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The Lost City of Skara Brae

The Lost City of Skara Brae

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The Orkney Isles don’t seem ideal for ancient people to settle and, indeed, flourish. The islands are often inhospitable now—even with modern technology and buildings—never mind 5,000 years ago. But settle they did, and we only know about this due to the very inhospitable nature of the islands. A bad storm in the winter of 1850 stripped away the earth that had come to cover this lost city.

Over the years, efforts to preserve this Neolithic village have faced challenges, from storms that threatened its existence to conservation attempts that inadvertently caused harm. Yet, its discovery and ongoing preservation efforts offer an invaluable glimpse into our ancestors’ lives, making Skara Brae a fascinating subject for anyone intrigued by history’s mysteries.

Discovered in 1850

In the winter of 1850, a series of wild storms would alter the landscape of the Orkney Islands and unveil a monumental piece of human history. As fierce winds stripped the grass from a high dune known as ‘Skerrabra’ beside the Bay of Skaill, they exposed not only an immense midden, or refuse heap, but also the ruins of ancient stone buildings. This discovery marked the first instance that the outside world became aware of the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, subsequently recognized as northern Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic settlement.

The uncovering of Skara Brae was nothing short of serendipitous. The village flourished centuries before even the first stones at Stonehenge were erected, providing an unparalleled glimpse into the Neolithic period. The fact that Skara Brae predated the Egyptian pyramids showcases the significant yet often overlooked advancements of Neolithic societies in Scotland.

Moreover, the degree of preservation observed at Skara Brae is particularly exceptional. Unlike many other ancient sites where only the foundations or partial structures remain, Skara Brae survives almost intact. The semi-subterranean design of the village buildings, characterized by their stone construction, has withstood the test of time, preserving the layout of each house and, astonishingly, the stone furniture within them. Thus, visitors today can walk through the village and gain insights into ancient life that are rare to find elsewhere.

The discovery of Skara Brae also initiated a shift in historical and archaeological perspectives toward Neolithic civilizations in northern Europe. Before this, much of prehistoric European history was largely interpreted through findings in Mediterranean regions. Skara Brae brought to light the complexity and ingenuity of societies far north of these areas, prompting a broader appreciation and understanding of prehistoric human achievements.

How was Skara Brae built?

The foundations of Skara Brae’s dwellings were set into the Earth, taking advantage of the natural insulation provided by the soil. This technique not only helped regulate the temperature within the homes but also offered protection against the harsh Orkney weather. Once the foundation was set, the builders constructed the walls and roofs using locally sourced stones.

If you have ever been to the Orkney Isles then you will know that they are barren, with no trees dotting the landscape. This isn’t a modern phenomenon but simply caused by the exposed nature of the site. This means that there were also no trees back when Skara Brae was first built, and we see this in the houses. They are built of stone, even the furniture is stone!

One of the homes at Skara Brae
One of the homes at Skara Brae

The walls were constructed from local sedimentary rock, and they are stacked on top of each other without any motar to bind them together. The rooves of the buildings have long disappeared, which means they must have been made from an organic material. Whalebone, driftwood, or even matted seaweed are some of the possibilities.

The layout of each home in Skara Brae was similarly advanced. Central hearths for cooking and warmth dominated the living spaces, indicating a communal lifestyle centered around the fire. Stone-built furniture, including beds and dressers, was integrated into the architecture of each dwelling, showcasing a priority on comfort and organization. This attention to interior design further underscores the advanced societal structure of the Neolithic inhabitants.

Access to the houses was through low passageways, requiring inhabitants to stoop or crawl to enter. This design choice was likely not defense mechanism against intruders, they were remote enough for this to likely not be a major concern. What is more likely is that is was a way to preserve heat within the homes and also shelter them against the elements.

The houses were connected

These subterranean passageways served multiple practical and social functions. They allowed inhabitants to move from one house to another without facing the harsh Orkney weather outside, particularly during winter. Given that the passage is about a meter high, just over 3 feet, and roofed with stone slabs, it was also more draught-proof, adding a layer of environmental protection.

Another fascinating feature is the door located on the outside of the passage, which could only be closed from the inside. This design likely served to protect the inhabitants from winter winds rather than as a defense mechanism against attackers.

Adjacent to this network of passageways, there existed a paved area that modern observers have nicknamed the “marketplace.” Though this name is not rooted in any archeological evidence, the presence of such a communal space hints at the social interactions that were a part of daily life in Skara Brae. Whether or not it served commercial purposes, this area provided a platform for the community to gather, exchange goods, or engage in social activities.

Moreover, the reconstructed passage in the modern representation of a Skara Brae house showcases much more headroom than its original counterpart. This adaptation makes the ancient settlement more accessible to visitors, allowing them to physically walk the paths of their Neolithic ancestors, albeit in a more comfortable manner.

One of the modern tunnels at Skara Brae
One of the modern tunnels at Skara Brae

Did Skara Brae invent the toilet?

The question of whether Skara Brae invented the toilet is a fascinating one, especially considering its age and level of preservation. The evidence suggests that the stone huts of Skara Brae were equipped with indoor drains, possibly used for sanitation purposes, marking a significant milestone in human history.

Allan Burnett, a historian and author, posits that Skara Brae could very well lay claim to having the world’s first indoor toilet. This claim is supported by the discovery that waste from these early indoor latrines was flushed away using water leading into channels that drained into the ocean.

That these were discovered indoors also shows how necessity really is the mother of invention. Faced with the prospect of going outside to an Orkney winter to do your business you too might have invented the indoor toilet!

Is Skara Brae Older Than Stonehenge?

Indeed, Skara Brae predates both Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids, making it one of the oldest settlements in British history. Archaeologists estimate that Skara Brae was inhabited more than 5,000 years ago, around 3200 BC. This timeline places it in the Neolithic, or New Stone Age period, a time when communities began to settle in one place, and farming and the construction of megalithic monuments became prevalent in Britain.

Stonehenge, in comparison, is believed to have been constructed between 3000 BC to 2000 BC, with the Egyptian pyramids of Giza dating back to around 2580 BC to 2560 BC. Skara Brae’s earlier date asserts its significance in providing insights into the life and technology of Neolithic society before the construction of these famed structures.

How Big Was Skara Brae?

Skara Brae was a small but intricate settlement. Though the population estimates vary, it is believed that between 50 to 100 individuals lived in the village at any one time. This size is considerable, given the overall smaller populations during the Neolithic period. The settlement comprised eight stone-built houses, connected by a series of low, covered passages.

These houses were remarkably well-preserved, thanks in part to being buried under sand dunes shortly after the village was abandoned. Each house contained stone furniture, including beds, dressers, and storage areas, indicating a community that placed importance on domestic comfort and organization. Despite its small size, Skara Brae provides critical clues into the social structure, daily life, and architectural advancements of Neolithic peoples, showcasing a tightly knit community with sophisticated design sensibilities.

Visiting Skara Brae and Skaill House

Exploring Skara Brae and Skaill House presents a unique journey back in time, offering insights into Neolithic life on the Orkney Islands. Nestled on the windswept west coast of the Orkney Mainland, these sites serve as a window to an ancient world, shedding light on the lives of the people who resided there over 5,000 years ago.

Located approximately 20 minutes from Stromness and just over an hour from Kirkwall, Skara Brae’s accessibility makes it a must-visit for history enthusiasts and casual tourists alike. The drive itself, is picturesque, winding through Orkney’s stunning landscapes before arriving at the historical site. A parking area situated a short distance from the house offers convenient access, and from there, visitors can make their way to the beach or start their exploration of Skara Brae.

Skara Brae is open to the public all year round, although it’s important to note that the operating hours are reduced during the winter months. Meanwhile, Skaill House, which overlooks the ancient village and provides a markedly different architectural experience, is open only during the summer months due to heating costs. Guests are encouraged to check the Historic Environment Scotland website for up-to-date information on opening times and ticket prices before planning their visit.

Given the popularity of Skara Brae, especially during the summer when cruise ships dock in Kirkwall, it’s advisable to check the cruise ship schedules to avoid the busiest times. This ensures a more intimate and leisurely exploration of the site.

Upon arrival, visitors are greeted by the well-preserved remains of Skara Brae, revealing stone-built house interiors complete with furnishings that offer a glimpse into Neolithic domestic life. Informational plaques and an onsite visitor center enrich the experience, providing context and background to what is considered one of the best-preserved prehistoric villages in Northern Europe.

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