Skara Brae

In the winter on 1850 a wild storm stripped the grass from the high dune known as Skara Brae in the Bay of Skaill on mainland Orkney. An immense midden or refuse heap was uncovered. So too were the ruins of ancient dwellings. What came to light in that storm proved to be the best preserved neolithic village in northern Europe. The village of Skara Brae was inhabited before the Egyptian pyramids were built and flourished many centuries before construction began at Stonehenge. It is some 5000 years old. The structures of this semi-subterranean village survive in impressive condition as does the furniture in the village houses.

Skara Brae had two phases. Most of what we see belongs to the second and later phase of the village. Below that are the remains of an earlier village laid out on a different plan. The doorway and stump of wall below on the edge of the settlement which is no exposed is part of the earlier village because its built on a lower level. To see more would mean further excavation but to do that would mean destoying a large part of House 4.

Skara Brae House 1
This shows the basic layout of all the houses in the village.The door is beneath you. Opposite is the dresser - around the dresser , set into the floor are three small tanks for preparing fish bait. Just to the right of the dresser is a large grinding stone. In the centre is the hearth. Between the hearth and the dresser is a stone seat. On either side of the house are box beds. Above the beds,

set into the walls are further storage spaces. Yet more storage is provided by cells or alcoves set into the thickness of the walls

Skara Brae House 2

Skara Brae House 3

Skara Brae House 4

Skara Brae House 5
The cells or alcoves set into the thickness of the walls can be seen more clearly in House 5. The cell behind the not so well preserved dresser is typical of many in the houses. Blocked by what was stored in the dresser , access to this cell would have been difficult - and so things could have been stored here quite securely.

Skara Brae House 7
This is the best preserved of all the houses. Its dresser, box beds, hearth and storage spaces are all standard features of Skara Brae houses. The penned off area by the doorway was probably used for storing large pots. The reconstructed house at the visitor centre is based on house 7.

Skara Brae House 9
This is one of the earlier phase houses which is preserved as there is no later house built on top of it. Here you can see the central hearth , remains of a dresser and beds on either side. The beds are set into the thickness of the wall rather than projecting from them. This is the only difference between the earlier and later phases of building.

Skara Brae House 10
This is one of the earlier phase buildings but is much less well-preserved as House number 9. It has been badly robbed out - maybe to provide building stone for the later village.

Skara Brae - Furniture
The furniture in the village houses was largely made of stone for two related reasons - Firstly, Orkney , then as now, was almost without trees - secondly the nature of the local flagstone, its ready availability and workability makes it ideal construction material for most purposes. The Beds Today we see only the skeletons of the peoples box beds, the stone remains. Usually the beds have cupboards set into the wall above them

The Dresser In each house the dresser faces the door and dominates your view as you enter. This may have been a simple storage unit. There is a stone seat in front of the dresser in the best preserved houses.

Central Hearth In the centre of the house between the door and the dresser is the hearth. But what did the people burn in it? While there is plenty of usable peat in Orkney today, this did not form until several centuries after the settlement was abandoned.

The Boxes Set into the floors of the houses, near the hearth are stone boxes. The joints of these were luted cemented with clay - to make them watertight.

The Cells These are cupboards, alcoves or compartments recessed into the walls of the houses and vary in size and ease of access. Most of these are storage spaces. Some cells have drains running under them but because the drains cant be mapped properly without demolishing buildings its cant be said for sure that every house had one. Insofar as the excavation of the drains which has been possible it may be that we are seeing one of the earliest comprehensice systems of indoor sanitation.

The Doors The doors were not hinged. You can still see the two doorstops, one projecting from the floor, the other from the ceiling of the entrance passage. The door itself was a slab of stone large enough to fill the entrance gap. The door was pinned against the projecting stops by a bar crossing behind it and fitting into slots in the wall of the entrance passage which allowed the door to be opened or closed. The bars were made of whalebone or wood.

Skara Brae - Artefacts
Bone points and polishers - these bone points could have been used for punching holes and stitching leather but they could also have been used for teasing out crab meat. Some of the bone points are round and blunt - they may have been used for polishing leather

Serrated slab - this stone tool with a serrated edge was found on a shelf in one of the houses, It is not clear exactly what it was used for. The teeth are too thick to be a saw, but it is possible it was used to separate grains of barley from their stems.

Bone blades- These polished bone blades may have been used to scrape animal skins - but they may also have been used as cutting tools

Special stone objects - probably used in religious rites - around 400 or so of these have been found across Scotland. They have no obvious practical use and so its thought they have a spiritual or symbolic purpose.

Grinding stone

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