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Issue 71 - Buildings in the sand

Scotland Magazine Issue 71
October 2013


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Buildings in the sand

Take a trip into Scotland's Neolithic past with one of Orkney's top visitor attractions

Orkney is famous for it history stretching back over centuries into the early mists of time. But what this string of islands plays host to, and displays incredibly well, is Neolithic buildings; the traces our ancestors left on the landscape loom close here. From the dramatic windswept stone circle of Brogar to the Viking graffitti left in the Maes Howe chambered cairn, the past is just at your fingertips here. Visiting some of these places can be a soul improving experience, connecting you with the land and the many footsteps of the people who have come before.

One of the most impressive of Orkney's ancient sites is Skara Brae. Older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids, this cluster of eight houses emerged from under the sands next to Skaill Bay after a severe storm in 1850.

Providing shelter for about 55 people, the beauty of Skara Brae is that you can see how they lived when the site was occupied, roughly from 3180 BC to 2500 BC. There are touching little things that are so recognisable, like the cupboards and the open fires for cooking forming the heart of the house.

There have been several debates about what the inhabitants would have used for fuel; the Orcadian peat beds we know today would not have formed until after Skara Brae was abandoned. The most likely thing would have been driftwood and animal dung, but there's evidence that dried seaweed may have been a significant source.
Although you cannot walk among the actual houses there is a recreation of one in the visitor centre. You get the feeling that, despite the weather outside, inside with a fire going these would be very homely dwellings.

Skara Brae's inhabitants were apparently makers and users of grooved ware, a distinctive style of pottery that appeared in northern Scotland not long before the establishment of the village. The houses used earth sheltering but, being sunk into the ground, they were built into mounds of pre-existing domestic waste known as middens. Although these provided the houses with a small degree of stability, its most important purpose was to act as a layer of insulation against Orkney's harsh winter climate.

The dwellings contain a number of stone-built pieces of furniture, including cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes. Each dwelling was entered through a low doorway that had a stone slab door that could be closed. A sophisticated drainage system was even incorporated into the village's design, one that included a primitive form of toilet in each dwelling; all mod cons of the time included one would hope. Seven of the houses have similar furniture, with the beds and dresser in the same places in each house. The dresser stands against the wall opposite the door, and would have been the first thing seen by anyone entering the dwelling, an early way of displaying the wealth of the inhabitants. The eighth house seems to have been some kind of workshop, turning out knives and other useful items for the community.

So what do we know about the people who lived in these houses. The Grooved Ware People who built Skara Brae were primarily pastoralists who raised cattle and sheep. It is uncertain whether they practised large scale agriculture, but some excavations in 1972 unearthed seed grains from a midden suggesting that barley was cultivated. Fish bones and shells are common in the middens indicating that dwellers supplemented their diet with seafood.

The site was farther from the sea than it is today, and it is possible that Skara Brae was built adjacent to a freshwater lagoon protected by dunes.

The inhabitants of Skara Brae seem to have been by no means alone. A comparable, though smaller, site exists at Rinyo on Rousay. At Knap of Howar on the Orkney island of Papa Westray, there is another well preserved Neolithic farmstead. Dating from 3500 BCE to 3100 BCE, it is similar in design to Skara Brae, but from an earlier period, and it is thought to be the oldest preserved standing building in northern Europe. There is also another site at Links of Noltland on Westray that appears to have similarities to Skara Brae. The question of why the settlement became abandoned still remains unresolved, some say we may never know the truth.

One thing we do know is that around 2500 BCE the climate began to change, becoming much colder and wetter. One of the more popular theories about the abandonment involves a major storm. As was the case at Pompeii, the inhabitants seem to have been taken by surprise and fled in haste, for many of their prized possessions, such as necklaces made from animal teeth and bone, or pins of walrus ivory, were left behind. Another popular myth has it that the village abandoned during a massive storm that threatened to bury it in sand instantly, but the truth is that its burial was gradual and that it had already been abandoned — for what reason, no one can tell.

"The Heart of Neolithic Orkney" was protected as a World Heritage site in December 1999, saving these and other monuments on the islands for posterity. In addition to Skara Brae the site includes Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness and other nearby sites. The Heart is managed by Historic Scotland, and vistor passes can be bought that link most of the sites.

The organisation's statement of significance for the site really sums up the global importance of these buildings clinging to the coast of Orkney: "The monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae proclaim the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places. They were approximately contemporary with the mastabas of the archaic period of Egypt (first and second dynasties), the brick temples of Sumeria, and the first cities of the Harappa culture in India, and a century or two earlier than the Golden Age of China. “Unusually fine for their early date, and with a remarkably rich survival of evidence, these sites stand as a visible symbol of the achievements of early peoples away from the traditional centres of civilisation."

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