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Teaching Suggestions for Using the Materials on Skara Brae


(This is the second of 2 items on Skara Brae. See the first here)

Two important notes to begin:

Firstly, this is a menu of activities for work on Skara Brae – I’ve organized them in a possible teaching sequence but in reality what order you do them in will depend on your class, what you’ve done before and other factors. So please don’t treat this sequence as the ‘right way to teach about Skara Brae’ – work out what will work best for your children and which of these items you will use.

Secondly, this set of suggestions is based upon the resources provided in this package – you may wish to augment them with pictures and other material which you can find though the website links provided in the first item [ here ]


A formatted version of this activity should print from your browser (omitting this support section) or a WORD version of this activity and accompanying resources can be downloaded:

See the first part of this material "Skara Brae Discovering a Stone Age Community" [ here ]

Menu of Activities

So here’s the ‘menu’ of activities:

1. A dramatic discovery and asking questions

Tell the brief but dramatic story of the site being uncovered in a storm in 1850 [see Introduction for teachers] – there’s little detail but you can conjure up a storm, lots of rain and a strong, strong wind, everyone stayed indoors, feared their roofs would blow off, then in the morning when the storm had died away they ventured outside – and where there was a beach suddenly there were … what looked like stone houses! [see beginning of Powerpoint sequence for an aerial view of the site]

Explain where this took place – Skara Brae in Orkney – you’ll probably want to use a map to show Orkney in relation to wherever you are.

Now encourage children to ask questions about the site – asking questions is a central historical skill. Hopefully one of the questions will be ‘what did they find?’ which allows you to move onto the next stage!

2. Introducing the finds

Show children two or three of the finds to get them looking carefully and asking more questions. The main focus here is on creating interest, puzzle, a sense of investigation as a springboard.

We have put three items [a house interior, some pottery and a stone ball] onto sheet 1 and have included them near the beginning of the PowerPoint sequence.

Now get children to describe the objects carefully and to ask questions about these objects – What are they? What are they made from? How old are they? Where were they found? Who might have lived there?

You may find it helpful to have a wall display or screen with a series of interrogative words to encourage different questions. You could also record the questions to come back to later as well as to reward children for their ideas.

Then see what answers children can suggest – even if they struggle it’s important to see if they can come up with ideas, especially about what the items are made from as this links to the chronological term ‘Stone Age’.

We have included each of these three items individually on sheets 2-4 in case you want children to annotate each item with description and questions.

3. When did people live at Skara Brae?

One of the questions that will hopefully have been asked is ‘How old are they?’ and it’s important to help children place Skara Brae in time, even if it’s a very rough sense of being before the Romans and other people they have heard of and inhabited at the same time as Stonehenge was being used. Timeline activities which give a sense of duration will be most helpful – for suggestions for teaching the chronology of prehistory click here …

In this case the starting point is the nature of the objects you’ve looked at so far – what are they made of? If you had to choose when they belong to would you choose the Stone, Bronze or Iron Age – and why? By way of a solution you could refer to scientific tests [radio-carbon dating] showing the objects come from the Stone Age to support the fact they’re made from stone!

When you do this chronology work is one of the hardest things to decide – doing it first of all before introducing Skara Brae is probably the least effective way as children won’t then have become interested in the site and want to know where it fits in. Equally a lengthy chronology activity would disrupt the sense of puzzle and discovery. One possibility is to do a brief chronology activity after looking at the first finds and then come back to the chronology and reinforce it once the enquiry into Skara Brae is complete. You can also keep referring back to Skara Brae when covering other prehistoric, Roman etc topics.

4. Using the finds as evidence to answer questions

The next possible step could be tackled in several ways, depending on how demanding you wish to make it. We have provided a range of evidence from the site on sheets 5-9. You could either:

a) ask children to choose, say, 3 of the questions they asked earlier and use the evidence to find answers. To do this they could write out the questions, then add the evidence underneath that helps to answer the question, then write out their answer – a kind of evidence sandwich!

b) give children one or more of the questions, perhaps dividing the questions amongst groups in the class and ask them to see what answers they can come up with from the evidence – again creating an ‘evidence sandwich’ as above.

c) Give students a set of statements (i.e. the answers!) and ask them to find evidence that shows the statements are either true or might be true. This will stimulate thinking about whether we can know everything about the past for certain.

Possible statements would be:

• The people at Skara Brae used stone and flint tools
• The people made bowls and other containers from pottery
• They ate meat and shellfish
• They tried to make their homes as comfortable as possible
• The people used the stone balls in religious ceremonies [See PowerPoint sequence for an illustration of this]
• They used animal bones as tools and to wear as decorations

Whichever route you take it may help children if you cut up the source sheets so they can place the individual items of evidence alongside the questions or statements they relate to.

5. Some other possible activities:       

Create a class display answering the question ‘What did we find out about the people who lived at Skara Brae?’

Recreate one of the huts on the classroom or hall floor – writing out labels to show what was in each place and/or record an audio tour explaining the house to a visitor.

[I don’t have all the dimensions but the bed on the right of the door is always larger – 2m x 1m 7cms in Hut 1; the longest left hand bed is 1m 67cms long. The central hearth is about 1.5m square. One plan suggests Hut 1 is about 7m square.]

Ask children to choose their favourite question and write/record their answer.

Create a display on ‘How we know about Skara Brae’ including a section on the kinds of evidence we do NOT have.

6. The Boy with the Bronze Axe

Use extracts from The Boy with the Bronze Axe, asking children to find the evidence that the author Kathleen Fidler used to help her write each section. This could actually be an activity that replaces everything else depending on your class and what you want to achieve!

We have included four sets of extracts from the book – you may want to adapt the language and so we’ve included a WORD version in the companion document here.

Other Resources to Support Work on Skara Brae

Other resources on this website can be used to support work on Skara Brae, both in teaching about prehistory and in helping children develop an understanding of what’s involved in ‘doing history’.

At the time of writing [December 2014] the following are most relevant:

• Teaching suggestions for the chronology of prehistory here …

• An introduction to prehistory for teachers unfamiliar with the period here …

• For more on the value of Enquiry in History see here …

• For the whole list of activities which may be useful at KS2 see here …


Finally, you may well decide there are other, better ways of teaching about prehistory and Skara Brae with your class. If you would like to pass on your ideas to other teachers I would be happy to add them to the site – constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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