Skara Brae (HY232188), by the shore of the Bay of
Skaill on Orkney, is virtually unique. This remarkably well preserved
village is one of very few archaeological sites at which it is actually
possible to imagine the lifestyle of the inhabitants.
First revealed after a severe storm in 1850, this
prehistoric community was occupied for about six hundred years.
Radiocarbon dating suggests that the site was occupied before 3100
BC to a date around 2600 BC.
The group of six houses and a workshop is
connected by a covered close, and all of the buildings except
for the workshop were buried to the tops of the walls by midden.
This clay-like mixture of refuse consists of ashes, shells, bones,
sand, and other domestic detritus and has been a major factor in
protecting the site from erosion. It seems the occupants had built
the midden around their houses intentionally as an integral part
of the construction.
It appears to have been stored and used
deliberately rather than piled round existing houses. Damp-proof
courses had also been invented over 5,000 years ago. The foundations
of the houses have a layer of blue clay in the bottom course which
would have worked as well as polythene does today. At the time, 3000
BC, the Bay of Skaill may have been much smaller, with more sand dunes
and perhaps a freshwater loch behind the dunes. The village would have
been behind this lagoon amid pasture, much like that which exists
Abandonment was very likely caused by encroaching
sand, perhaps because of a great storm which set the sand dunes in
motion and overwhelmed the village in a short time, as at the sands
of Forvie more recently. However, it continued in use for some time
after this, as there were several occupation layers in the sand which
filled the houses.
The houses vary in size from over six metres square
to barely four metres square, with a maximum surviving wall height
of 2.4m. The designs are quite similar (was there a local builder
at work in Orkney in 3000 BC?), with beds, dressers, tanks in the
floor, cupboards in the walls, and cells off the main room. The
cells in some cases have drains, possibly for toilet purposes, and
are very similar to the cells in chambered cairns.