Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Skara Brae

It is about time I began writing more posts. I have recently returned from a wee trek up north on the isle of orkney. So I thought it might be pertinent to write about one of the Orkneys most infamous sites, Skara Brae.

Neolithic remains of Skara Brae - Photo by Dave Migman

Looking out across Skaill Bay over the isolated and so-called 'artisan's house' - Pic By Dave Migman

Here you can see the so-called 'dresser' - possibly a space for religious items? Pic by Dave Migman

Skaill Bay, the water would have been further back 4000 years ago - pic Dave Migman

Skara Brae was discovered in the mid 1800’s after a terrible storm revealed ancient stone walls in the sandy dunes of Skaill bay. Eventually it was excavated,  under the premise of clearing the site for tourists, so the archaeologically was a bit crude. For some time it was even thought of as a Pictish village, however the site predates the Picts by a few thousand years. 

The site actually dates back to around 3200 BC, though the remains visible today date from around 2,600 BC, and the village was abandoned not so long afterward. Skara Brae appears to have been in use over a period of 600 years. The climate was slightly warmer and the sea levels were lower back in those days. The inhabitants kept cattle and sheep, they grew barley and foraged. They probably harvested much from the ocean too. 

From the remains found on the site it is clear that a certain level of conformity exists in the style and design of the dwellings, their furnishings etc. This might be due to any number of reasons, including the site being a religious place, or where leaders lived, or even that it belonged to artisans. 

We are dealing with the past here, we can find material data, but can only speculate as to their usage. However it is interesting to note that there were no defensive walls and no weaponry was found at the site.  That suggests a less warlike society, or perhaps one in which conflict was less likely.

Here you can see the sectioned off bed-pits and the central hearth - pic Dave Migman

Close-up of a 'dresser - pic Dave Migman

What remains of the site consists of several thick walled circular areas with cells and passages radiating from each central room. Originally these dwelling were probably free standing, but in time the dwellings became submerged and the passages between them were covered to protect from the elements. Each had a stone ‘dresser’ which may of housed religious artefacts and slab lined pits for cooking (the inhabitants possibly boiled water with heated rocks) as well as sections that would have been filled with bracken and hides for sleeping in. It is clear that part of the village has been washed away by the ocean, so exactly how big the village was remains a mystery.

Anyone who has visited the island will know that Orkney has plenty of building material, and ready-made slabs of varying size are easily sourced from around the coast. 

Carvings have been found both on the actual buildings and in artefacts discovered by archaeologists, on fragments of pottery and bone -  Neolithic forms that are also found from other contemporary sites in Britain and Ireland. Diagonal lines forming triangles and diamond motifs, sometimes accompanied by spirals. See the picture for the similarity in motif from different locations. This is something close to my heart as , for me, this re-occuring design indicates that it was a symbol, rather than just a pattern for decorative sake. The two diamonds and attendant spirals may hint at a well-formed concept and what this concept was obviously known in other places too.* 

Fragment of 'grooved' ware pottery from site.

The same design from Skara Brae
Spiral and diamonds from Newgrange, Ireland.

We should not see the peoples of Skara Brae living in isolation. They used haematite from the isle of Hoy, and collected/traded other materials from the mainland of Scotland. Even back then, 4000 years ago, Orkney was part of a thriving community with links to other parts of Britian. 

House Interior - Pic Dave Migman

So little is currently known about Neolithic society in general, and at Skara Brae several enigmatic artefacts have turned up, including  strange stone balls, often carved of  volcanic stone, which, for a peoples without metal tools, must have taken ages - to carve and to polish. Some of these items are very geometric, and others have been found at locations in the north of Scotland. They have an air of mystery about them. Were they merely status objects? Were they weapons? Or did they perhaps serve some religious function? It could be that an item originally serving religious purpose may well, over time, become a symbol of status, even after ancient customs were superseded by new ways. 

Stone objects

For those wishing to find out more I recommend a visit to the site. The reconstructed dwelling  is amazing and really gives you a sense of how the interior must have been  all those thousands of years ago.

We still don’t know why the site was abandoned - a mighty storm? A plague? or simply that the people moved to another site (archaeologists are discovering numerous ‘village’ sites from the same period, and single stone hut dwellings have been discovered, like the one near The Tomb Of The Eagles, which may have served a communal function). 

Although other Neolithic communities from sites in Britain began to embrace the new bronze making technologies, brought from overseas, no such finds have been discovered in the vicinity of Skara Brae,  suggesting to some that the community perhaps did not take up bronze and therefore declined. Eventually the site was abandoned and in time it was claimed by the winds and sands, to be buried in time. 

Here you see that only the lowest walls remain - pic Dave Migman

* this is quite an interesting wee article: Skara Brae Spiral


Skara Brae - Historic Scotland

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