Thinking About How to Think About Skara Brae

Today I spent the morning rummaging through books on Skara Brae in preparation for my upcoming fieldwork in May. I’ve been pulling together various papers, books and drawings which deal with interpretation of the site and its context, trying to decide what angle to adopt for the visualisations. As I skimmed through various accounts and interpretations of the site from Childe, to Richards to Historic Scotland’s visitor guide which provides interpretation to tourists today I found myself considering the ways each text dealt with uncertainty.

Exploring one of the passageways around House 7 at Skara Brae last summer.

Gordon Childe often gets a lot of negative stick for his work on Skara Brae. Clarke (1976) for example voiced concern that the original excavations carried out by Childe in 1927 cannot be considered an excavation in the full sense of the term given that conservation was always emphasised over excavation and as such archaeological problems were secondary. Despite all his shortcomings I have to say I did enjoy reading “Skara Brae: A Pictish (!) Village in Orkney” (1931). His writing style has a conversational feel about it which gives the reader the impression that in his process of writing the words on the page he himself was unravelling clues and piecing together information. He guides the reader through his interpretations, occasionally merging the evidence presented with a little spontaneous narrative.

“The huts, when found intact, give an impression of hasty abandonment…one of its occupants had broken her necklace as she squeezed through the narrow doorway (to house 7) and left a trail of beads behind her as she raced down passage C.”

Despite the text being written over 80 years ago, I found it refreshing to read because of these little interpretive anecdotes and his frequent use of “I”, “we”, “perhaps” and the little questions posed to the reader throughout. If I’m honest I think it reminded me of my own writing through the reconstruction diaries I keep during every visualisation project. I was drawn to how personal and opinionated his writing style was, even if some of the interpretations themselves were completely off!

A visualisation from the current Skara Brae guidebook.

When we turn to think about the way interpretations are dealt with on the site today we only have to look to the guide-book, which uses italics to highlight areas of interpretation in amongst text which describes the evidence alone. The reconstructions in the book are equally as unassuming, serving simply to back-up information provided in the text rather than standing alone as statements of interpretation – perhaps reflecting a reluctance to build narratives upon the evidence we have.

Now don’t get me wrong, I completely understand why a distanced and uninvolved approach to the reconstruction of Neolithic life is often favoured in such contexts. A guidebook needs to be clear and concise, something which our understanding of the Neolithic is most certainly not! Uncertainty over the structural form of a house at Skara Brae is problematic enough, but imagine how much more complex the visualisation process becomes when we consider the more social side of Neolithic life. Where do we begin and how on earth do we keep tabs on our own subjectivity and personal influence through the more creative stages of this process?

With my visualisation of this site I want to push the boundaries of what is often thought of as ‘traditional’ reconstruction. I want to investigate whether my interpretation and engagement with the site is enhanced  the deeper I go into constructing a narrative around the evidence. I wonder how different my process will be compared to that of the St Kilda blackhouse. Will I be more creative in my interpretation or more reserved? Once completed, what will my reconstructions offer that is different from what has gone before?

Only time will tell!



  1. matthewlaw · · Reply

    Hello! I thought this was a great post. I far prefer reading the opinionated, first person narratives of older excavations to the dry modern reports. I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with after the fieldwork.

    1. Hi Matthew, thanks glad you liked the post! I’ve got a little something up my sleeve for the fieldwork, I’ll post more about it nearer the time but it’s sure to be exciting!

  2. Not Ian Hodder · · Reply

    Get some Hodder down ya

    1. Don’t worry, I’ve had Hodder coming out of my ears for years! 🙂

  3. Writings in the first person point of view are oftentimes more interesting to read and more easy to associate with compared to an impartial third person narrative. By the by, good luck on your fieldwork, it’s May already.

    1. Thanks! I know, only two weeks to go!

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