Anyone of Scottish descent can refer to their ancestors from Orkney, as proof of resourcefulness and amazing artisanship. Handcrafted furniture, such as dressers to put away valuables, tables for water vases, and beds to rest after a hard day of work are still ready for use nearly 10,000 years after they were built. How is that possible on an island surrounded by crippling, salty seawater? They are made of stone.
The transition from a nomadic society, dependent on hunting and gathering, to an agricultural village following the end of the last Ice Age during the Neolithic Period, or New Stone Age around 10,500 B.C.E. Early humans created the first wood shortage by eliminating forests for farming, building, and constructing furniture. For Villagers in Scotland's Skara Brae, a small, barren island in the Orkney Isles near the end of the Neolithic Period, the wood shortage created additional challenges. Occupying the area from 3,100 through 2,450 B.C.E., they relied on supplies brought from the mainland. Herds of animals, grains, and wood were some of the items transported to the islands. The rugged, rocky land only allowed villagers to grow barley.
They turned to drift wood from North America, stone, animal bones, hides, and other usable parts for furniture, clothing, and other essential items. Villagers created these pieces of furniture with tools made of stones and bones. Orkney has an abundance of sandstone, which is soft and composed of compressed sand particles. The ancient Scots used carving tools made from whale rib bones or oxen shoulder blades to carve the different pieces of furniture found inside the stone slab huts. Rocks differed in hardness, allowing artisans to create different tools to chip, flake, and polish the sandstone and other soft stone used for the tables, dressers, shelves, and beds constructed in Orkney and other Neolithic villages. They used volcanic pumice, which washed ashore from Iceland to shape stone and bone tools. For example, when chipped, obsidian flakes are sharper then a steel sword. To keep the flakes sharp, they require regular maintenance. Villagers used the blade-like tool to slice through the animal hides used for blankets on their stone beds. They didn't sleep on a cold slab of sandstone. Each home kept a fire hearth in the center to keep warm and they lined the beds with straw and heather mattresses.
For further learning on the Neolithic Period and their furniture, check the following websites:
- The Scandinavian Archaeology Collection online at the Milwaukee Public Museum provides a detailed timeline of stone tools from the Neolithic Period in Central Europe.
- The Heart of Neolithic Orkney: Key Facts (PDF) is a detailed and technical publication by the World Heritage Site of the different points of interest on the island. Included in the 12-page document are maps and quality images of the village furnishings.
- Basic Stone Tools – An overview of the different stone tools used in the New Stone Age and how early humans used the tools.
- Daily Life in Scotland – Created by the University of Minnesota at Twin Cities faculty, the web page provides a detailed summary of daily life during the Neolithic Era.
- The National Museums of Scotland has scanned images of dozens of the artifacts found at the Skara Brae site in Orkney. The decorated slab is composed of flagstone and has a decorative pattern carved on it.
- Rethinking the Domestic Architecture of Early Neolithic Orkney (PDF) – This article was published in the Post Hole, a student-run archaeology journal at the University of York. The article reviews the evidence archeologists have in the Orkney Islands from the Neolithic Period. It includes images from specific sites located on the islands.
- The New Stone Age (Neolithic Era) – A short, simple description of the era, including tools used, food production, clothing, jewelry, homes, and furnishings.
- Scotland's First People: Skara Brae, Orkney – An educational website maintained by the UK government about the history of Scotland has several pages on Neolithic Scot's lives. One page, Explore Skara Brae, has a great slide show about the Skara Brae settlement.
- Skara Brae – This educational page has a wealth of information about Neolithic people, their habitats, daily routines, artisanship, tools, and furnishings.
- Skara Brae - Neolithic is a feature page on BBC's feature online collection, "Mysterious Ancestors". Read several pages with images about Neolithic humans living with the harsh conditions in the Orkney Islands.
- Skara Brae Furniture – A description of some of the different pieces of furniture that were constructed from stone in Orkney.
- Skara Brae Village – An article discussing the Skara Brae village in Orkney that used stone as a building material.
by: Kylie Richardson