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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Skara Brae: The Story of a Prehistoric Village

Skara Brae
The Story of a Prehistoric Village
written and illustrated by Olivier Dunrea
Skara Brae was an early farming village on an island off northern Scotland. Shortly before 2400 B.C. a sudden storm covered the village in sand. It remained covered for more than 4,200 years. Then, in A.D. 1850, a powerful windstorm stripped the sand from the dunes and uncovered the stone walls of the village. What archaeologists know about life in Skara Brae comes from studying the stone huts and the objects the early people left behind. Through careful study of this evidence, archaeologists were able to piece together the story of this village of long ago.

Read now about what life may have been like in Skara Brae and in other farming villages long ago. Think about how life in these early settlements compared with life in hunter- gatherer societies and with our lives today.

By 3500 B.C. farmers and herders had reached a group of islands to the north of Scotland the Orkneys.

They found the Orkneys an ideal place to live. There were gently rolling hills, open grasslands for their sheep and cattle, and wide, sand-fringed bays. The islands had no predatory animals that would attack their livestock. It was a good area to settle.
Orkney was a strange place to these early settlers. They were accustomed to trees and forests. In Orkney there were far fewer trees.

But though there was very little wood, there was plenty of fuel. Mosses and other plants had decayed in bogs to form peat. The peat could be burned like coal. The settlers could keep warm and cook their meat around a peat fire.

Most of all, there was a great abundance of stone on the islands. Stones were everywhere on the beaches, on the grasslands, and on the hills. The herders and farmers chose these stones to build their permanent homes and monuments.
In time the Orkneys became more populated. New masses of migrating people reached their shores. Several generations of settlers came and went, and some ventured off to the smaller and less populated islands.

One band of settlers, seeking better grazing land for their animals, moved farther out on the main island. Making their way to the farthest west coast, they explored the land for a suitable place to live.

As they marched northward along the rugged cliffs and inlets, they came to a Orkney was a strange place to these early settlers. They were accustomed to trees and forests. In Orkney there were far fewer trees.

beautiful wide bay the Bay of Skaill. There were sand dunes, open grassland, and no other settlers to compete for the land's resources. It was here the band decided to make their new home.

There were twenty people in the group: four small families. Together they owned a flock of sheep, a small herd of cattle, and a few pigs.

After surveying the land around the bay, they chose the southwest corner in which to erect their temporary shelters. The women and older children put up the tents, using wooden poles they had brought with them. These tents made of skins would protect them from rain and wind.

It was the task of the older children to tend the livestock, even though the animals mostly fended for themselves and found food wherever they could.

During this period, settlers lived off their animals. To their diet of meat and milk they added wild foods foraged1 from the land and sea birds and eggs, fish, shellfish such as limpets,2 and wild grains. The men sometimes brought in the meat of deer and other wild animals as well.

Through the summer, autumn, and winter the band continued to live in their tents. During the winter months they started construction of a new village that would have proper houses for all the families.

While they built the permanent stone houses, everyone worked. The men gathered the larger stones needed for the foundations and walls. The women and children also gathered stones to be used in the construction of the huts.

Everyone worked together on all the houses. One partly completed house was used as a shelter for the cattle, sheep, and pigs. The band continued to live off their animals as well as the land and sea.

There were plenty of stones on the beach around the bay, and collecting them went quickly. The stones could be easily split to make straight, uniform surfaces for building.

The houses were small when completed, measuring only twelve feet long by six to nine feet wide in the interior. The plan of each house was basically square, with rounded corners. In one of the corners, there was a small, beehive-shaped cell, used either for storage or as a latrine.4

The walls were built by piling stone upon stone. A few feet above the floor the stones began to project a little toward the inside of the hut. This overlapping construction is called corbelling.5

Each hut was big enough to allow room for a central hearth,6 a stone bed set into the wall on either side of the hearth, and a stone dresser built into the rear wall.
The mother and small    the children slept in the bed to the left of the hearth; the father slept in the bed to the right.
The stone beds were filled with heather7 and skins, making them comfortable and warm for sleeping.

There were one or two small recesses for keeping personal possessions in the wall above each bed.

Within a few weeks the little huts were completed.
And so began the occupation of the village. It was around 3100 B.C.
As they went about the routine of their daily life, the villagers allowed their refuse to pile up against the outside walls of their huts. Shells, broken bones, fragments of pottery, sand, and everything no longer used was heaped around the structures.

This refuse, called midden, helped to insulate the huts. It kept the cold winds from blowing through the chinks in the stones. Over the years these midden heaps mixed with sand and became a claylike covering from which grass grew.

The exterior of the cairn was covered with earth, and in time grass grew over it. It looked like a hill in the landscape.

There was also time for the villagers to practice their various crafts. The women made pottery. Sometimes they made engraved or raised designs on their pots. But the people of Skara Brae, unlike many Neolithic peoples, were not especially skilled at this craft.

The men spent hours carving strange, intricate patterns on stone balls.
The teeth and bones from sheep, cattle, and whales were used to make beautiful beads and necklaces.

For a long time the life of Skara Brae continued uninterrupted. Then, around 2400 B.C., when the village had settled into its way of life, a terrible catastrophe occurred that caused it to be abandoned forever.

As the villagers went about their daily tasks of collecting food and tending their herds or practicing their crafts, a sudden and violent storm arose. The storm came so unexpectedly and with such severity that the inhabitants fled without being able to collect all their belongings.

In her haste to escape, one woman broke her string of beads as she squeezed through the narrow doorway of her hut. The necklace fell to the floor of the passageway, and there it remained.

In another hut an old man was gnawing a choice bit of mutton when the storm took him by surprise. He dropped the bone by his bed and fled the hut in panic.

Then the wind-driven sands quickly filled all the stone huts burying the necklace and the half-eaten bone for the ages.

The storm raged with a fury the villagers had never experienced before. They fled the village in blind terror.

The sea pounded in the bay, and to the prehistoric people of Skara Brae it must have seemed that the world was coming to an end.

The villagers abandoned their village in the hilly dunes. Several times a small number of them returned and camped under the remaining exposed walls of the huts. And then they never returned again. Over the centuries the sand continued to drift in, until nothing was visible.

Although the name Skara Brae remained, memory of the village itself vanished.


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