Skara Brae

Cool Storage Solutions have been around for many years… well about 5000 at Skara Brae if you need a number.

What a discovery

The striking thing about Orkney’s Skara Brae is how familiar everything is. From the moment you walk into one of the houses you immediately recognise and understand how it works. Despite the 5000 years separation you immediately recognise the hearth at the centre of the plan, the stone cots on either side, and the dresser opposite the entrance displaying the family possessions. It is so easy to imagine your Orkney family gathered around the fire on stormy nights, faces illuminated in the flickering fire, laughing and telling tales of beached wales and wild aurochs. But we would not have known any of this had it not been for a spot of inclement weather.

The guide books tell you that in the winter of 1850, a great storm battered Orkney. And while ferocious storms are no stranger to Orkney, on this occasion, the combination of wind and extremely high tides washed away part of a large mound, then known as “Skerrabra”.

What was revealed was the outline of a number of stone buildings that would eventually be acknowledged as the best preserved prehistoric village in Northern Europe.

In 1868, after the remains of four ancient houses had been unearthed, work at Skerrabra was abandoned. The settlement remained undisturbed until 1925, when another storm damaged some of the previously excavated structures and the archaeological work recommenced. Excavations at Skara Brae have continued up to the present day.

Skara Brae in context

Orkney has been inhabited since arrival of Mesolithic hunter-gathers at the end of the last ice age some 9000 years ago but little trace of these first inhabitants can be found. In contrast the later Neolithic communities who farmed in Orkney left prominent sites like like Skara Brae, Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar. Unlike may other parts of the UK where timber provided a natural and plentiful building material on Orkney a unique set of circumstances such as the common use of stone as a building material has meant that we can see the most complete evidence of daily life in the Orkneys in the late Neolithic era compared to any settlement of this period in Europe.

Radiocarbon dating in the early 1970s confirmed that the Skara Brae settlement dates from the late Neolithic and was inhabited for around 600 years from 3200BC to 2200BC. Recent research suggests that Neolithic Orkney was prosperous and important with wide reaching connections.

During this time Stonehenge would be built, the Aegean and Mesopotamian civilisation flourished, the Old Kingdom of Egypt built the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. And within a two hundred years in China craftsmen would start to produce the bronze castings that would define an age.

The Village

But back in land of long winter nights, because of the protection offered by the sand that covered the Skara Brae for 4,000 years, the buildings, and their contents, are incredibly well-preserved. 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.

The houses are organised along a narrow winding and covered path and from which the dwellings are directly accessed. Sheltered from wind and rain inhabitants and visitors would have experienced the settlement in the same way. And in addition to the houses there is also what has been identified as a workshop, a ritual room and the end of the passageway leads onto an open space dubbed ‘the marketplace’ by early archaeologists – where tasks could be done in a social setting. This array of different building type would suggest the need for different tools and special objects and indeed a rich array of artefacts including gaming dice, hand tools, pottery and jewellery have been found.

The houses themselves were virtually identical in layout which meant that, on passing each door, the visitor was immediately aware of the central hearth with the fire burning, and the stone dresser illuminated by firelight. In the houses, between the hearth and the dresser there is sometimes a large stone seat where the revered occupant would be illuminated and visible to visitors.

The House

On visiting the dwellings today it is clear that the dresser and its contents were the first object that would have been encountered upon entering the house. If, as has been suggested, the dresser’s contents represented the status of the owner, its position could have communicated the fact to any visitor before they even crossed the threshold. Each house followed this formula. A large square room of about 36 M2 with walls up to ten feet high providing plenty headroom and the floors were paved.

A hearth occupied the centre of the plan with stone beds to left and right and a stone dresser opposite. To the immediate left of the entrance a stone screen makes an anti-clockwise movement around the hearth the natural entrance route passing on the right what are thought to be the larger male cots with the screened female cots on the opposite side where evidence suggests domestic activities were undertaken. A lot of this is of course merely gender specific conjecture.

There is also conjecture about why the house sizes are the same. It is has been suggested that an egalitarian community was at the route of this, but it is equally as likely that roof technology was the determining factor. However the roof was spanned and waterproofed, whether it be with wale bones or drift wood and turf, in a treeless Orkney environment, there were surely few options. And, however it was done, it would have been at the edge of what was technically possible. For the roof finish Seaweed, weighed down with straw ropes attached to stones, remained a roofing material in Orkney into recent history.


The Artefact

The shortage of wood in Orkney, led the people of Skara Brae built with stone, the readily available material that could also be worked easily and used for the artefacts, tools and furniture. Accordingly all the houses are well built of closely-fitting flat stone slabs founded on layers of settlement remains or ‘midden’ forming a kind of hardcore foundation. The walls, still standing were up to ten feet high so there was plenty headroom and the floors were paved. However, the semi-sunken ground floor resulted in a semi-subterranean building group linked by a low passageway and the village would therefore have appeared as a low, round mound, broken only by the surface of each house’s roof. In environmental terms this would have been highly beneficial creating a well-insulated and sheltered world for the semi-sedentary Neolithic homesteader. Amazingly the houses had locking doors, and even rudimentary plumbing with slots in the walls to channel away wastes.

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.

At Skara Brae the importance of the artefacts and their display was symbolically expressed in the organisation of domestic space, as important in fact as the location of the hearth, or hart of the home, and the entrance. When you entered a house at Skara Brae you were immediately confronted opposite the entrance with the objects that defined the identity of those who lived there. Displayed to great effect on simple stone shelves set on simple stone uprights.

This human tendency to elevate simple everyday artefacts into objects of ritual and even spiritual importance was put it very succinctly by Deyan Sudjic in his book The Language of Things when he wrote ‘Objects are the way in which we measure out the passing of our lives. They are what we use to define ourselves, to signal who we are, and who we are not…sometimes it is our personal possessions and sometimes it is the furniture that we use in our home’.

At Skara Brae it was both, and that both survive enable you almost effortlessly to imagine yourself living that life all those years ago, on that treeless island, on long winter nights listening to tall tales confident in the knowledge of who you are and who you are not.

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