Skara Brae

Visiting these enigmatic places, the obvious question is, why were they built? Until now, though, we really have not seen anything that tells us much about the builders. At Stonehenge some deer-horn tools were found that enabled us to date the site, at West Kennet a few dozen tombs, and then the inhumations dispersed here and there at Carnac and Newgrange. That's all. To try to understand a little more, we move further north, to the Orkney Islands of northwest Scotland.

In the winter of 1850 a singularly violent storm slammed into the Orkneys and the winds stripped away enough earth to reveal a group of structures buried in a hill known as Skara Brae. A summary excavation was conducted in 1868, but it was not until the 1920s that a more complete study brought to light a human settlement that, for lack of a better idea, we tentatively call a "village." Obviously, everyone at the time thought they were looking at an Iron Age site, and this assumption remained unchallenged until the early 1970s, when carbon dating blew it, quite literally, back to the Stone Age:

Figure 2.9: Skara Brae: one of the house's furniture.

Skara Brae is a neolithic site, 2000 years older than first thought, already inhabited by 3300 BC.

The village is small, composed of only eight dwellings. These dwellings are connected by roads and configured carefully according to a preestablished plan. A system of drainage ditches not only kept the area dry, but was connected to what are probably history's first toilets, one in each dwelling, thereby also making it history's first sewage system.

One often hears it said half-jokingly that seeing Skara makes you wonder if the Flintstones are going to appear around the corner any moment and invite you to stay for dinner. I don't find this amusing because, as we will see, the people who lived at Skara Brae were not kidding around. In any event, the homes, each about 36 square meters with no internal partition walls, do indeed appear as if they had been just recently abandoned. They all conserve their original stone "furniture," which are objects that resemble the corresponding modern ones, but we have no proof that they had the same function. We thus have a "dresser" with shelves, two "beds," a central "hearth" often coupled with a "bench," and a sort of stone box set into the ground. Simple decorations adorn some of the beds and walls, in which some scholars have even wished to see inscriptions. A number of curious smaller objects were also found at Skara. They are for the most part carved stone balls with a surface like that of a hand grenade for which no one has been able to hypothesize a practical function (similar objects have been found elsewhere in the Orkneys and on the Scottish mainland).

The Skara site was built on a midden, meaning a preexisting mound of garbage, compressed in such a way as to provide a layer of insulation against the brutal weather. Moreover, once built, the inhabitants would pile up their refuse around the perimeter. We have been able to analyze the many strata of refuse accumulated over the centuries, which is why we know as much as we do about everyday life there. We know, for example, that the Skara Braean diet was varied and complete.

Skara Brae presents a number of singular features. First of all, though it was inhabited uninterruptedly for about 600 years, the dimensions of the settlement remained substantially unchanged, which makes it very difficult to imagine it as a true village, inhabited by a self-sufficient community that would be, by definition, subject to demographic variations. The layout of Skara Brae entails a passageway covered with slabs of stone that conducts from the first to the sixth ""house'' in succession, while the seventh is reached by a deviation from the main corridor, and the eighth is the only one accessed from the outside. Post holes indicate that the entrances to both the village and to the individual dwellings could be closed from the inside by stone doors (the seventh unit, however, closed from the outside, and was thus perhaps a storeroom or prison). The modular, repetitive disposition of furnishings inside each dwelling is clearly indicative of planning, of a governing order to which each space had to conform. Skara Brae looks like a recently remodeled hotel, all its rooms identical.

But upon further reflection, we realize it looks like other things, too. It looks like a monastery, an ordered system of identical cells. Or better still, a guest house for a university, built in a sacred landscape. The Orkneys are in fact scattered with numerous megalithic monuments, particularly the area around the gulf of Stenness, not far from Skara, a dozen or so square kilometers that encompass the Stenness and the Brodgar stone circles, the Maeshowe tumulus, the neolithic ""village'' of Barnhouse, and various other monuments.

The Brodgar circle, perhaps more recently built than Skara (2500 BC) is a ring of megaliths looking out onto the "loch'' (saltwater lagoon) of Stenness. Originally composed of 60 upright stones disposed in a circle 104 meters across, the ring is bounded by a ditch cut into the living rock, 6 meters wide and 3 meters deep. The only tools available to cut this rock ditch were other rocks, most likely used as percussors, a method requiring unimaginable time and patience (the only possible alternative would have been to cut holes with other stones and then insert dry sticks that, when moistened, would expand and split the rock; this method, however, is not documented in megalithic cultures). The Stenness stone circle, which dates to around 3000 BC, vaunts the largest megaliths of all the Orkney monuments, some as tall as 6 meters and weighing several dozen tons. The stones, which were quarried about 3 kilometers north of Skara Brae, are sharp, almost cold, and give the visitor a strange feeling of aloofness and distance. Though only four of the original 12 stones remain standing, it is clear that they were configured inside a henge with a diameter of about 44 meters; the surrounding ditch, also cut into the rock, has a north entrance. Curiously, we are fairly certain that the ditches of this and other henges in the area were filled with water for most of the year. The result—large mounds with "rings of water'' delimiting the stone circles— was thus an imitation, a replica, of the surrounding landscape: the promontory of Stenness itself (Richards 1992, 1996).

The entrance to the Stenness Stones points toward Barnhouse, a neolithic settlement similar to but preserved rather less well than Skara Brae. Discovered by Colin Richards in 1984, it is composed of 15 buildings, the majority of which are analogous to those at Skara, replete with "dressers" and "beds" Two of the structures, however, are markedly different from all the others: structure 8, oriented to the northwest; and structure 2, oriented to the southeast.

Structure 8 is strongly reminiscent of the stone circle at Stenness. It is extremely massive, and surrounded by an external ring. Some sort of ritual use is suggested by a number of features, such as the fact that the central hearth does not seem to have been used to cook food. Structure 2 is divided into two rooms, organized internally much in the same way as the nearby chambered tomb, Quanternass; it is perhaps no accident that a large stone vessel containing human remains was found a few meters from the entrance. As for the building technique, it is identical to that of the Maeshowe tumulus, just up the road.

Maeshowe is a circular mound, 8 meters high and 35 meters wide. Inside is a corridor built with enormous slabs of stone weighing up to 30 tons each. It is oriented to the southeast and terminates in a large central chamber surrounded by three smaller cells, the entrances to which could be closed by slabs that are still in place today. The scarce human remains found in just one of the cells allow us to date Maeshowe to around 2700 BC. Archaeologists agree that it was the communal tomb of the Barnhouse settlement, despite the curious fact that the sole entrance to the corridor was designed to make it easier to close from the inside.

Maeshowe is also of interest to medievalists. In fact, during the 12th century the Vikings visited the tumulus and, in keeping with millennia-old tradition of "extemporaneous epigraphy'' (i.e., graffiti) that persists to this day, they left signs of their passage in the form of runic inscriptions. Reprehensible a practice though it may be, graffiti sometimes re-humanizes ancient monuments, transforming them from mute objects to living witnesses of the history that has unfolded before them. Anyone who climbs to the summit of the Great Pyramid of Giza, for example, sees that it is covered with inscriptions left over the course of 4500 years of history. At Maeshowe we encounter, among others, a love-struck Viking who wrote, "Ingigerth is the fairest of all women,'' and a group of Crusaders who signaled the presence of a treasure there. There is also a Viking saga that tells of a certain Harald, who was driven to madness after spending a night in the tumulus.

While there is no real proof that Maeshowe was a tomb, a communal necropolis was found in 1958 further to the south, at Isbister. Here we have a large rectangular stone chamber divided into three alcoves. Known today as the Tomb of the Eagles, it was used for about 150 years from the date of its construction, around 3000 BC. One of the three alcoves was found intact and full of human remains belonging to at least 342 individuals. The name of the tomb derives from the intriguing fact that beneath these remains was a layer of human bones mixed with white-tailed eagle bones. Traces of ceremonial activities, such as deliberately broken ceramics and bones of animals that may have been sacrificed were also found in the environs. The white-tailed eagle, a magnificent bird of prey with a wingspan of more than 2 meters, was once common in the Orkneys. It is difficult to interpret the significance of the raptor bones in the tomb, but the fact that the human bones were arranged in an orderly manner after having been stripped of flesh has led some to postulate that the eagles were connected to a cult of the dead not unlike that which was present in some communities in India, where the bodies of the dead were left out in the open until the bones were picked cleaned by birds. The hypothesis remains, however, unproven.

So this is essentially what we know about how the inhabitants of Skara Brae lived, which means we know that transporting enormous megaliths, cutting ditches into living rock, and building tumuli and mounds were normal activities for them, until something suddenly happened and changed all that. Gordon Childe, always in search of invaders waving the magic wand of civilization, proposed that Skara Brae was abandoned under dramatic circumstances. There is no proof of such circumstances, or of invasion of any kind, though it is clear that the site fell into disuse rapidly. Some think that neolithic society in general underwent a transformation that saw small rural communities become larger cultural units, with farming families more widely dispersed over territory that had somehow become safer to occupy. This transformation would ostensibly be proven by certain large monuments in the Orkneys built after Skara Brae, such as Brodgar. However, the age of the megaliths comprises an extremely long an arc of time, and Skara, like its sister site at Barnhouse, dates from this period.

But the questions that concern us here are, What can Skara Brae tell us about megalithic builders? More precisely, what can the stones themselves tell us about who built them, and why?

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