except in Egypt or at Pompeii, is a prehistoric settlement the
sites, huts and even domestic furniture of which are in such perfect
preservation." Professor V. Gordon Childe
Skara Brae was continually inhabited for at least 600 years — over which time there appear to have been two distinctive stages of construction.
Dating from around 3000BC, the earliest houses in the village were circular — made up of one main room, containing a central hearth, with beds set into the walls at either side. Opposite the main entrance was a shelved stone dresser - a piece of Stone Age furniture that has come to represent Skara Brae.
The remains of these older structures remain on the site, visible as rough stone outlines (see picture above right).
The later houses followed the same basic design, but on a larger scale. The house shape changed slightly, becoming more rectangular with rounded internal corners. Also, the beds were no longer built into the wall but protruded into the main living area.
Each house was accessed through a low doorway, which had a stone slab door that could be closed, and secured, by a bar that fitted into holes in the door jambs.
Although it was in use for seven generations, from current excavation evidence, it appears that Skara Brae did not grow any larger than eight structures. The maximum number of dwellings at any one period, it has been suggested, was between six and eight, housing no more than 50 to 100 villagers at any one time.
Today, the visitor is often assumes the eight surviving structures are the remains of an underground village, linked by a series of short, roofed tunnels. This is actually not the case.
The houses were not sunk into the ground but built into mounds of pre-existing rubbish, known as "midden". Although the midden provided the houses with a small degree of stability, its most important purpose was to act as a layer of insulation — an absolute necessity given Orkney's climate.
Because the houses were built into the midden, from the outside, the village would have appeared as a low, round mound, broken only by the surface of each house's roof.
With a total floor area of 36 square metres, a Skara Brae house was actually quite spacious. Life inside would have been reasonably warm and comfortable (certainly by Neolithic standards), with beds having straw or heather mattresses and blankets of sheep or deer skin.
A remarkably sophisticated drainage system was incorporated into the village's design — which may have included an early form of toilet facilities.
Because nothing survived of the structures' roofs, we must assume that they were made of a perishable, organic material. It is likely that whalebone, or driftwood, beams supported a roof of turf, skins, thatched seaweed or straw.
Seaweed, weighed down with straw ropes attached to stones, remained a roofing material in Orkney into recent history.