Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist www.muddyarchaeologist.co.uk
Orkney. One of my favourite places on the planet. The skies are wide, the scenery broad and breath-taking and the archaeology unique and stunning.
Here you can go back in time to the Neolithic. The houses, settlements, tombs and temples you can visit are an amazing 5,000 years old. Back in c.3,100 BC, the first farmers here had settled in farmsteads, such as the one you can walk into at Knap of Howar on the Orkney island of Papa Westray
But on the Orkney mainland, the farmers had created communities. Skara Brae is the famous collection of 5,000 year old homes. It nestles by a beautiful beach, although a fresh water loch buffered the community from the salty sea which lay beyond the arc of the headlands you can gaze out to. In time, that sea broke through and it was a storm in the 1850s which battered away the sand dunes and revealed enough of the ancient homes for Australian archaeologist Gordon Childs to organise its excavation.
The homes are all roughly the same size. Little changes in each of them, except that the earliest homes had the beds set into the thick walls that had themselves been set into an already ancient middens (rubbish tips) that remain full of seashells. The niches and alcoves by the beds give the houses a very homely feel.
Each house focusses on a central hearth, it has a dresser facing the door. Nick Card, the site director at the nearby Ness of Brodgar which is contemporary with Skara Brae, had spent a couple of days with us on board. I had the honour of opening the series of on-board lectures and Nick had then shared the wonders of his site. A real Neolithic feast! His theory that the Skara Brae ‘dressers’ – which are not dissimilar to features found at his temples site – may be house shrines seems eminently likely to me.
As we looked down into the ancient houses from our high walkways, we can see how the houses are roughly rectangular with neat rounded edges (easier to make dry stone slabs stable than right angled walls, it seems). The low doors lead out to the winding narrow, covered walkways between the homes. These passages cut out the persistent Orkney wind – I walked through them many years ago and I can say that it was bliss to step and stoop into the walkways and immediately feel the calm ceasing of the wind. Doubtless this avoidance of battling with the elements was the motivation to create indoor toilets – tiny alcoves with running water below … Privacy was valued too, for no front door faces any other front door.
Writing was unknown here in 3,000 BC so we can’t know what the people who lived here thought. Archaeology is our only, and very vital, clue. Their daily tools that survive show inventiveness though; a cup made from a whalebone vertebra and stone knives made from the local stone were effective and sharp (Skaill Knives). The enigmatic stone balls found here (as in other parts of northern Scotland), shaped over countless hours into a variety of knobbly shapes, continue to baffle archaeologists.
A larger building is sited downwind of the community. The usual homes have many boxes sealed to hold water for fresh food or bait perhaps. Here though in the workshop, the many containers and different layout and finds imply this is a workshop. A wise move – always look for any ‘industry’ downwind of a settlement; no one wants smells, noise and mess wafting into their homes …
Orkney’s Skara Brae; a privilege to visit the homes of the first settling farmers. From here, the next stop (tomorrow’s blog) is to visit the Ring of Brodgar, a magnificent monument that has lasted over four and a half thousand years and was built by some of the last generations who lived at Skara Brae.