Before the pyramids began to rise along the NIle, before people devised ways to get the stones in place at Stonehenge, before temples of the Maya began to rise in the forests of the Yucatan, a village on an island far up in the North Sea had been thriving for generations.
This is Skara Brae.
While they kept no written records and did not build pyramids, the people of Skara Brae did build stone houses well suited to to the climate of the place. They raised families, hunted and fished, grew crops, and traded with folk in other places. People in Skara Brae, which in the southwest of the island now known as Mainland, in Orkney, off the northern coast of Scotland, did these things for six hundred years. Then they left.
People who remembered the place and the life there died off or left the area. The sand and the sea came in. Skara Brae was buried — for centuries. For tens of centuries, life went on. In 1850, one of the storms that sweep this part Orkney crashed across Skraill Bay. Grass was stripped from the high dune, a dune called Skara Brae, and the remains of stone houses were revealed.
The Laird of Skaill, William Watt, Live nearby. He was interested in archaeology and did some digging at that time. Other than his interest, though, the stone houses and the paths around them were mainly a local oddity, occasionally visited by people seeking treasure in the ruins or sight seers marveling at their strangeness. Watt’s heirs thought enough of the site to convey it to an agency of the UK government in the 1920s, though. Not long after, another severe storm pounded Skaill Bay, damaging some of the structures. A seawall was built, and interest grew in archaeologic excavation of the site. With stops and starts, archaeology has been carried out at the site since that time.
What has been learned of the people of Skara Brae and the life they lived? What remains that can be seen today?
One of the things that is worth reflection for me is that human hands put the stones in place to make these dwellings, in forms that human creativity designed. With drystone walls they created living spaces for their families, they built stone beds and dressers and other household things, they made space for their work — some five thousand years ago.
Life in these houses likely revolved around the central hearth, as a source of light and warmth. Stories were probably told there, meals cooked, songs sung, skills passed on.
They had no written language, so we don’t know words in their language or what their songs sounded like. What has survived tells us some things for certain, though, and leaves a lot more room for speculation.
The community evolved. We know that, as new buildings of slightly different design were built on top of older ones. They were settled farmers, it seems, as there’s evidence of cattle and of crops — and these formed part of their diet. Likely they wore clothing and footwaer made of animal skins. They made and enjoyed wearing jewelry. They knew how to build, how to live, and how to farm in their landscape. They traded with other settlements located in other parts of Orkney.
There are many theories about other aspects of what the community was like. It might have been larger: more buildings might lie beneath the waters of the bay. They revered ancestors it seems, but what part that played in their religion we don’t know. What were the roofs of their houses made of? What vegetables did they eat? Did they make bread from the barley and wheat whose seeds they left behind? Maybe, but nothing that could be identified as a baking oven has been found. Maybe they cooked oatcakes (a favorite in Orkney still today) over that hearthfire. What treasured possessions did they place in the stone areas called dressers? What was the purpose of the building and the central open area that are clearly not family dwellings?
Why did they leave? After six hundred years — more than twenty generations in one village — why did they leave?
There are several theories on this, too. For many years it was thought that a sudden catastrophic storm caused people to abandon Skara Brae. Another idea, one that to me makes more sense in light of archaeology, geography, and history, is that it was a confluence of environmental and social change.
Sand and salt and wind were overtaking the land in those times. Working the land was how these folk made their living, how they lived their lives. How people in the region connected with each other was changing too. Rather than the tight knit and physically connected life such as was lived at Skara Brae, people were turning to independent homesteads. These could have been powerful, gradual forces causing people to move away from Skara Brae, to seek better land and a different sort of life elsewhere.
These days, the site is managed by Historic Environment Scotland and is part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage site. There is a visitor center, with material giving context to history and archaeology. You may walk along paths in the site and look into these places where people carried out their lives and lived out their dreams five thousand years ago.
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