Skara Brae

Click on the Pictures for a close-up view

Skara Brae is one of the most fascinating prehistoric sites in Scotland. It is on the western facing, Atlantic coast of Orkney. The remains of this prehistoric settlement were found in 1850 after a particularly bad storm had ripped turf away from the sand dunes on the edge of Skaill Bay. The fury of the storm revealed the remains of a group of remarkable stone houses. For the first time in almost 5,000 years the village was once more exposed to the light of day.

In 1924 the site was taken over by the Ministry of Works and a sea wall was built to hold back erosion of the shore line. In 1928 Prof Gordon Childe, of Glasgow University, excavated the site and stablised these important buildings.

Nobody is quite sure when Skara Brae was first inhabited, as it is clear from the excavations that the earliest of the surviving buildings (radio carbon dated to 3,215 BC) have been built on the foundations of much earlier ones. The most recent structures, however, were abandoned very suddenly. A small pile of bone beads was found strewn along the main passageway suggesting that the owner of the necklace had snapped its cord whilst rushing from house seven, and had no time to collect the dropped beads.

In one of the wall cupboards a horde of 2,400 inscribed beads and pendants that must have had great value, had been abandoned. Carbon dating says that this sudden evacuation happened around 2,655 BC.

This is the view from the village of Skara Brae out across the Skaill Bay.

The houses were all well equipped with all the furniture being hewn from stone.

These houses appear to be a stone age version of a modern housing estate, with a formalised regularity of layout.

Here is typical fireplace. Similar ones were found in most of the houses.

Some prehistoric architect appears to have planned the whole development so that they all had stone versions of modern conveniences inside each apartment.

They all have standardised stone cupboards, fireplaces, bedsteads, water tanks and seats.

Not all the houses have been equally well preserved but the essential feature of the central fireplace can be seen even in the more damaged houses.

The floors of most of the houses were covered with a rather disgusting gunge when they were excavated. This had been replaced by gravel.

The best preserved house has been fitted with a glass roof it protect it whilst allowing visitors to look down into it.

On the side of the bed in this house there is an inscription which might possibly be an early form of writing. (For a detailed discussion of this inscription see Uriel's Machine, p 190)

All the other houses are now open to the elements. They would have had a turf roof when they were occupied.

It is believed that there were once more houses in the village but these have been washed away during thousands of years of storms battering the seaward side.

This house is different in layout to the rest of the village and seems to have been used a some sort of workshop. Inside this house were a great number of heat treated rocks and a layer of well rotted organic material.

Here are some of the many heat crazed rocks found scattered around the floor of this building. These had been subjected to severe thermal shock but heating to red heat and then suddenly cooling. possibly by dropping into a tank of water. Doing this would have would have heated the water in the tank. 

This is a close up of a typical heat treated rock.

Archeologist Merryn Dinsley, of Manchester University has suggested that this 'workshop' house could have been a brewery, producing ale from malted spelt, flavoured with meadowsweet, instead of hops.

Merryn has analysed the gunge and found all the necessary components. Some of the houses were fitted with drains, which would have been useful in the brewing process. The reproduction Grooved Ware Beer she produced using Skara Brae technology was extremely tasty!

It is not clear where the inhabitants of Skara Brae got the fuel for their fires. When the village was a going concern, Orkney was open grassland with hardly any trees. There was no local supply of wood to burn on the many fireplaces of Skara Brae. Yet, from Childes's excavations, and the remains still on display in the 'workshop'  I knew they had sufficient fuel to heat volcanic rock to high enough temperatures to cause it to heat craze. And why build so many fireplaces, unless you intend to build fires! 

The suggested alternative fuels of cattle dung or sea weed do not have a high enough calorific value to achieve the temperatures needed to heat craze volcanic rock, or to fire the pottery they made. The peat burnt on Orkney today was not laid down until nearly a thousand years after Skara Brae was abandoned.

So, the villagers of Skara Brae either relied on drift wood from across the Atlantic to keep their eight fires and workshop furnace burning, or they imported wood from Caithness or Scandinavia.

A strange feature of Skara Brae, which has contributed to its preservation, is the layer of rubbish which accumulated outside the walls as high as the roof level.

Archaeologists call it 'midden material' and it is all the junk of the inhabitants for hundred of years, thrown outside to rot.

Once rotted it greatly enhanced the insulation and longevity of the buildings but how it must have stunk in high summer, when it was first deposited.

This is an advantage in allowing your rubbish to build up around your house though, it gives archaeologists a chance to come along thousands of years later and find out what you had for dinner.

The layers of midden in Skara Brae have been analysed and the inhabitants mainly ate sheep and cattle, topped up with fish, oysters and a very occasional side of pork.

Archeologist Euan Mackie noticed that there are far more carcass bones than there are skulls to match them. The shortage of animal skulls shows that the people here imported pre-butchered carcasses.

But they certainly developed extremely high standards of Masonry.

There had to be a very good reason indeed to choose to live here when food and fuel had to be brought in. I wonder what it was?

Both the thoroughness of the design and the quality of building at this site are simply breathtaking.

When the Romans arrived the ancient inhabitants of Britain were barbarians who painted their naked bodies blue, but the city of Rome was two and a half thousand years in the future when Skara Brae had been built complete with its underground sewage disposal system.

Here is the pathway back towards the visitor centre and the exhibition hall. The Skara Brae Visitor Centre is a 'must see', if you are visiting Orkney. ( And if you haven't been there yet, it's a wonderful place to go)