The Astronomers of Skara Brae

How Much Do We Owe These Neolithic Geniuses?

In 1850, a powerful storm hit the Orkney Islands. It literally blew what had been the turf roof off a megalithic complex that no one had known was there. The importance of this prehistoric village was not immediately recognized. But, we now know, it may be the birthplace of the earliest study of astronomy and the creation of an architecture that reflects the principle of “as above, so below.” Long before the Egyptians built their own monuments to mirror the cosmos, the people of these remote islands were practicing a very advanced science of their own.

The Orkneys are a chain of 70 islands directly north of Scotland. West of the islands, there is no land until Labrador on the other side of the Atlantic. This means wind and water regularly pound the islands. Even in modern times, the crossing between mainland Scotland and the Orkneys can be dangerous. A tidal rip called ‘the Merry Men of Mey’ still barrels through the Pentland Firth and claims men and ships. Metal structures resembling something from the movie Wicker Man are meant to allow sailors to cling onto them until rescued, but only if they can survive the frigid water. While subject to violent storms, the islands are in the path of the Gulf Stream and have a fertile soil.

Skara Brae is a small village that existed over 5,000 years ago, where the inhabitants survived by raising cattle and sheep, fishing, and farming. They hunted deer, and, it is theorized, they herded them as well. Outside of implements for hunting and fishing they had no weapons of war. They also had no fortifications to keep away invaders. It was, however, a good climate for the long-term gathering of information required for the construction of megaliths that measured such important dates as the equinox and the solstices.


Who Were These Early Astronomers?

The residents of Skara Brae were a Neolithic people, and they lived long before the Celts arrived. They were smaller than modern men and women. The men averaged 5’7″ tall and the women, 5’3.5″. The slightly shorter stature than of present-day people could have been because of diet or genetic differences. Life expectancy was considerably less. If a man reached 15, he could, on average, be expected to last another 13 years, although some made it to the ripe old age of 50. A woman of 15 could expect to live only nine more years. Skills, then, had to be learned by a much younger age and passed on to the next generation.

Since few trees grew on the islands, the natives built their homes of stone. What wood they did employ was generally driftwood from across the ocean. Every piece of furniture in the homes was fashioned from flagstones. Beds, also, were made of stone and covered with bracken that served as mattresses. Sheepskins were used to make pillows and blankets. Some beds would have had a canopy of sheepskin to keep the occupant warm. To hold personal items, stone cupboards were built above the beds. In each house, a dresser was built of stone and faced the doorway. In addition to personal items, it often displayed prized possessions. A rock seat was placed in front of the dresser.

Each house had a central hearth where a mixture of seaweed, heather, bracken, and sometimes whalebones, was burned. Near the hearth were stone boxes, made watertight with clay. In these, limpets were soaked to serve as fish bait. One room in every house had a drain running in the floor, which served as a toilet. This may have been the earliest comprehensive system of indoor sanitation, at least in Europe.

At the entrance to the homes and between rooms were doors made of stone or wood. Doorstops were made using projecting stone at both the top and bottom of the doorway. A bar fitting into slots in the wall allowed the door to open and close. They could be locked from inside or out and, it has been theorized, the purpose of this was to insure that students kept to their studies. If we can make deductions from the layout of Skara Brae and other sites, community was important. One communal entrance allowed all families to enter, and then each had a separate doorway to individual residences. Therefore, it is concluded, community was important but so was family.

Clearly, the village known as Skara Brae had an accomplished and civilized group of residents. They may have been one of the most advanced groups in Europe at the time. Today archaeologists think that this village actually served as a college of archaeo-astronomy for those who would study the movement of the sun and moon and build the earliest megaliths that culminated as Stonehenge. The time period was long before the Celts who arrived after 1000 BC, and before the Druids whose own studies allowed only memorization, not the written word.

Skara Brae, according to conventional chronology, existed before the pyramids in Egypt were built. Indeed, its structures were built before the great monuments of Crete and the Mycenaean monuments of the Mediterranean. Today, it attracts 35,000 adventurous tourists each year, who come to the Orkneys to see evidence of ancient achievement, and they are not disappointed.

Near Skara Brae is Maes Howe, regarded as the pinnacle of Neolithic building, with the finest chamber tomb in Western Europe. Twenty-four feet high, it is 110 feet in diameter. In this construction, a passage leads to a square or rectangular chamber from which a number of side cells diverge. Only seven such structures exist. Normally the center square is a small area because of the difficulty of constructing a ceiling for a large area. The builders of ancient Maes Howe appear to have solved the problem with massive tapering buttresses. Because of this achievement, the structure is a superlative exception to other like chambers. The roof of Maes Howe consists of colossal slabs weighing as much as 30 tons. The Norse came to the Orkneys circa AD 1000 and left graffiti and runic inscriptions on the stones. This has led some to claim that the Vikings had built them. More scientific dating puts its origin at 2700 BC.

Most remarkably, the builders positioned their entrance so that the sunset on the shortest day of the year lit the inside of the main chamber, which is supported by four, square pillars positioned at the cardinal points. Where did these architects learn both the astronomy and the art of building such a gigantic project? Most likely, scholars now believe, the art and science required were developed at Skara Brae’s college.

Near Skara Brae, exist some of what are believed to be the earliest Neolithic megaliths. The association between the habitations of the astronomer-priests and ceremonial centers is well founded, but most other major sites show no such homes or schools. There is no evidence or writing or any other system for recording numbers in the Neolithic period. The only non-literate way of remembering all the data needed is to ritualize the task. Such tools for memorization were found in the prose of Homer and even used today as devices to help stage actors to remember large amounts of dialogue.

Outside of Maes Howe is the Barnhouse Settlement with an enormous nine-foot megalith at one end. When the sun sets at midwinter, it shines down its passage into Maes Howe. Nearby are the Standing Stones of Stenness. They were erected in a place that held religious significance for the people of the Orkneys. It is calculated that it required 5,000 man-days to construct it. The dating of animal bones puts 3000–2500 BC as the date. This is consistent with the findings at Skara Brae.

Just another mile away is the Ring of Brodgar that once consisted of sixty stones. The stones were set exactly six degrees apart. Stenness and Brodgar are just two of the 900 structures that are, in various ways, oriented to the sun and moon and, in some cases, the stars. The large amount of such construction is evidence of a centralized authority of some kind that inspired or dictated the reason for expending such a great amount of labor.

There existed, at the time, a standard unit of measurement shared by all builders. This so-called megalithic yard was .83 meters or 2.72 feet, sometimes referred to as “Merlin’s Stride.” The megalithic builders, however, were much more concise and would not use the pace counting method that developed much later. Another accepted unit is the megalithic rod, which was 2.07 meters. Advanced knowledge of geometry would have been essential to lay out stones in circles with such precise orientation. The builders (often described as rude savages) understood Pythagorean triangles, 2,000 years before Pythagorus.

The astronomical projections are even more impressive. The rising and setting points vary between each month over a period of 18.61 years. The ability to mark the extreme rising and setting points of the moon is evidence of sophisticated knowledge that would have required many years of observation to develop. Knowledge of this nearly nineteen-year round, which later became known as the Metonic Cycle, found its way into Greek myth. Writing in the fourth century BC, Diodorus reported that the god Apollo was said to travel to the Hyperborean lands in the far north every nineteen years. The legend connects him with Stonehenge, which also measures this solar-lunar cycle. It may not be coincidence that Ulysses was away for 19 years before returning home.

Pioneers in the science of megalithic measurement include Alexander Thom and Aubrey Burl, who recognized that the stone circles and “wheels” were created as a system for measuring the 19-year cycle. The Aubrey Holes of Stonehenge can still do so. In his 1965 book, Stonehenge Decoded, Gerald Hawkins recognized that the Aubrey Holes, combined with Phase II of Stonehenge, measured the summer solstice sunrise and sunset, the winter solstice sunrise and sunset, and the major and minor lunar standstills.


School’s Out

At some point, the occupants of Skara Brae abandoned their center of learning in the Orkneys. It is possible that they took their knowledge and their arts with them. At Newgrange, Ireland’s largest prehistoric construction, the structure is designed so that the sun shines into the innermost chamber at the winter solstice. There, it quickly reaches a chamber wall and illuminates a dagger. This and two other structures, considered the royal tombs, were constructed about 2500 BC in the Boyne Valley. Stonehenge, possibly the best-known stone circle, was started in 1850 BC. Newgrange was a massive accomplishment forming an astronomical clock. It also reflected a religious attitude as the sun’s rays entered the womb-like structure and symbolically fertilized the earth. Long before the Egyptians faced their pyramids with quartz, the builders of Newgrange used that same material. When the sun rose each day the quartz gleamed in an almost supernatural splendor that could be seen for miles.

Did the builders of the North influence the people of the Mediterranean? The dates between Orkney and Ireland’s sites and those in Crete and Egypt might provide some evidence. On Orkney, monuments used a circle of 366 degrees. The reason was to translate the days of the year into their measurements. The tin traders of Crete had sailed regularly to the North and brought home this knowledge. The Phaistos disc of the Minoans showed the same 366-day year and the 366-degree circle. Later, 366 Minoan feet would become 300 Greek feet. The Orkney influence on Minoan Crete might have led to the first indoor plumbing in mainland Europe, 1,000 years later than Skara Brae.

We may never know how the early builders of the North acquired such sophisticated knowledge. They are often derided as bog people and beaker folk, but they did spread advanced learning south to France and Portugal and even into North Africa. Their system of measurement was as efficient as in any system today, where their discovery and application survive in our familiar metric system.

By Steven Sora