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Ritual and religion in Skara Brae

Stone Objects from Skara BraeFor obvious reasons, we can only guess at the religious beliefs of the inhabitants of Skara Brae.

They left no record of their beliefs and religious practices, so we are forced to make assumptions based on various objects and clues found at the sites they visited, and used, on a regular basis.

Whenever dealing with something like ritual and religion, we must remember that the people of Neolithic Orkney had a completely alien set of beliefs and values than we do today.

Speaking during the excavation of the village at Stonehall in Firth, archaeologist Dr Colin Richards said: "With a period like the Neolithic you get almost fooled into thinking we have some basic idea of what's going on, and then we look at something else and we're all at sea again.

"I think the reason for that is because to really understand something we have to make it familiar and if it's not familiar we simply do not understand it. All the time we're trying to make them (the Neolithic Orcadians) like us but in reality these people were totally different."

Despite this difference in society, from the material clues we can glean a small amount of information relating to their rituals and theorise as to the form their religious beliefs took.

Skara Brae's similarity to the architecture of the nearby tombs shows that ritual formed a considerable part of everyday life and in death. Given the effort put into the construction of these tombs we can also say with a degree of certainty that the dead were very important to the Neolithic Orcadians.

It seems likely, therefore, that some form of ancestor worship took place but whether this took precedence over the veneration over a pantheon of deities is obviously not known.

However, based on the islands’ later prehistoric inhabitants we can suggest that the inhabitants of Skara Brae did worship a number of gods - perhaps a multitude of deities or spirits who controlled different aspects of their daily lives.

A spirit of the sea who stilled the winter storms or a god that may have controlled the seasons and ensured the fertility of the land and a plentiful harvest. The fresh water from the springs and burns was perhaps seen to have been a divine gift without which the settlement would perish.

The sun and the moon also seems to have been important to these people, given the care they took aligning their major monuments to sunrises and sunsets.

If we are to believe the theories that the stone circles at Brodgar and Stenness were used for astronomical purposes it has been suggested that the stars might also have had a place within this religious structure.