

The monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae proclaim the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places. They were approximately contemporary with the mastabas of the archaic period of Egypt (first and second dynasties), the brick temples of Sumeria, and the first cities of the Harappa culture in India, and a century or two earlier than the Golden Age of China. Unusually fine for their early date, and with a remarkably rich survival of evidence, these sites stand as a visible symbol of the achievements of early peoples away from the traditional centres of civilisation.[39]

Contemporary culture[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

^a It is one of four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Scotland, the others being the Old Town and New Town of Edinburgh; New Lanark in South Lanarkshire; and St Kilda in the Western Isles

References[edit]

  1. ^ Hawkes 1986, p. 262
  2. ^ a b c d e Bryson 2010
  3. ^ a b "Skara Brae: The Discovery of the Village". Orkneyjar. Retrieved 29 September 2012.
  4. ^ Darvill 1987, p. 85
  5. ^ Hedges 1984, p. 107
  6. ^ a b c d Childe 1931
  7. ^ Keatinge & Dickson 1979
  8. ^ Fenton 1978, pp. 206–209
  9. ^ Childe & Simpson 1952, p. 21
  10. ^ Laing 1974, p. 61
  11. ^ Ritchie 1995, p. 32
  12. ^ Childe & Clarke 1983, p. 9
  13. ^ Beck et al. 1999
  14. ^ Clarke & Sharples 1985, p. 66
  15. ^ Buckland & Sadler 2003
  16. ^ Laing 1974, p. 54
  17. ^ Childe & Clarke 1983, p. 10
  18. ^ MacKie 1977
  19. ^ Ritchie 1981, pp. 51–52
  20. ^ Castleden 1987, p. 117
  21. ^ a b Childe & Clarke 1983, p. 6
  22. ^ Castleden 1987, p. 47
  23. ^ Hadingham 1975, p. 66
  24. ^ Ritchie 1995, p. 29
  25. ^ Clarke & Sharples 1985, p. 58
  26. ^ "Carved-Stone Balls at Skara Brae". Retrieved 2011-11-03. 
  27. ^ Laing 1982, p. 137
  28. ^ Piggott 1954, p. 329
  29. ^ Castleden 1987, p. 253
  30. ^ Burl 1976, p. 87
  31. ^ Ritchie 1995, p. 18
  32. ^ Clarke & Sharples 1985, pp. 78–81
  33. ^ Ritchie 1981, p. 41
  34. ^ Ritchie 1995, p. 16
  35. ^ Burl 1979, p. 144
  36. ^ Hedges 1984, p. 215
  37. ^ "The Knap o' Howar, Papay". Orkneyjar. Retrieved 5 September 2007. 
  38. ^ Darvill 1987, p. 105
  39. ^ "The Heart of Neolithic Orkney". Historic Scotland. Retrieved 5 September 2007. [dead link]
  40. ^ Nicastro 2007
  41. ^ Fidler 2005
  42. ^ "Orkney site marks space race date". BBC News. April 12, 2008. Retrieved April 21, 2008. 
  43. ^ Ross, John (April 12, 2008). "Prehistoric honour for first man in space". Edinburgh: The Scotsman. Retrieved April 21, 2008. 
  44. ^ "About The Bard's Tale". thebardstale.com. Retrieved 3 November 2012.
  45. ^ "A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations". Retrieved 5 March 2013.

Bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 59°02′55″N 3°20′35″W / 59.04861°N 3.34306°W / 59.04861; -3.34306