It was the winter of 1850 when a savage tempest enveloped the desolate and sparsely inhabited Orkney Isles off the far-flung coast of Scotland. The violent and merciless storm left 200 islanders dead.
The largest of Orkney’s 70 islands – Mainland, whose name is derived from the Old Norse word “Megenland” – underwent considerable physical transformation during the extraordinary high-tide storm. The squall tore away the surface of an earthen mound known locally as “Skerrabara.”
The mysterious Orkney Islands are known for their Bronze-Age tombs, Viking ruins and Medieval churches. But what the ill-fated storm exposed was nothing short of astonishing: primeval structures built by a much older and stranger culture.
William Watt of Skaill, a local estate holder, assumed responsibility for excavating the mound, later dubbed Skara Brae. He uncovered four ancient households before giving up on the work in 1868. No one attempted any more efforts to unravel the island’s secrets until the 20th century.
Excavation work in the late 1920s and early 1930s discovered additional structures that at the time were presumed to date back to around 500 BCE. The theory was that these were ruins from the long-lost Picts, a tribal confederation so fierce it had successfully fended off the Romans.
But this was not the case. In the 1970s the results of radiocarbon tests placed Skara Brae not in the Iron Age, but at the very dawn of human civilization. Constructed in 3180 BCE, Skara Brae is in fact among the best preserved Stone Age settlements in Europe.
The site has such deep historical and anthropological significance that it was awarded prestigious UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999. “The monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae proclaim the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places,” declared the UNESCO inscription.
Resembling a squat mound from the outside, the close-knit settlement was continuously inhabited for six centuries and probably accommodated no more than 50 villagers. It combined a number of symbolic and functional design elements, including an advanced drainage system.
The villager’s living spaces consisted of several structures built into prehistoric garbage mounds known as middens. Connected by a warren of covered passageways, the middens provided structural support and essential insulation against the long and relentlessly dark Orkney winters.
Without access to a reliable source of wood, Skara Brae’s inhabitants built their homes, which spanned 430 square feet, from stone. Seven of the eight houses have identical stone furnishings, including stone slab doors that can be closed with a sliding stone bar.
Mysterious stone “dressers”, which have become emblematic of Skara Brae, stand at the entrances to each building. Are these simple storage units or sacred altars? They are thought to have been particularly important to the site’s inhabitants, but their purpose is unknown.
Serviced by a central smoke-hole, the hearth fireplace formed the centerpiece of each house. As a vital source of light and warmth, the hearth fire was the focus for numerous activities, from cooking to socializing. Fire was the heart of Orkney’s Neolithic society.
Some archaeologists believe that Skara Brae’s households were divided along gender lines with two stone beds – one large for a man, one small for a woman – on either side of the hearth fire. But the division may have been metaphysical as well, with the right-hand side of the house thought to have been male and the left female.
Decorated with carved patterns, the eighth structure was likely used for special functions. Unlike Skara Brae’s other buildings, it lacked domestic furniture. But the discovery of debris on its floor have led some to speculate it was a workshop for manufacturing stone-age tools.
In the foundations of the mysterious seventh structure, a detached building surrounded by a circular wall, were the skeletal remains of two women. The structure’s door could only be bolted from without, perhaps indicating an exclusion area such as a birth-house, a prison or a ritual space.
The inhabitants of Skara Brae are thought to have been a pastoral community who reared cattle and sheep, farmed barley and wheat, fished off-shore, and hunted deer, boar and seals. They worked with a wide range of natural materials including clay, leather, bones, teeth and walrus ivory.
Little is known about their religious life, but the discovery of carved stone balls with obscure runic-like inscriptions have inspired a wealth of conjecture. Skara Brae’s first inhabitants probably engaged in ancestor worship, with later cultures revering a number of deities, including a god of the sea.
With the emergence of powerful tribal societies elsewhere, close-knit Skara Brae was gradually abandoned around 2500 BC. The long-term effects of sand and salt water on the soil probably also contributed to the settlement’s decline. Natural forces slowly buried all clues of the community’s existence.
Although the site has been carefully studied for years, it continues to inspire researchers with new discoveries. In June 2016 a long-lost whale-bone figurine was recovered in a museum archive, a very rare prehistoric depiction of the human form.
What next? Well, Skara Brae may be among the world’s best preserved Neolithic sites, but it is at particular risk from climate change. Without concerted efforts to protect it, the site may disappear again – this time from the impacts of extreme weather events similar to the one that helped uncover it in 1850…