Footsteps from the past: the ancient village of Skara Brae

SCOTLAND'S towns and settlements are proud of their roots, but few can boast the antiquity of Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands.

Originally built around 3100BC to house a small group of Neolithic farming families, the abandoned houses with their stone dressers, beds and hearths provide a remarkable glimpse of a lifestyle that has long disappeared.

Of course the village developed slowly, as any village today, but Skara Brae is notable for the quality of its remains. The historic site still provides a powerful message, even for the 21st century visitor used to home comforts which the early Orcadians never knew.

Skara Brae today comprises eight well-preserved houses, with the remains of others below and around them; all but one are inter-connected by passages with stone roofs which must have provided much-needed shelter in the harsh Orcadian winters. The buildings are sub-circular, skilfully constructed using local stone, and there is considerable uniformity in their design. Each contains a single room with central hearth, a dresser opposite the low doorway and a bed to either side. Small cells were built into the walls, some of which provided storage while others have interconnected drains and may indicate early internal plumbing. Smaller fittings include stone seats and watertight tanks to keep shellfish and fish.

Scattered around the houses archaeologists found the usual clutter of everyday objects, now removed for safe keeping. At first it is hard to identify with the unfamiliar tools, but a closer glance reveals a world of finely decorated pottery, elaborate bone pins and needles, polished stone axes and sharp stone flakes that were set into hafts – or the handle of a weapon – as versatile implements.

A wealth of beads and fine pendants attest that life was not just a daily grind. There was leisure to provide for other needs and these included jewellery and art. Decorative motifs are scratched on to the stones of the houses and passages, and remains of haematite and ochre suggest that these were highly coloured.

Skara Brae lies on the coast and in winter it is not uncommon for waves to break over the site. But that has not always been so. When the houses were occupied the sea lay further off. There was a freshwater lochan, or pond, and small fields surrounded the settlement.

The inhabitants were farmers who cultivated barley and some wheat, and they kept cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. They supplemented their diet with wild birds and their eggs, fish, shellfish, fruits, berries and nuts gathered from the surrounding landscape.

Even 5000 years ago, however, the sea could be a problem. As the water gradually eroded its way towards the settlement, so too were the fields subject to increasing salt spray, and wind-blown sand. Farming became difficult and gradually the houses were abandoned as families left to seek more fertile land. With time the encroaching sand took its toll and by 2500BC the village lay buried, hidden and preserved as a veritable time capsule.

Skara Brae lay thus for over 4000 years until 1850 when a storm ripped off its protective covering to expose the ruins once more. Since then the site has provided a fertile base for archaeological research that continues today.

The surviving material from the site is truly remarkable, even by the standards of a nation rich in archaeological remains such as Scotland. Favourable preservation means that unusual details like fungi - probably collected as medicine - and rope have survived. This has played an important part in the development of Scotland’s contribution to world archaeology. In addition, the continual development of new techniques mean that the contribution of Skara Brae is not over. Research work is still taking place that broadens our understanding of the site and of sites elsewhere.

In Orkney, Skara Brae was not alone. Similar Neolithic village sites are known, and people can also visit the ritual circles of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. Likewise, it is possible to enter Neolithic tomb buildings such as Maeshowe. Together these monuments provide a comprehensive view of life 5000 years ago, and in 1999 this was recognised when they were accorded World Heritage Status.

Caroline Wickham-Jones is an archaeologist who lives and works in Orkney.

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