8 Facts about Skara Brae | History Hit

8 Facts about Skara Brae

Skara Brae
Image Credit: LouieLea / Shutterstock.com

Skara Brae is an incredibly well-preserved Neolithic village in the Orkney Isles off the coast of mainland Scotland. Characterised by sturdy stone slab structures insulated by the clay and household waste which holds them together, Skara Brae is a stunning example of the high quality of Neolithic workmanship and is a phenomenal example of a Neolithic village.

Remarkably undiscovered until a freak storm in 1850, Skara Brae is one of the most famous Neolithic sites in Britain – and arguably, the world – drawing some 70,000 visitors a year who want to see the complex and stunningly well-preserved remains.

Here are 8 fascinating facts about Skara Brae.

1. It was rediscovered in 1850

In the winter of 1850, a particularly severe storm battled Orkney, with the wind and high seas ripping the earth and grass from a high, sandy mound known as Skerrabra. Underneath were a stunning network of underground structures. Local hobby archaeologist William Watt, the Laird of Skaill, excavated four houses, and gathered a significant collection of objects before abandoning the site.

2. It is older than Stonehenge

Though initially thought to be some 3,000 years old and date to the Iron Age, radiocarbon dating has demonstrated that people were living in Skara Brae for some 650 years during the Neolithic era, over 5,000 years ago. This makes it older than both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza.

Skara Brae site plan

Image Credit: V. Gordon Childe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

3. It was lived in by farmers and fishermen

Bones discovered at Skara Brae indicate that it was lived in by cattle and sheep farmers. They lived by growing barley and wheat, with seed grains and bone mattocks used to break up the ground suggesting that they frequently worked the land. There is also evidence that they hunted deer, caught fish and ate berries, with one building, that doesn’t have any beds or a dresser and instead has fragments of chert, likely serving as a workshop. Those who lived at Skara Brae also made stone and bone tools, clay pottery, buttons, needles, stone objects and pendants.

4. Its building was innovative

The houses at Skara Brae were linked by roofed passageways. Each house featured a door which could be locked, or secured, by a wooden or whalebone bar for privacy. They were built using a tough clay-like material reinforced with domestic rubbish called Midden, which helped to both insulate the houses and keep out the damp. Though much of the midden material was discarded during excavations in the 1920s, the remains of wood, rope, barley seeds, shells, bones and puffballs offer an insight into those who lived there.

5. It featured purpose-built furniture

Excavations discovered that the houses featured ‘fitted’ furniture, such as dressers, central hearths, box beds and a tank which was thought to have been used to house fishing bait.

Evidence of home furnishings

Image Credit: duchy / Shutterstock.com

6. It was a peaceful community

It appears that the inhabitants of Skara Brae prioritised community life alongside family privacy, with their closely-built, similar homes with lockable doors and lack of weapons found at the site suggesting that their lives were both peaceful and close-knit.

Located in the Northern Isles of Scotland, Orkney is a remote and wild environment. With over 5000 years of history, this small archipelago of islands is a treasure trove of ancient sites and secrets. Tristan Hughes is joined by Archaeologist Dr Antonia Thomas to talk about the art in some of the incredible sites and excavations across Orkney.
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7. It may have been much bigger

At the time that it was lived in, Skara Brae was far further from the sea and surrounded by fertile land. However, today, coastal erosion means that it is within very close reach of the sea, leading archaeologists to speculate that some of the settlement may have been lost.

8. It is unclear why it was abandoned

After 650 years of occupation, objects left at Skara Brae suggest that those living there left suddenly – popular theory has it that they left due to a sandstorm. However, it is now thought that a more gradual process of abandonment took place over some 20 or 30 years, and was slowly buried by layers of sand and sediment.

Lucy Davidson