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Neolithic Toilets

Stone Age Toilets

Skara Brae is a large Neolithic settlement on the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland, the main island of the Orkney Islands, just off the north coast of Scotland. It is a cluster of eight dwellings and it was occupied roughly 3100-2500 BC.

Skara Brae is Europe's most complete Neolithic village and it was discovered only in 1850. It was well preserved when it was discovered, and the early excavations were unusually careful for that time.

The settlement was built on, and into, a midden heap from a previous settlement. That is, a mound of domestic refuse, or bluntly, an old garbage dump. That material provided insulation against the harsh winter climate at that latitude.

Overview of Skara Brae Neolithic settlement beside the Bay of Skaill in the Orkney Islands.

The structures were connected with narrow curving passageways that were also covered to protect the entire settlement from the weather. The small size and curving paths of the passageways limited the wind blowing through the communal structure.

The walls and furniture are built from stone. The local sandstone splits into plates or sheets suiting it for certain types of construction. There were few trees on the Orkney Islands in the Neolithic era, and almost none today. They used driftwood and whalebone to form frames for the roofs. Some of the driftwood came from northeastern North America along the clockwise gyre of the north Atlantic. Sheets of turf would have been laid over that framework with thatch on top, much like what has been used in the Highlands and the Outer Hebrides through the early 20th century.

The following shows where the settlement fits into prehistoric and historic periods. Keep in mind that the later eras are defined locally as the periods when cultural and technological developments reached a given point in that location. For Britain, the eras are commonly divided as follows:

Years Era Events
2,500,000 — 10,000 BC Paleolithic Origin of man, development of stone tools, Homo sapians neanderthalensis appeared in Europe 600,000 to 350,000 years ago and disappeared by 30,000 BC.
10,000 — 2100 BC Neolithic Began about 10,000 BC with the development of farming crops of einkorn wheat, millet and spelt, and the keeping of dogs, sheep and goats. Farming communities appeared at Jericho about 8500 BC and spread to Asia Minor, North Africa and North Mesopotamia by 8000 BC.
Pottery arose in various forms.
Jericho (now in Palestine) is often referred to as the first city, going back to about 10,000 BC. Çatalhöyük (now in Turkey) is another early large settlement, from 7500 BC. Agrarian societies appeared in southeastern Europe by about 7000 BC and central Europe by about 5500 BC. Skara Brae was occupied about 3100-2500 BC.
2100 — 700 BC Bronze Age Development of metals, specifically bronze, an alloy of copper and tin.
The Neolithic-Bronze and Bronze-Iron boundaries (that is, the development of those two metal technologies) varies with location.
700 BC — 450 AD Iron Age Period when the main technology was based on iron.
In Britain, considered to have lasted until the Roman conquest, at least as far as Hadrian's Wall, or until the mid-400s in Scotland.
House 1 of Skara Brae Neolithic settlement beside the Bay of Skaill in the Orkney Islands.

Each of the Skara Brae dwellings contained a number of stone furnishings. Seven of the structures were dwellings, following a common design. The eighth seems to have been a common work area for communal cooking and tool production.

Each dwelling was approximately square and about 40 square meters in size. The entryway was at the center of one side, out of sight at lower right in this picture.

A stone hearth was at the center of the dwelling, the darker stone surface at lower right. This would have been used for heating, light and cooking.

Opposite the entrance was a cabinet, a stone set of shelves and compartments. It would have been the first thing seen when entering the dwelling, and it is thought that this layout was intentional to display important possessions.

The sleeping compartments or bed boxes were formed from thin slabs of stone extending up at least knee-high. Typical dwellings had them on the other two sides, at left and right as you enter.

One corner beside the cabinet had some smaller stone boxes referred to as tanks, used for preparing fish bait. Presumably the thin vertical slabs of stone provided the rectangular structure and its joints were lined and sealed with sheets of fish skin or animal bladder.

House 4 of Skara Brae Neolithic settlement beside the Bay of Skaill in the Orkney Islands.

And now, for the toilets....

The other front corner, on the opposite side of the cabinet from the bait boxes, is a small chamber referred to as a cell in the material in the museum and at the Skara Brae site itself.

This dwelling has its cell at upper right in this picture.

According to the explanatory material at the Skara Brae site, drainage systems have been discovered in some of the cells. According to their interpretation, the cells "may have been toilets."

Other interpretations are more definite, for example, the Wikipedia article (at least at the time I wrote this) said: "A sophisticated drainage system was even incorporated into the village's design, one that included a primitive form of toilet in each dwelling."

So, are the Skara Brae cells Neolithic era toilets?

Probably. Some people say that they are. Some say that they may be. No one seems to be saying that they definitely aren't.

House 2 of Skara Brae Neolithic settlement beside the Bay of Skaill in the Orkney Islands.
House 2 of Skara Brae Neolithic settlement beside the Bay of Skaill in the Orkney Islands.

The cell of this dwelling is at upper right in these views.

This dwelling is unusual in that it has a "secret compartment", a sizeable storage area behind its cabinet. This might have been used as a secret storage area, although it's hard to imagine a secret lasting very long in such a small and close community.

Reconstructed House 7 of Skara Brae Neolithic settlement beside the Bay of Skaill in the Orkney Islands.

The best preserved dwelling, designated as House 7, has some very fine carvings that were starting to deteriorate as it was no longer protected by being buried in sand. British Heritage covered the house with a glass roof, but this made the deterioration worse instead of better.

They have replaced the glass roof with one of sod, maintaining a much more constant environment inside the house. This unfortunately means that you can't see it. To make up for this, they have reconstruced an exact replica that you can enter.

This shows the mounded exterior of the House 7 reconstruction. Driftwood and whale rib roof beams would have supported a roof of turf and thatch, and grass would have soon covered that.

Reconstructed House 7 of Skara Brae Neolithic settlement beside the Bay of Skaill in the Orkney Islands.

As you enter the dwelling from the narrow passageway you look across the main chamber, across the hearth to the cabinet.

Reconstructed House 7 of Skara Brae Neolithic settlement beside the Bay of Skaill in the Orkney Islands.

One set of bed boxes is along the left wall. The cell is in the far corner at the left of the cabinet.

Reconstructed House 7 of Skara Brae Neolithic settlement beside the Bay of Skaill in the Orkney Islands.

Here it is, a view into the cell.

US Government map of Britain.

Logistics

Here is a map of the UK. The Orkney Islands are just off the northern coast of Scotland.

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has a large and well-done exhibit of items from prehistoric Scotland, including quite a bit from Skara Brae. The museum at Skara Brae itself is small and mostly explains the site — the artifacts are mostly in Edinburgh.

Almost certainly if you aren't British, and quite likely if you are, you will travel to Orkney by way of Edinburgh. See the National Museum's collection before going to Skara Brae, and see it again afterward when it will make more sense. Some of the collection is available online.

As for getting to Orkney:

Once in Stromness, check the bus schedules at the Tourist Information Center at the ferry terminal. There are a few buses per day stopping at Skara Brae. After visiting Skara Brae and the adjacent Skaill House (home of the Laird who owned the land and discovered the site), you could return to Stromness via a later bus.

A better alternative if you get an early enough start is to return to Stromness on foot along the West Coast Walk. It's about 17 kilometers along the tops of the rugged cliffs along the west coast of Mainland, the main island of Orkney.

A good place to stay is Brown's Hostel, just a couple of short blocks down the main Victoria Street from the ferry terminal:
45-47 Victoria Street
Stromness, Orkney, KW16 3BS
+44-(0)1856-850-661
+44-(0)1856-851-780 fax
www.brownshostel.co.uk

Click here for more travel pictures and suggestions from the Orkney Islands, Scotland, and Britain.