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Skara Brae

Skara Brae, in the Orkney Islands to the north of Scotland, is one of the most important archaeological sites in all the world, but few get to see it because it’s so far off the beaten track.

The people of the largest of the Orkney Islands, the one called Mainland, had long known about an earthen mound that sat on its west coast, not far from the beach.  Anyone who took a moment to compare it to the countryside round about would have figured out  human beings had a hand in its construction.  Yet, it was not until the year 1850, when a fierce winter storm attacked the coast and stripped the top off that earthen mound, that the Orcadian people learned what lay beneath it.

What the storm revealed was a perfectly-preserved Neolithic fishing village of ten stone-walled huts.  The roofs of the huts – probably made of wood or thatch – had long since disappeared.  But inside the huts there was furniture made of stone: beds and shelves and benches and fire-pits.  Once the archaeologists came along and carefully removed the remaining sand, the huts of Skara Brae looked very much as their inhabitants had left them.

What makes Skara Brae so important – so much so, UNESCO has designated it a World Heritage Site – is its age.  The village was first occupied over 3,000 years before Christ.  That makes those simple stone huts older than Stonehenge, older than the pyramids of Egypt.

This becomes very clear to those who visit the site, because of something clever the Scottish monuments people have done with a rather mundane feature, the footpath from the Visitor’s Center to the ancient village.  They’ve measured the length of this pathway and marked it out as a timeline, beginning in the present era and working back through history.

The first marker you see indicates the American moon landing in 1969.  You pass, in turn, other markers, indicating other historical milestones.  Back through history you walk, through two World Wars, through the reign of Queen Victoria, through the Napoleonic Wars and the American Revolution, and still you’re a long way off from your destination.  Further on you go, through the time of Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare, and the Magna Carta of 1215, and the Viking attacks on Western Scotland in the 800s, and a bit further on to the fall of the Roman Empire.  By the time you come to the birth of Jesus Christ, and realize you’re still not halfway there, it begins to dawn on you how unspeakably ancient this place is.

By now the historic markers are getting fewer and farther between.  The Exodus from Egypt is 1300 B.C. or thereabouts,  the raising of the megaliths of Stonehenge around 2200 B.C. and the construction of the pyramids of Egypt, 2700 B.C.  But the pathway keeps going.  Eight hundred years later, you finally come to the building of Skara Brae.

As you tour the ancient stone huts, looking over those stone beds and benches and fire-pits – as though you’ve taken the top off a life-sized dollhouse and are peering into the rooms – a question comes to mind: where are the people?  What happened to the remains of those people who constructed the place, who lived in it, who birthed and fed and raised their children?

Of them, not a trace remains.  Five thousand years of history have a way of erasing every hint of the organic material that was their bodies.  In historical terms, human flesh is so fragile and transitory!  But, the stones – the stones, dug from the ground and carved and laid one atop the other – the stones endure.