Brae - Neolithic
of the most remarkable discoveries in modern archaeology: in 1850
a violent storm ravaged the Bay of Skaill in the Orkney Isles to
the north-east of mainland Scotland, revealing the Neolithic village
of Skara Brae buried beneath the sand dunes. It is the best preserved
Neolithic village in northern Europe and it offers us a unique window
into the lives of the farmers who lived there between 3,100 and 2,450 BC.
Braes remarkable survival through the ages is
thanks to the design of the original builders who
buried the stone-slab walls up to roof level in clay
soil and waste material in order to provide insulation
and protection from the elements.
a tightly knit and communal village life was unusual in these early
farming communities, individual farmsteads being preferred, but
Skara Brae seems to have been a very close community with little
room for non-conformists. Every house has the same layout for roughly
a family-sized living space.
entry to any of the houses, one has to crouch through a small doorway
which would have been blocked by a slab of stone and possibly barred
as well. This shows that security was important to the dwellers,
but that privacy for the family unit was also very important. The
layout of Skara Brae, whilst being very much geared towards a community
settlement, makes this type of privacy possible.
each house has a large floor space with a central
hearth where no doubt the fire was always burning.
Since the main source of timber on Orkney was driftwood
from the forests of North America, most of the furniture
was made of stone and has survived well leaving many
clues to these peoples lifestyles. Opposite
the doors, large, stone dressers are still intact,
where objects of importance could be displayed, but
secret spaces have also been found under the stone
dresser for those objects the families were less keen
to display. On
either side of the living space were stone beds, which
would have been filled with bracken and heather, and
covered with animal skins.
villagers were farmers, raising large cattle and sheep
and growing a little barley. Their diet contained
many foods which would be regarded as luxuries today.
Venison from deer imported to Orkney. Meat and eggs
from seabirds like the Great Auk. Oysters, crabs,
cockles and mussels, as well as giant cod and saithe
from the sea. Strangely, no fishing equipment was
discovered when the village was excavated, but water-tight
tanks in the floor of each house were probably designed
to hold limpets for fish bait.
Just outside the complex of houses, a workshop stands
on its own where chert - a local flint substitute -
was made into stone tools. Also, volcanic pumice,
washed up on Orkneys beaches from Iceland, was
used to shape bone tools. In good years, they lived
well with some leisure time; and they made works of
art like bone necklaces and the mysterious stone balls
carved from hard volcanic rock.
Very few other signs of settlement from the late Neolithic
Age remain to us, probably due to their timber construction,
but the inhabitants of Orkney, being dependent on
stone for construction, have left us a valuable door
into their world.
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