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Skara Brae – Discovering a Stone Age Community

An introduction to the resources and teaching ideas

These materials and teaching suggestions introduce teachers and children to the prehistoric site of Skara Brae, enabling children to learn something of the lives of the Stone Age people who lived there over 4000 years ago. They also offer the opportunity to develop historical skills – asking questions, suggesting answers, supporting answers with evidence – which are identified as important aspects of ‘doing history’ in the National Curriculum.

This set of materials consists of:

1. An introduction to Skara Brae for teachers who know little of the site

2. A brief synopsis of the children’s novel The Boy with the Bronze Axe by Kathleen Fidler which is set at Skara Brae.

3. Resources for use with and by children – on PowerPoint slides and on paper

4. Suggestions for using the resources to develop children’s knowledge of Skara Brae and understanding of how we study the past.

None of this assumes there’s a ‘right way’ to approach teaching about Skara Brae or prehistory. How you approach the topic will depend on the nature of your class and what you’ve done before in History lessons. Therefore what’s here can only be outline suggestions which will need adapting to meet the needs and development of each group of children.

Note: The first two items in the list of materials are included in this document. For the second two see "Teaching Suggestions for Using the Materials on Skara Brae", here.

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A formatted version of this background information should print from your browser (omitting this support section) or you can download a WORD version [ here ]

Also, see "Teaching Suggestions for Using the Materials on Skara Brae" [ here ]

Skara Brae – an introduction to the site for teachers

Nobody knew the settlement of Skara Brae existed until 1850 when a violent storm ravaged the Bay of Skaill in the Orkney Isles and revealed the Neolithic village of Skara Brae buried beneath the sand dunes. It is the best preserved Neolithic village in northern Europe, dating from between 3,200 and 2,200 BC.

[Neolithic means New Stone Age – the period is usually dated roughly as 4000BC-2500BC]

The people who lived at Skara Brae were farmers, rearing cattle and sheep and growing barley and wheat. Their diet contained meat from cattle, sheep and deer, fish, eggs from seabirds as well as lots of shellfish - oysters, crabs, cockles and mussels. No fishing equipment has been discovered in the excavations but water-tight tanks in the floor of each house were probably designed to hold limpets for fish bait.

The people lived tightly packed together in individual houses, each house having a living space of around 40 square metres. Every house has the same layout.  Each has a small doorway which would have been blocked by a slab of stone and possibly barred as well. Opposite each door, large, stone dressers are still intact, where objects of importance could be displayed, but secret spaces have also been found under the stone dresser for other objects. On either side of the living space were stone beds, which would have been filled with bracken and heather and covered with animal skins.

A passageway ran through the group of houses which were also buried to roof level in clay soil and waste material to provide insulation and protection from the elements. All buildings and objects were made from stone because there was little or no timber available.

Outside the complex of houses is another building, a workshop where chert - a form of flint - was made into stone tools. Volcanic pumice, washed up on Orkney's beaches from Iceland, was also used to shape bone tools. In good years, the people probably lived well with some leisure time, making bone necklaces and the mysterious stone balls carved from volcanic rock.

At some time around 2,200 BC Skara Brae was gradually abandoned. We don’t know why this took place, perhaps because of the encroaching sand dunes, perhaps because of changes in the way people were living.

The objects discovered at the site include:

• Large quantities of animal bones and the debris from shellfish. Whalebone was also found, probably from whales stranded on the shore

• Tools, pins, pots and needles made from bone and stone, including fifteen stone axe-heads.

• Some small stone pots contained red colouring material

• Pottery, decorated with lines and swirls

• Beads and animal teeth (from rabbits to two teeth of a whale) which could have made necklaces

• Carved stone balls which may have had a ceremonial purpose

Websites for further information and images of Skara Brae

Orkney Heritage site – this is an excellent starting point here …

BBC Primary here …

Historic Scotland here …

Education Scotland here …

National Museums, Scotland - images of archaeological finds here …

BBC History’s gallery of Skara Brae images here …

 

Kathleen Fidler, ‘The Boy with the Bronze Axe’

One possible classroom resource is this historical novel for children, which has been in print since it was first published in 1968. I have included extracts in the materials but first a short summary of the plot!

Two of the central characters are sister and brother, Kali and Brockan who live in the village at Skara Brae. When the story begins they are using their stone axes to chip limpets off the rocks, but they find themselves trapped by the tide. They are rescued by a complete stranger, a boy called Tenko who comes from a land far away to the south. Tenko possesses a bronze axe and bronze is something the villagers of Skara Brae know nothing about – Tenko’s bronze axe is sharper, more effective, almost more magical than anything the local people possess and one of the sub-plots concerns the jealousies the bronze axe stirs up with one local family.

One of the set-pieces in the story is a great ceremony at the Ring of Brodgar which makes full use of the landscape near Skara Brae and of some of the finds at the site – the mysteriously carved stone balls and the pigments of colour in pottery vessels. The story ends with a tempest which covers Skara Brae and puts an end to the settlement there – there’s a lovely touch where Kali loses her necklace containing exactly the kinds of beads and teeth that archaeologists found when they excavated the site. [It’s now thought unlikely, however, that it was such a storm that covered the village c.2200BC]

The loss of the necklace is just one of many examples where  Kathleen Fidler (1899-1980) makes good use of the layout of the site and the finds uncovered in the excavations and children may well enjoy and get a sense of achievement in being able to link the two together.  You may well enjoy the story in your own right even if you don’t use it in school!

Extracts from ‘The Boy with the Bronze Axe’

The following extracts are included in the teaching resource but we’ve included them in the WORD version of this page [ here ] as you may wish to adapt them for your pupils:

A. Kali sat up in her stone bed filled with heather … Her mother still slept in the stone bed-place on the other side of the hearth.

B. The two children tip-toed to the narrow entrance [of their hut] and Kali stooped under the stone doorway to the passage beyond. Quietly they crept along the passage which … led upwards and outwards to the daylight. They stood on the sand-dune that lay about their house, almost level with the beehive-like roofs of the stone village.

C. Tenko looked about him. Bone rafters made the roof, and turfs had been laid upon them to thatch them, but a large hole had been left above the hearth for a chimney. At one side of the hut was a stone dresser built of flat slabs resting on pillars of stone.

D. Kali emptied the limpets and shellfish on to a stone slab and began to scrape the limpets out of their shells into a shallow bowl. She used a tiny flint scraper as a knife. Stempsi [her mother] took the crabs and eel and wrapped them up in a covering of wet clay which she thrust into the glowing heart of the fire, prodding it into place with the long leg-bone of an ox which she used like a poker.

E. Birno lifted a stone axe from the keeping-place hollowed out of the wall beyond his bed. His stone axe was wedged into a piece of deer antler. Lines were chiselled on the stone in a pleasing pattern of squares and diagonals over the centre of the axe-head.

F. The women prepared new tunics of the softest sheepskin. With flint scrapers they scraped away the wool and washed the skins in the stream … They kneaded and pounded them on the stones till the skins were soft and supple. Then they shaped them into tunics, sewing up the sides with sinews from the sheep. Kali joined the women … She had begged two soft lambskins … Kali sewed them into a tunic … She tacked a deep pocket on the inside of the tunic and fastened it with whalebone pins.

G. He pulled out a necklace. It was made of the teeth of many animals, beautifully polished and shining white. They were graded from the very small teeth of rabbits and lambs to the larger teeth of sheep and cows. There were nearly a hundred of these ivory beads and from the centre hung two of the great teeth of the killer-whale.

H. In preparation for the longest day of the year the tribe of Skara had many things to do. The previous day they cast off their old tunics and rushed into the sea. They rubbed their bodies with white sand till the skin was reddened. This was the ceremony of cleansing.

Next came the ceremony of painting. The women had prepared pigments in little basins made from whale bones. There was a yellow paint made from a clay ochre, a red paint made by crushing pieces of rusty-looking stone, and blue paint from a flax plant.

Birno came to the meeting place carrying six beautifully carved stone balls. These were the symbols of the Sun belonging to the tribe of Skara … Two of them had been carved by Birno himself. Birno looked with pride at the last stone ball he had carved. The carving on it was so deep that the pattern stood out in spikes like a hedgehog. It had taken Birno a whole year to carve … The spikes represented the rays of the sun.

There were two ways across the moat [into the ring] … Birno halted and lined up his people. Only the men would cross into the sacred ring … Birno … gave the word, “Lift up your symbols of the Sun.” The six leaders held the carved stone balls high in their hands … The company advanced across the earthen bridge with the signs of the Sun held aloft … Three times the tribes of Orkney marched round the Ring of Brodgar and each time the men passed the highest stone of all, they lifted the signs of the Sun which they carried and shouted loudly.

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Boy with the Bronze Axe

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