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Those that survived were discovered after a storm that blew out of the bay of Skaill in 1824, stripping away the grass and sand that covered the site. Archaeologists discovered that a similar storm, thousands of years earlier, had driven away its inhabitants and sealed it for posterity. It seems they escaped in a hurry. One woman broke her necklace as she ran through her narrow doorway, scattering beads along the passage as she went. In the deserted rooms cups of shell and whalebone remained, holding their cosmetics of red, yellow and blue pigment. Bon pendants and fire necklaces were also found, together with articles for use as well as ornament, such as pins and awls, tools of stone and flint.
Today, ten excavated houses with their connecting passages have been laid out so the visitor can look down on those living rooms with their box-beds and dressers, their wall cupboards and hearths, while some of their artefacts are on display in the nearby museum. It is one of the most rare and remarkable sights in Europe.
However, Neolithic manís sepulchres for the dead are a great deal more imposing than his amenities for the living. Arran possesses and exceptionally early example, dated by the charcoal found beneath its forecourt to about 4000BC, and others have been found throughout the Scottish Islands. They vary in design, like the Christian churches of a later age, yet reveal a similar underlying unity of purpose and style that link them to others throughout Europe. They suggest a similarity of beliefs, though their exact nature remains a mystery.
Once again it is Orkney that contains the most spectacular of these monuments, not only among the islands but in all Europe, with the exception of Mycenae in Greece. It is called Maes Howe, and it stands not far from the Loch of Harray on the mainland. It was built in about 2800 BC, while Skara Brae was occupied from before 3000 BC until its destruction in about 2400BC. Although the two sites lie many miles apart, they have given rise to much speculation about a possible relationship between them. What appears to be beyond dispute is that Maes Howe represents the culmination of a long building tradition. The tomb of Quanterness, containing over 150 burials, was erected before 3000 BC, centuries earlier than Maes Howe and before Skara Brae was first inhabited. Yet Quanterness itself stands midway in the period of tomb-building that reached its magnificent climax in Maes Howe.
All these tombs, whatever their peculiarities, belong to a European tradition. But Orkney also contains two examples of structures found only in the British Isles; the stone henges of Stennes and Brodgar. By definition, a henge is a circle of stone or wooden pillars surrounded by a ditch. The supreme examples are Stonehenge and Avebury in England, beside which the Orkney examples are relatively small. But they stand next in importance, and their position overlooking the Stennes and Harray Lochs within sight of Maes Howe invests them with a singular majesty in those wide surroundings. Work on them began soon after Maes Howe was completed, and an enormous labour it must have been, since teh ditches surrounding the stone circles were cut deep into solid rock.
Orkney alone among the Scottish islands contains these henge monuments. But many of the western isles possess stone circles without surrounding ditches. There are two on Tiree, others at Lochbuie on Mull and Kilchattan on Bute. Arran has no less than ten and North Uist preserves a rich collection. Eccentric Shetland possesses none.
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