Skara Brae's houses were composed of piled stone slabs and erected into middens, which were mounds formed of waste material such as animal bones and trash. The more recent dwellings are more rectangular, but they all have the same layout: beds on either side, with a fireplace in the center. There are also remains of walls and floors that have been found inside some of the houses.
The people who lived here had many similarities to people living today in northern Europe. They dressed similarly, ate similar foods, built their houses in similar ways. But they also had some unusual habits. For example, they buried their dead face down so that they could not be recognized. They also used whale oil for lighting at night instead of candles.
This was probably a large settlement with families living together. There are hints that it may have been a town where people worked in trade or business, because several small boats have been found along with tools for repairing them. Some of these boats have been reconstructed from what is left of them today; they are about 16 feet (5 m) long and three feet (1 m) wide.
People started building Skara Brae after 830 AD, which makes it one of the later Iron Age settlements. At first, they just constructed larger and larger houses until they reached a point where they needed more space.
The Skara Brae dwellings were built into midden, a strong clay-like substance full with household garbage. The site itself is covered in trees now, but when the first settlers arrived, the area was open farmland.
When they left, what did they take with them? That's the question scientists have been trying to answer since the discovery of the village in 1791. They've tried to reconstruct how the inhabitants lived by studying their houses and tools; there are even hints about their diet based on the remains of animals buried at the site. But perhaps not everything that was made available to these people was used or lost, which would explain why more than 200 years later we're still learning about them.
What do the findings from modern day excavations add to our understanding of the people who lived at Skara Brae? In addition to revealing new information about daily life at the village, the studies have helped archaeologists date many of the structures and predict how they were used. For example, one dwelling has walls that are lined with carefully fitted stones that would have taken years to build. This suggests it was probably used for ceremonial purposes.
Have any skeletons been found at the site? Yes!
The Skara Brae home was actually rather big, with a total floor space of 36 square metres. Life inside would have been relatively warm and comfortable (at least by Neolithic standards), with straw or heather mattresses and sheep or deer skin covers. The inhabitants would have had access to fresh water from a well or stream, but would also have needed to hunt or fish for food. There are no trees or vegetation outside the village site, so the only source of fuel for heat and light would have been bone or stone.
Skara Brae has often been described as a "modern day neolithic village", which is a good way of putting it. It's true that the people who built Skara Brae were using techniques they had learned over time, but they also seem to have been influenced by other cultures too. For example, they used wooden sticks instead of bones to make tools, and some of the pots they stored food in show signs of having been painted red.
It's not known exactly when or why the people of Skara Brae abandoned their homes, but since then many more have been found all over the world with almost identical furniture and equipment lying around them. This means that they must have left on their own will, because there was no evidence of violence or destruction anywhere near the site.