On the remote island of Orkney, off the Northern coastline of Scotland, eight houses were built from local stone, connected by tunnels to protect the inhabitants from the vicious weather, and buried beneath a layer of soil and turf. That was over four thousand years ago. Skara Brae, sometimes called Skerrabra, housed a small community of Neolithic Britons, eking out a living on the windswept Island.
There is some conjecture over who first discovered the site. One story begins on a winter morning in 1850, after a particularly fierce storm battered the coastline of the southern shore in the Bay o'Skaill. The extreme high tide and gale force winds stripped the organic matter from the mounds to reveal the first stone walls of the houses. A local landowner, William Watt reported his find to Orcadian antiquarian, George Petrie, who began excavations soon after. This claim was refuted by Orcadian historian and writer, Dr Ernest Marwick (1915-1977), suggesting that locals knew about the site for many years prior to Watts' story. Marwick made reference to a chap called James Robertson, who made a tour of Orkney in 1769 and recorded the site in his journal. Whichever story is true, it's unclear why Petrie halted the dig in 1868. After exploring four of the underground homes, the mounds were left open to the elements where they became partially covered in sand until 1925, when another devastating storm hit. This time, more of those four houses were exposed, putting the archaeological treasure at further risk from the sea. At this point, local authorities decided to build sea defences around the site. As the builders were preparing the ground, they uncovered a further four houses and the interconnecting tunnels. All in all, they found ten surviving structures. Between 1928 and 1930, the full extent of the Skara Brae site was revealed in all its glory. The internal walls and original stone capped tunnels were remarkably well preserved, giving new insights into the lives of these ancient people. Carbon dating placed the occupation of the houses from 3200 to 2200BCE, for a period of around 600 years of continuous settlement.
The houses all share a similar structure of one large square room, a central fireplace, beds on either side and shelving built into the wall made from stone slabs, situated opposite the entrance. The walls were constructed from flagstones embedded into the earth, with midden waste used to infill the gaps providing natural insulation. All furniture, from tables, cupboards, chairs and beds were fashioned from stone, making them extremely durable if a little uncomfortable. Since wood was scarce, these underground homes would have had few timbers to support a turf roof with a central opening used as a chimney. Without windows, the houses would be dark and smoky. Since wood was such a valuable commodity, it's unlikely that it was burned as fuel. That creates a puzzle as to what they did use to keep the home fires burning. Perhaps they had access to peat or even dried seaweed gathered from the shore. Researchers dismissed the feasibility of collecting enough driftwood to be worthwhile, since the village was not next to the coastline at that point and the quantity would be insufficient. What is known from the artefacts excavated is that they raised livestock such as cattle and sheep, fished and hunted, and made their own style of flat-sided 'groove ware' pottery. They crafted knives and tools, jewellery, gaming dice, ornaments from precious rocks and bone and even had a community drainage system and indoor toilets. There are few clues as to why the inhabitants suddenly left the settlement. For a long time, historians likened Skara Brae to a Scottish Pompeii, conjuring another catastrophic storm that sent the families fleeing from the gales that lifted roofs and covered their homes with sand. They backed up their assumptions with evidence of beads strewn across one doorway as though the wearer broke a necklace as they ran through the entrance into the tunnels to escape. Recent researchers have since debunked those claims, stating that whatever their reasons for abandoning Skara Brae, geology suggests a gradual infilling of soil and sand over time. What is most interesting is the analysis of charred bone fragments taken from a centralised midden pile. Dr Jerry Herman, Senior Curator of Mammology at the National Museums Scotland, published a paper in 2016 with the Royal Society on rodent bones found there. Dr Herman appeared on the live television programme, Good Morning, Scotland, soon after and said; "We went through a process of deduction and what we found that the material within the site, within the dwelling houses at Skara Brae, there were far more of these field voles - which is small grassland rodent that live in the pastures - and there were far more of them in the material from the site than from areas that were excavated outside the site. "That kind of showed us that they had been accumulated there somehow. "Because they were spread through the human refuse, along with other household waste over hundreds of years, we concluded that it wasn't animals that were depositing them there, it was actually the people that lived there. "Finally, what we found is that quite a lot of them had evidence of burning on them, like they'd been roasted on the fire, and that gave us the clue that they were eating them rather than just getting rid of them because they were pests." Could a simple solution to the abandonment be that conditions grew unbearable for them to stay? If the inhabitants had to walk through enclosed tunnels to stay out of the elements, perhaps farming too became unsustainable. With a limited food supply, did they turn to the voles in desperation or were they considered a delicacy? If hunting and fishing yielded plenty of food, why would they bother with tiny roasted rodents that provided such meagre quantities of protein? All supposition aside, this Neolithic village has to be the best-preserved settlement in Northern Europe thanks to the prevalence of stone building materials. It allows us to see that far from being primitive barbarians, they were cultured, skilled and resourceful communities surviving despite the harsh conditions of everyday life. Skara Brae is a World Heritage site listed by UNESCO.