19 August 2015

Research: Orkney 2 - Neolithic Skara Brae

After leaving the Neolithic megaliths of the Stones of Stennes and the Ring of Brodgar - see HERE -  we drove a few miles up the road to face the Atlantic Ocean at Bay of Skaill, a wide expanse of silver sand between two headlands. Partway along, now protected from the eroding ocean and its storms by a retention wall, is the best preserved Stone Age village in northern Europe, Skara Brae.

Neolithic World Heritage site Skara Brae, Bay of Skaill, Orkney

Ten distinct buildings survive. Aerial photographs show a scree of debris reaching into the sea, so the village could have been larger. The buildings, constructed in three distinct phases over the 5-600 years of occupation, are of a similar layout and most a decent family size. Everything visible is constructed from stone, either collected cobbles or the local sandstone split to size, much as were the megaliths mentioned above.

A covered and paved passageway linked the partially subterranean buildings, and each has a doorway that could be barred from inside. Across the fire-pit/hearth stands a three-shelved 'dresser'. Around it are a pair of grinding stones, 'boxes' capable of storing live seafood in water, and a container for (probably) fresh water. Two stone-faced bedding units face each other. Most buildings also have an alcove, or a small ante-chamber built into one wall. 

Skara Brae was uncovered from the sand dunes in 1850 after a particularly fierce storm and over succeeding years was gradually dug out. At the time it was believed to be an Iron Age Pictish settlement circa 500BC, a view that remained well into the 20th century, despite the furnishings material and no sign of any iron-working. After all, regardless of the evidence of the megaliths not far away, Neolithic peoples couldn't possibly be this refined, could they?

Part of still-covered passageway connecting the houses
It wasn't until the early 1970s that modern archaeology and radiocarbon dating finally blew this tenacious theory into the ocean. Not only is Skara Brae 4,500-5,000 years old, that small ante-chamber in most of the buildings had a water-fed drain in its floor and is considered to be the earliest inside flushing toilet.

Artefacts discovered on site include jewellery and clothing pins, and an assortment of bone and stone items not easily recognised. Also found have been a lot of antler from Scandinavia, jet from the North Yorkshire coast of England, and amber from the Baltic region, as well as pottery with designs seen at the Newgrange Neolithic site in the Boyne Valley of Ireland. As our guide said: Think of the logistics, both in communication and transport - Wow!

Other posts in this Research series:
Orkney 2: Skara Brae
Faroe Islands: Mountains, Fjords & Vikings  

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