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Geo-Joint: The Neolithic Neighborhood of Skara Brae

Posted on May 21 2019

The massive slabs of rock that form Stonehenge seem impossibly arranged, tons of weight seemingly placed on high by a giant’s hand. Nothing else compares with the pure volume of the stoneworks there. However, southern England wasn’t the only place big rocks were being moved around, and some of the best examples of the Neolithic cultures who created these displays can be found on a less well known island. Far to the north of the famous Stonehenge, fewer than ten miles above the northern end of the Scottish mainland, lie the Orkney Islands. They feature sheer ocean cliffs and some craggy hills, as well as many low, flat areas in their combined 382 square miles of chilly, windblown land. Long the home to farmers and fishermen, more recent years see its 21,000-plus people involved in a wider range of occupations, such as manufacturing and tourism. The Orkneys are closer than Scotland’s farthest-flung group, the Shetland Islands, but they’re definitely on the far margins of the British Isles. The Orkneys are in about 70 pieces, some not very big, and only 20 individual islands are permanently inhabited. The biggest of them is called, somewhat oxymoronically, Mainland Island. Eighty miles to the northeast, the Shetlands also feature a Mainland Island, just to confuse things. Orkney’s Mainland Island stands out as a national treasure for its well-preserved evidence of the lives and habits of Neolithic peoples who lived in this fairly harsh environment millennia ago.

The Orkneys sit just off the northern coast of the Scottish mainland.

Mainland lsland, rich with Neolithic sites, is by far the largest of the Orkneys.

Four sites on Mainland Island have fascinated and puzzled archaeologists for years. In no particular order, they are Maeshowe, a chambered tomb or cairn; the Stones of Stennes and the Ring of Brodgar, stone circles; and Skara Brae, a preserved housing settlement. Among them, Skara Brae may be the most amazing for its survival through the centuries, having been built between 3200 and 2200 BCE. Situated near the beach, some have claimed it only came to light after erosion from heavy storm surf revealed it in 1850, but it seems to have been noticed by travellers at least by 1769. Still, the big storm opened the site more fully, and brought heightened interest. The complex consists of eight houses, seemingly burrowed into the earth. The walls are made of stacked flat rocks, without any kind of mortar. The appearance is deceiving. Excavation has found that the living spaces were either dug into midden mounds, the piles of shells and other debris heaped up over time, or that rubbish was piled up against the outside of the walls. However it was emplaced, the material acted as an outer insulating layer, keeping wind and cold at bay. Of course these structures needed a roof as well as walls, and that would seem to require supporting timbers. Lumber was a scarce resource on the Orkneys by this time, so the residents probably used whalebone to construct an arched framework, over which they would have stretched skins or some kind of thatching.

Skara Brae’s seemingly subterranean location, very popular with tourists now.

Typical Skara Brae house design with central hearth, shelving, and bedding boxes along the walls.

Covered passageways connected the houses.

The little houses offered about 430 square feet of living space, and the community was probably home to fewer than 50 people at a time. Despite their compact size, these domiciles were not just plain boxes. The center of each space had a stone hearth which served for heating and cooking. What looks to be shelving or cupboards were built against the walls with flat stone slabs. Flat stone is handy when you don’t have access to wood. The same kind of stone panels made boxed enclosures which were probably filled with moss and furs for bedding. Though it was no doubt smoky—no evidence of a drawing chimney has been found—it was probably quite warm and cozy inside. And you could visit your neighbors without going outside, as the units were connected by covered passageways, or tunnels, whose walls were also backed by mounded debris. Overall, the inhabitants must have found it an agreeable arrangement, as it is estimated that the settlement was in use for 600 years.

The Maeshowe burial cairn, once broken into by Vikings seeking shelter. They left runic graffiti behind.

The stone-lined chambers within Maeshowe open at the end of a long passageway.

Over time, blowing sand piled up and surrounded and buried Skara Brae, but it did not arrive immediately off the beach. The ocean was at some distance from the settlement in Neolithic days, and only with erosion and possible sea level rise did the place become a seafront location. Earlier it was thought that Skara Brae was abandoned hurriedly during some major storm that brought so much sand it forced the people out. More current analysis concludes that the sand was more an impediment to the farming that the inhabitants practiced, and the proximity of salt spray from the advancing ocean made growing conditions slowly intolerable, leading to a relocation elsewhere. The other priceless nearby Neolithic sites mentioned earlier point to other reasons that may also have influenced the departure.

The Standing Stones of Stenness, an early megalithic site just a few miles from Skara Brae.

The small green bump of Maeshowe mound can be seen in the distance, aligned between two of the smaller Stones of Stennes.

The stones in the Ring of Brodgar are smaller, but they form a huge circle.

About six miles from Skara Brae, the site called Maeshowe is a complex of four rooms within a soil mound about 36 feet high and 100 feet around. It is encircled with a ditch or moat and was built around 2700 BCE. This was not a habitation, but more likely a tomb for an elite class, something new to this early society. The entrance passageway aligns closely with the rays of the setting sun at winter solstice. Besides this earthworks, there are the nearby structures of the Standing Stones of Stennes and the Ring of Brodgar. Both are within a mile and a half of Maeshowe. The Standing Stones are slabs of rock, thinner and more tablet-like than the massive stones of Stonehenge. They stand as much as 19 feet tall in an ellipse that may have once involved nearly a dozen stones, but now only displays four. It is estimated to be over 5,000 years old, pre-dating most of the many stone circles of Britain, including Stonehenge. The Ring of Brodgar is not as old, and was made of smaller slabs from seven to fifteen feet in height. What it lacks in individual size, it makes up in number, as the ring here, over 340 feet across, included perhaps as many as 60 stones when it was first built. Of these, 27 are still standing. Actually, some of those had fallen or been knocked down over the centuries, but were righted in modern times.

The proximity of all these amazing structures means that the people of Skara Brae were no doubt a part of the society that made them. What these works of enormous human effort may indicate is the emergence of an elite ruling class or a group of spiritual leaders who either controlled or could influence enough human labor for such ambitious and symbolic undertakings. Between the environmental pressures of an encroaching sea, and the development of a larger society, social order in Skara Brae may have undergone an alteration. Rather than existing in small, closely bonded inter-family living structures, people may have broadened their community connections and transitioned to individual housing. Their living situation perhaps became less close, but they had a larger external social network, and could accomplish more. So the long habitation in those little stone houses came to an end, and society evolved into a different form. The blowing sand covered the neat, well-made shelters, preserving them for us to witness and wonder about, artifacts of voiceless ancestors who left behind many clues to the stories of their world.

The digging continues at a massive site between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stennes, called the Ness of Brodgar. Discovered in 2002, it will keep archaeologists busy for decades.


The Neolithic sites of the Orkneys are calling! Go see them this summer, and let the Michelin map of Scotland guide you through the heather. Available from Maps.com. The map, not the heather.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE MAP!


PHOTO CREDITS:

caption: The Orkneys sit just off the northern coast of the Scottish mainland.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Eric Gaba (User: Sting, fr:Sting) (CC by SA 4.0 International)

caption: Mainland lsland, rich with Neolithic sites, is by far the largest of the Orkneys.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Finlay McWalter (CC by SA 4.0 International)

caption: Skara Brae’s seemingly subterranean location, very popular with tourists now.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Wknight94 (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)

caption: Typical Skara Brae house design with central hearth, shelving, and bedding boxes along the walls.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Malcolm Morris (CC by SA 2.0 Generic)

caption: Covered passageways connected the houses.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Wknight94 (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)

caption: The Maeshowe burial cairn, once broken into by Vikings seeking shelter. They left runic graffiti behind.
source: Flickr: summonedbyfells (CC by 2.0)

caption: The stone-lined chambers within Maeshowe open at the end of a long passageway.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Malcolm Morris (CC by SA 2.0 Generic)

caption: The Standing Stones of Stenness, an early megalithic site just a few miles from Skara Brae.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Wilson44691 (Public domain)

caption: The small green bump of Maeshowe mound can be seen in the distance, aligned between two of the smaller Stones of Stennes.
source: Flickr: yahsima (CC by SA 2.0)

caption: The stones in the Ring of Brodgar are smaller, but they form a huge circle.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Paddy Patterson (CC by 2.0 Generic)

caption: The digging continues at a massive site between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stennes, called the Ness of Brodgar. Discovered in 2002, it will keep archaeologists busy for decades.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Stevekeiretsu (CC by SA 4.0)

The post Geo-Joint: The Neolithic Neighborhood of Skara Brae appeared first on Journeys by Maps.com.

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