Skara Brae

Skara Brae


Skara Brae (pronEng|ˈskɑrə ˈbreɪ) is a large stone-built Neolithic settlement, located on the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of mainland Orkney, Scotland. It consists of ten clustered houses, and was occupied from roughly 3100-2500BC. It is Europe's most complete Neolithic village and the level of preservation is such that it has gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status. [It is one of four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Scotland, the others being the Old Town and New Town of Edinburgh; New Lanark in South Lanarkshire; and St Kilda in the Western Isles.]

Discovery and Features of Skara Brae

Until 1850, Skara Brae lay under years of soil sediment, when in the winter of that year a large storm stripped the grass from the large mound known as Skerrabra.

The outline of several stone buildings was revealed and initial excavations were undertaken by William Watt, the laird of Skaill. It was fully excavated between 1928 and 1930 by Vere Gordon Childe following another storm in 1926.

Skara Brae's inhabitants were apparently makers and users of grooved ware. The houses used earth sheltering but, being sunk into the ground, they were built into mounds of pre-existing domestic waste (rubbish) known as "middens". Although the midden 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. On average, the houses measure 40 square metres in size with a large square room containing a large hearth which would have been used for heating and cooking. As few trees grow on the island, the people of Skara Brae used driftwood and whalebone, with turf thatch, to roof their dwellings.

The dwellings contain a number of stone-built pieces of furniture, including cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes. A sophisticated drainage system was even incorporated into the village's design, one that included a primitive form of toilet in each dwelling. 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 anyone entering the dwelling would see. The eighth house has no storage boxes or dresser, but has been divided into something resembling small cubicles. When this house was excavated, fragments of stone, bone and antler were found. It is possible that this building was used as a workshop to make simple tools such as bone needles or flint axes. [cite book | last = Beck | first = Roger B. | authorlink = | coauthors = Linda Black, Larry S. Krieger, Phillip C. Naylor, Dahia Ibo Shabaka, | title = World History: Patterns of Interaction | publisher = McDougal Littell | date = 1999 | location = Evanston, IL | pages = | url = | doi = | id = | isbn = 0-395-87274-X ]

The site provided the earliest known record of the human flea "Pulex irritans" in Europe. [Buckland, Paul C. and Sadler, Jon P. "Insects" in Edwards, Kevin J. & Ralston, Ian B.M. (Eds) (2003) "Scotland After the Ice Age: Environment, Archaeology and History, 8000 BC - AD 1000". Edinburgh. Edinburgh University Press.]

Radiocarbon evidence indicates Skara Brae was occupied from about 3100 BC, for about six hundred years. Around 2500 BC, after the climate changed, turning much colder and wet, the settlement may have been abandoned by its inhabitants. There are many theories as to why the people of Skara Brae suddenly left, but there is no solid evidence suggesting why this occurred.

Although the visible buildings give an impression of an organic whole, it is certain that an unknown quantity of additional structures had already been lost to sea erosion before the site's rediscovery. Uncovered remains are known to exist immediately adjacent to the ancient monument, in areas presently covered by fields, and others, of uncertain date, can be seen eroding out of the cliff edge a little to the south of the enclosed area. A substantial stone-built sea-wall protects the uncovered remains from continuing erosion.Fact|date=October 2007

Related sites in Orkney

A comparable — if smaller — site exists at Rinyo on Rousay. Unusually, no Maeshowe-type tombs have been found on Rousay and although there are a large number of Orkney-Cromarty chambered cairns, these were built by unstan ware people.

Knap of Howar on the Orkney island of Papa Westray, is a well preserved Neolithic farmstead. Dating from 3500 BC to 3100 BC, 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. [ [ "The Knap o' Howar, Papay"] . Orkneyjar. Retrieved on 5 September 2007.]

World Heritage status

Infobox World Heritage Site
WHS = Heart of Neolithic Orkney

State Party = flag|United Kingdom
Type = Cultural
Criteria = i, ii, iii, iv
ID = 514
Region = Europe and North America
Year = 1999
Session = 23rd
Link =
‘The Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ was inscribed as a World Heritage site in December 1999. In addition to Skara Brae the site includes Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness and other nearby sites. It is managed by Historic Scotland, whose 'Statement of Significance' for the site begins:

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. [ [ "The Heart of Neolithic Orkney"] . Historic Scotland. Retrieved on 5 September 2007.]

Contemporary culture

*The children's novel "Il tesoro di Skara Brae" by Diletta Nicastro, is the second episode of the series "The world of Mauro & Lisi" , a saga set in Skara Brae and other Neolithic sites in the area. [Nicastro, Diletta (2007) "Il tesoro di Skara Brae". Milano. Passepartout Edizioni.]
*The children's novel "The Boy with the Bronze Axe" by Kathleen Fidler is set during the last days of Skara Brae. [Fidler, Kathleen (2005) "The Boy with the Bronze Axe". Edinburgh. Floris Books. ISBN 9780863154881]
*Skara Brae is briefly mentioned in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, when Indiana Jones is lecturing at Marshall College at the beginning of the movie. []
* A stone was unveiled in Skara Brae on April 12, 2008 marking the anniversary of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbiting the Earth in 1961. [ Orkney site marks space race date] , BBC News, April 12, 2008. Accessed April 21, 2008.] [ Prehistoric honour for first man in space] By John Ross, The Scotsman, Edinburgh, April 12, 2008. Accessed April 21, 2008.]

See also

* Ring of Brodgar
* Maeshowe
* World Heritage Sites in Scotland
* Timeline of prehistoric Scotland


External links

* [ Historic Scotland Official Website]
* [ Orkneyjar]

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