The Scottish Pompeii: Skara Brae, a prehistoric village on the west coast of the island of Orkney

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Katerina Bulovska
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Skara Brae is believed to be the best-preserved Stone Age village in Europe. The archaeological site is located on the shores of the bay of Skaill, on the main island of Orkney, Scotland. The Neolithic settlement dates back to 3200 BC and is one of Orkney’s most popular attractions.

The village was buried beneath the sand dunes, until the winter of 1850 AD, when a great storm struck Orkney and revealed the stone structures. The owner of the land, William Watt, excavated four houses containing intact objects and furnishings.

In 1868, the site was abandoned until 1925, when another storm damaged the already-excavated buildings. To preserve the remains, the archaeologist and Edinburgh professor Vere Gordon Childe constructed a sea wall, and with further excavations, the site as it is known today was revealed.

Ancient ruin, Skara Brae, Scotland

Skara Brae consists of eight houses linked together by narrow stone passages. Each house had a single room and they were built of the same material and design.

The similarities between the houses suggest that the inhabitants lived as equals in a close communal way. The villagers built their homes from flagstones. The walls of the houses are still standing, but little is known about the roof. It was probably made of turf, which was supposed to have an opening to serve as a chimney.

The buildings had no windows, only a small doorway as an entrance. The beds were made of stone and covered with animal furs. The dresser and the other furniture was also made of stone. The houses even had indoor toilets. Only the eighth house seems to be different from the others. It had no dressers or beds and probably functioned as a workshop.

Evidence of home furnishings. Photo Credit

 

Excavated dwellings at Skara Brae. Photo Credit

The Grooved Ware people built and inhabited Skara Brae between 3200BC and 2500BC. They were farmers who grew barley, raised sheep and cattle, and hunted and fished for food. They also used bone, stone, and precious rock to craft tools and jewels.

Stone balls engraved with a rectilinear design were found at the site and no one knows exactly what purpose they served. A theory by archaeoastronomer Euan MacKie suggests the site was a community of astronomers. However, evidence for this claim was never found.

House 1 of Skara Brae. Photo Credit

The village was abandoned in 2500 BC and there are a few different suggestions as to why the villagers left. Many scholars blame the bad weather conditions. It is believed that an enormous storm surprised the inhabitants and forced them to abandon their homes quickly leaving their prized possessions behind since the objects found indicated a sudden departure.

The site was buried under sand and that is how it remained so well preserved and earned the moniker the Scottish Pompeii. However, this theory has never been definitively proven so the exact reason for the abandonment is still a mystery.

Skara Brae outside house 8 (to the left). Photo Credit

Nowadays, Skara Brae is by the sea as a result of the erosion of the coast of Orkney, although in the Neolithic Era it would have been a few miles from the coast and surrounded by fertile land. The village probably had more houses that have been lost to the sea. This remarkable structure is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site and remains one of the most visited ancient sites in Scotland.