Skara Brae or the “Scottish Pompeii,” the fascinating underground city discovered in 1850
Skara Brae is a prehistoric village that was in use between roughly 3100 B.C. and 2500 B.C. Located on the west coast of the main island of Orkney, in Scotland, what makes the site special is its good state of preservation. Visitors can still see the furniture of the stone houses that people used 5,000 years ago.
After it was abandoned, it was covered with sand dunes and wasn’t discovered until A.D. 1850, when a ferocious winter storm blew part of the turf off the ruins. Located within walking distance of a stone circle at Brodgar, the village was part of a prehistoric landscape on Orkney that included other stone villages, farmsteads, tombs and stone circles.
While the village’s buildings were modified throughout its 600-year history, the site was never large and consisted of about 10 houses that, in total, probably housed no more than 100 inhabitants at any one time. Eventually, a series of roofed passages were constructed that made it easy to go house-to-house in the middle of winter.
“The villagers were real neighbors living cheek by jowl, their houses connected by walled, sometimes decorated, alleyways,” said Simon Schama, a professor at Columbia University, in a BBC documentary aired in 2000. “It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine gossip traveling down those alleyways after a hearty seafood supper.” Today, Skara Brae is by the sea although in prehistoric times it would have been a few miles from the coast. Erosion has led to the coast of Orkney moving closer to the site over the millennia.
This fascinating place is older than Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt.
Many of the fascinating discoveries by people interested to learn what life was like back in the day leave us completely speechless.
Now if you believe the pyramids of Egypt hold secrets, take a look at this perfectly preserved city which was accidentally revealed in 1850 after a storm swept across the Orkney Islands. The settlement, called Skara Brae, was discovered by the farmers who were shocked at what came from under the ground as a result of the storm that caused devastation and killed around 200 people
It is estimated that this magnificent place had been the home of around 50 to 100 people who were probably forced In each of the houses, there is furniture which is also preserved. Among the rest, there are lockers, bureaus, seats and waterproof storage boxes. Some believe the people living there kept live seafood inside those storage boxes to consume it later. One of the houses, in which there is no furniture, is believed to had served as a workshop. What is fascinating is that the settlement has a sewage system with tiny toilets in each of the houses.
In hopes of protecting Skara Brae and keeping it as it is, a concrete wall has been built around the houses by the Scotland’s government as the sea waters pose a serious threat to it along with the number of tourists eager to visit the prehistoric place.
By a picturesque beach, on one of the most windswept coasts of Scotland, there stands a series of stone-walled, grass-covered burrows that look as if they were built by the same set designers who created Hobbiton for Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films.
They’re so quaint you almost expect Bilbo Baggins or Gandalf to emerge at any moment. Skara Brae – on the west coast of Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago – is the best-preserved Neolithic village in northern Europe: a site so significant among archaeologists that even Indiana Jones gave a lecture about it in the 2008 movie, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
What is arguably more remarkable than the village itself is the romantic story of how it was uncovered.
But this really was an underground village a very long time ago, when people really did believe in dragons, ogres and elvish spirits. The men and women who lived at Skara Brae (sometimes called the “Scottish Pompeii”) built their homes about 5000 years ago – making this Stone Age village centuries older than Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China or the Pyramids of Giza.
No-one knew of its existence after it was abandoned (for reasons that remain a mystery) around 2500 BC. Then in 1850 a mighty storm hit the Orkney isles, north-east of John O’Groats, It is estimated that this magnificent place had been the home of around 50 to 100 people who were probably forced to abandon it because of a storm. The settlement was gradually covered by a drifting wall of sand that hid it from sight for over 40 centuries.removing sand dunes and exposing what appeared to be the remains of two small houses.
The local laird, William Watt, who lived at Skaill House 250 metres away (and worth a visit in its own right), explored the two houses and – not having a clue what he had discovered – began removing bits of Stone Age pottery and furniture that had been buried for millenia.
Fast forward to 1924, when Watt’s trustees announced this archaeological oddity to the world by placing it under the guardianship of His Majesty’s Commissioners of Works.
Enter an Australian, Professor Gordon Childe, appointed Abercromby Professor of prehistoric archaeology at Edinburgh University in 1927.
An avowed Marxist, Childe was appalled the focus of the dig at Skara Brae was commercial, exposing as much of the prehistoric village as possible to encourage potential tourists.
The irony, of course, is that Childe’s painstakingly scholarly excavation has turned Skara Brae into a major tourism drawcard, with the UNESCO World Heritage-listed site drawing 73,000 visitors a year to this far-flung part of Scotland.
Most also visit Orkney’s other UNESCO-listed Neolithic treasures, including The Stones of Stenness and The Ring of Brodgar – Stonehenge-like circles within 12km of Skara Brae that still mystify the experts.
But this year (2016) the Orkney Islands are celebrating a recent history. In May 1916, Britain and Germany fought the Battle of Jutland, off the coast of Denmark.
It remains the greatest naval battle in history and ended in a draw (though no doubt Germany would have won on a penalty shoot-out). And the Orkney connection?
Scapa Flow is one of the greatest natural harbours on earth, an extensive body of ocean protected on three sides by the Orkney Islands – and home to British fleets in both world wars.
Jutland was the Battle of the Battleships. Germany needed to find a way for its ships to escape the Baltic Sea. Britain needed the German fleet to be contained.
History records that when the 74 ships of the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet went to Scapa Flow to “surrender” after the Treaty of Versailles, the German commanding officer, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, ordered the entire fleet to be scuttled – turning Scapa Flow today into a mecca for cold water divers.
When we visited Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkneys in May, the locals were well poised for the centenary.
There was an illuminating exhibition at the town’s eccentric museum, various excursions to Scapa Flow itself, and a weeping tear of poppies streaming from the town’s magnificently Viking-themed St Magnus Cathedral.
Kirkwall. Scapa Flow. The Ring of Brodgar. The Orkneys have so much to offer, not least the incredibly green scenery.
But me? I can’t go past Skara Brae.
Did you know that what makes this Neolithic settlement so rare is that the sand protected the Stone Age furniture? Or that an even earlier Stone Age settlement lies beneath Skara Brae?
The houses at Skara Brae each consist of one room made of locally available stones that were held together with a “sticky midden material that provided both insulation and stability,” writes Caroline Wickham-Jones, a lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, in her book “Between the Wind and the Water: World Heritage Orkney” (Windgather Press, 2006).
Each house had a central hearth where a fire would have kept the inhabitants warm. The houses also had stone beds that would have been softened with furs, straw or dry seaweed. Archaeologists found that the houses usually had one large stone dresser that typically had three shelves divided into two bays, Wickham-Jones writes. The houses even had open areas with drains that would likely have been used as prehistoric toilets.
How the houses were roofed is a mystery; it’s possible that driftwood, thatch, turf, whalebones or other material was used. The roof may have contained a hole that allowed some of the smoke to escape.
The village’s inhabitants used a sophisticated array of stone tools. “Some are heavy tools such as mattocks and shovels, others are more delicate, such as pins and needles,” Wickham-Jones writes.
Additionally, archaeologists have found beads that could have been fastened into necklaces, as well as pieces of pottery, some of it decorated with patterns, providing a fleeting glimpse into the art created by the villagers.
A communal lifestyle
How the inhabitants of Skara Brae organized themselves is a mystery with few clues for researchers to work with. Presumably, each house held an extended family that included grandparents and perhaps other relatives.
Archaeologists have found no evidence of an elite residence at Skara Brae, which suggests that the people of the village made decisions in a communal way. However, within the houses “between the dresser and the hearth there is sometimes a block of stone,” good for sitting, writes archaeologist Anna Ritchie in her book “Prehistoric Orkney” (Historic Scotland, 1995). She writes that this could be a “seat of honour” of sorts.
Archaeologists do know that the villagers were connected to other inhabitants in Orkney and must have played a role in the rituals carried out at the great stone circles and other monuments on the island.
One puzzling house, given the rather bland name “house eight,” appears different from the others. It is not connected to the other buildings and has a porch, of sorts, by its entrance. It also has no beds or dressers but instead has many niches and recesses on the walls, writes Wickham-Jones.
Archaeologists cannot be sure what this structure was used for, although one possibility is that it was a workshop. Ritchie notes that it is one of only two houses “to be embellished by carved patterns on their walls.”
Bull’s head on a bed
While “house eight” is mysterious, “house seven” (the other house with carved patterns) is perhaps the strangest of all. When archaeologists excavated it, they found two human burials (both of adult females, Ritchie notes).
Furthermore, archaeologists found that “the skull of a bull lay in one bed, a bone dish full of red, ochre pigments lay on the floor (and) there was a cache of jewellery …” writes Wickham-Jones. She notes that this house continued to be used after the rest of the village was abandoned. These burials “may have been inserted towards the end of its (the house’s) use.”
Towards the end of Skara Brae’s existence, its soil was becoming infertile as sand dunes advanced toward it. The settlement was gradually abandoned and the burials at house seven may have been a final act.
Many of the findings leave archaeologists puzzled, like this carved stone ball on the photo below.
Skara Brae today
In the millennia since Skara Brae was abandoned, the sea has advanced ever closer to the settlement. A sea wall now protects the ruins and, in 2009, the BBC reported that efforts were under way to strengthen it.
“Waves have affected a section of concrete on which the protective walling was built, which could lead to more damage,” the news service reported. Historic Scotland, an agency of the Scottish Government, is now in charge of the site and is leading the project.
In the century ahead, Skara Brae, like other coastal sites around the world, may be threatened by rising sea levels caused by global warming, a modern-day problem that threatens a site that has withstood 5,000 years of time.