|28 August 2005
Preservation work at Skara Brae
Julie Gibson, Orkney's county archaeologist, reckons the preservation work being done this summer on the neolithic house number seven at Skara Brae (Orkney, Scotland) has made present-day visitors appreciate the unique value of the site even more. "The set-up at Skara Brae, where visitors could only look down from the top, or stroll into roofless houses without bending, wasn't true to life," Gibson says. "But because house seven is closed off to visitors just now, Historic Scotland has reconstructed it nearby and members of the public can get a much more realistic impression of how things were - by crouching to get in through the door, and getting used to the limited light inside the house."
The eight best-preserved houses are the ones that make up the village seen by present-day visitors, but originally there were a dozen or so apartments - a neolithic equivalent of a modern housing estate, with a formalised regularity of layout. "There's a pattern, a certain style reproduced right across the neolithic villages of the time," says Gibson. "Right and left, front and back, the furniture would look the same and be arranged in the same way with the dresser facing the door, the larger bed on the right and the smaller one on the left. Then you had a certain size of clay pot with grooved-ware symbols, just to the left of the door."
The seventh and eighth apartments played a special role in village activities, it seems, though nobody is quite sure what this amounted to. House seven has its own separate passageway running at right-angles off the main corridor linking the houses, and for some reason the door is designed to be opened from the outside, not the inside like all the others. Who or what would have been shut in there? Julie Gibson doesn't know, but would love to find out. "There's obviously a reason for the architectural modifications, and the fact that two women are buried under house seven has led to a wide range of anthropological arguments - some more feasible than others."
"Maybe women were closed off in there for ritualistic reasons," says Gibson. "Menstruation was seen as a mystic sign as it occurred monthly following the phases of the moon; and then there was the whole awesome business of producing new people. They could have been closed off for childbirth, to keep the mysterious process secret. Perhaps house seven was a 'women's' house. The furniture arrangements are certainly different - it's the only one with a large stone block in the living area."
Could this have been a birthing plinth? "It's plausible," she says, but she is not convinced of another popular argument: that house seven was where women who had learned the secret of cereal-based fermentation concocted a powerful substance that had mind-altering properties.
Traces of cereal-based fermented alcohol have been found on the same kind of grooved-ware pottery on a nearby site, so it's known that alcohol was made. When Skara Brae was first excavated in 1929, the archaeologists noted vast quantities of a curious green slime oozing out of a smashed pottery vessel beside the hearth. That was before the days of analysis, but who's to say what might have been brewing away at the time the village was hit by the sandstorm that buried it? Nobody will ever know.
Source: The Scotsman (27 August 2005)
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