The Lost Fort

My Travel and History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times


18 Jul 2017
  Neolithic Orkney - Skara Brae

Storms often destroy coastal land, but sometimes they also bring to light interesting finds that have long been covered by sand and earth. The Viking Treasure from the German island of Hiddensee is one of those. Another one from Orkney is much larger: an entire Neolithic village.

Skara Brae, a Neolithic settlement on Mainland Orkney

It was the winter of 1850 when a great storm hit Orkney. Its ferocous waves tore the grass layer off a mound known at Skerrabra in the Bay o'Skaill in the west Mainland. The opening in the mound revealed some stone buildings. The laird William Watt who lived in nearby Skaill House took an interest in the place and started digging around, together with James Farrer who had discovered Maes Howe. Their notes are unfortunately sketchy, but it can be assumed that they discovered what is today known as houses 1, 3, 4 and 5.

Another view of Skara Brae

No more research took place and the site remained obscure until the Watt family gave it into the care of the Commissioners of Works, the predecessor of Historic Scotland (1), in 1924. A year later, another storm destroyed most of House 3, and it became clear that the site needed to be protected against the sea. A wall was built which had to be repaired several times until today. The sea and coastal erosion continue to be a threat to the site.

Gordon Childe, the first Abercromby Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh was tasked with the further excavation of Skara Brae as the site was now called, in 1928. But he was not allowed to do any proper digging; the aim was to clean out the houses so they could be displayed to the public.

Remains of house 3

At the time, the site was thought to be a Pictish village (about AD 500), albeit Gordon Childe was not so sure about that and suspected an earlier date. But it would take until the 1970ies to confirm the date by radiocarbon dating: the village was inhabited between 3,200 - 2,500 BC, thus making Skara Brae part of the Neolithic world of henges and settlements around the Ring of Brodgar.

During the 1970ies excavation, some trenches were dug as well and more structures and artefacts discovered which are now shown in a little museum at the site.

House 1

Skara Brae consists of eight dwellings which are connected by a series of low, covered passages. Due to the site having been covered by sand and grass, the structures are very well preserved.

Most of the houses have a standard design that looks like everyone bought their stuff at Stone Age Ikea (complete with a set of Billys): a square room with rounded corners, with a central fireplace in the middle, a shelved stone dresser opposite the entrance and beds on both sides; all made of stone slabs. Niches in the walls served for storage. Each house had a low door that could be closed with a stone slab and a bar.

One must imagine the beds to be filled with dried grass or heather and furs, and a fire burning in the hearth - it was quite a comfortable dwelling back in the Neolithic Age.

House 9

There are two distinct stages of construction. In the older houses (no. 9 and 10) of more circular shape, the beds are built into the wall in alcove-style, while in the newer houses they stand along the side walls in the room.

The older houses date to about 3,200 BC which makes them 500 years older than the pyramids in Egypt. They were part of a village prior to the major part of the buildings visible today und hidden under those. Besides houses 9 and 10, remains of that older village have been found beneath house 7. The older village had freestanding houses and no covered passages.

House 10

The 'newer' village has been built mostly atop the older one, using the midden as part of the wall constructions. Midden consists of the organic remains of a settlement which over time turn into soil, together with harder materials like stone chips and shells. The new houses were built into the midden, and midden was also used to fill the space between the double stone walls, making the entire wall structure about two metres thick.

We do not know for sure how the roofs were built. Whale bones or driftwood beams (there never were many trees on Orkney) may have been used for support, then covered with skins, seaweed, reed or turf - all organic materials that have perished. Seaweed has been used for roofing on Orkney until the 19th century. Since the houses were built into the midden, the village would have appeared as a mound, probably with the high roofs of the houses standing out.

Exterior of house 4

With the current size, the place could have housed some 50 to 100 inhabitants. It is assumed that the village was never much larger than what we can see today, but on the other hand, since already one house was lost to the sea in 1928, there is a possibility that earlier storms destroyed more of the settlement.

A system of passages that connect the houses can be found in the newer village. The passages had a height of only about on metre and were covered with stone slabs. Since skeleton finds in house 7 show that the inhabitants were not much shorter than today's average, it meant that people had to stoop when entering the passages or passing through the doors of the houses. The main entrance of the passage could be closed by a barred stone door - maybe a measure of defense.

The passages

The similar layout of the houses and the position of the shelved dresser is an interesting feature. The dresser would be illuminated by the fire burning in the middle of the room and immediately visible from the entrance. It is assumed that valuable items would have been put there for display.

Another theory is that the right side of the house was the male, and the left side the female area. The beds to the right are usually larger, and on the left side, beads and other decorative items have been found. But there is no proof for this: beads could well have been male status jewelry and the larger beds used by mothers with children.

House 2

The thick walls had box-shaped holes for storage. In water bassins in the floor, made of stone slabs and clay, limpets were kept as fishing baits and perhaps also as emergency food, though they were not a regular part of the diet.

A somewhat larger hole; in some houses even a little rotund annex, is supposed to have been an indoor toilet. You can see one in the foreground of the photo of house 9 above. There was a surprisingly sophisticated drainage system underlying the village's design.

Storage holes in house 1

House 7 cannot be seen today because it is covered with a protective roof due to its importance. But there is a reconstruction outside of Skara Brae which is modeled after house 7. Since the house is a bit outside the rest of the village and can only be reached by a side-passage, and is built on sand, not midden, it may be the oldest structure on the site which has later been remodeled. House 7 also got an extra wall around its perimeter.

Two female skeletons have been found in a decorated stone cist under the right side beds (2) which must have been interred prior to the building of the house. The door of house 7 could only be bolted from the outside, another curious detail. One can only speculate about those features: The house could have been used for rituals, perhaps those involving the dead or the cycle of life (childbirth, menstruation etc.; 3)

Interior of the reconstructed house

The Office of Works wanted to display house 7 to the public while also protecting it from the elements. A concrete layer was put on top of the walls which still stand to 3 metres height, supporting a glass roof with sliding panels. But it turned out that the weight of the concrete and glass had damaged the walls. Therefore the roof was replaced with lighter material and measures taken to ensure that humidity and temperature inside the house remain constant.

For years, visitors were allowed to walk between the houses and crawl through the passages. But while the stone walls look solid, they are actually quite fragile, and people walking on them and touching them will cause damage in the long run. Today, the site can only be seen from a path running at its perimeter. You can still get a good view from there and use the camera zoom for details.

Skara Brae on a 'busy' day in June

Another special building is house 8. That one stood apart from the rest of the settlement to the west, was egg shaped instead of rectangular, with a fire place in the centre, but no beds and no dresser. The walls hold several alcoves. In front of it, the passage opens to a paved area which today is known as 'market place'.

The floor of the house was littered with fragments of flint and chert and other traces of toolmaking. Therefore, house 8 is considered to have been a workshop, at least for some time while the village was inhabited. Its separate situation could also point at a meeting hall or something along those lines.

House 8

Gordon Childe thought that Skara Brae was abandoned due to some catastrophic event, a 'northern Pompeii'. But today it is thought that a combination of coastal erosion, sand blows, and changes in Neolithic society led to the site being abandoned. Sand and salt spray from the sea may have rendered the land unfit for cereal production and maybe even for grazing. A migration to more productive lands is a possibilty. In that case, the village may have been abandoned step by step, with the younger members probably leaving first.

Another reason could have been the development of an elite society that changed the social patterns of village life. Larger communities became more common, attracting migrants from the village. There are no signs of a violent end (like fe. a battle) to Skara Brae.

Plan displayed at the site

Another post about Skara Brae can be found here.

Footnotes
1) Since 2015 it is the HES, Historic Environment Scotland.
2) Which implies that in fact the right side may have been the female one.
3) Or maybe as prison, albeit a pretty comfortable one.

Sources
Dr. David Clarke: Skara Brae - Official Souvenir Guide, published by Historic Scotland 2012
Sally Foster: Maes Howe and the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, Historic Scotland Official Souvenir Guide. 2006
The Orkneya website
 


9 Jul 2017
  From Castle to Convention Centre - Castle Scharfenstein in the Eichsfeld

We can thank Pope Benedict XVI for most of the repairs of castle Scharfenstein near Leinefelde-Worbis (1), and the surprisingly comfortable road leading to it.

The castle sits on a promontory of a musselkalk plateau near the twin town of Leinefelde-Worbis in the Eichsfeld, a Catholic enclave in the overall Protestant county of Thuringia and a small part of southern Lower Saxony (2). And that is why the pope came here in 2011.

Castle Scharfenstein, view to the inner bailey with the great hall

Like so many castles in the former GDR, the Scharfenstein had first been used as state holiday site for families and later fell into decline; it was pretty much abandoned in the 1980ies. After the reunion, no one wanted to take the financial burden until the community of Leinefelde-Worbis bought the ruins in 2002. The visit of Pope Benedict gave a real boost to the renovation work, since it was planned for him to hold a public mass there. The event was later moved to nearby Etzelsbach Chapel, but the road, the newly renovated great hall and the rooms in the former stables and other outhouses remained.

View to the castle, with the keep in construction to the right

The castle probably dates to the second half of the 12th century; a Godehard of Scharfenstein is mentioned as witness in several chartes since 1161. The castle itself is first mentioned in 1209.

There must have been some feudal problems between the lords of Scharfenstein and the landgrave of Thuringia, because Landgrave Ludwig III conquered the castle in 1219 during a feud with the archbishop Siegfried II of Eppstein of Mainz; a feud which had been caused by the strife between the emperor Otto IV and Friedrich II of Staufen.

The outer bailey seen from the outside

The castle then went to the family of Gleichenstein (sometimes also called 'of Gleichen') who must have been vassals to the landgraves of Thuringia. In 1287, Heinrich the Illustrious pawned out the 'castrum Scharphenstein' to the archbishop of Mainz. His successor Albrecht II ('the Degenerate' - he of the ongoing money problems) sold the castle to Mainz together with some other possessions a few years later (1294). This was the beginning of the Eichsfeld, an enclave of the archbishopric of Mainz in Thuringia. The lords of Gleichenstein seem to have kept the castle as fief for some time.

Remains of the outer curtain walls in the foreground

The castle must have been much larger than today at the beginning of the 14th century. But it burned down in 1431, due to a lightning strike. At that time, the Scharfenstein was held by the Wintzingerode family who rebuilt the castle, but in smaller scale. The Wintzingerode - the family still exists today - had large possessions in the Eichsfeld (3).

The outer bailey with convention rooms and a chapel

Next time the castle comes into the focus of the local history was during the Reformation. The former Cistercian munk Heinrich Pfeiffer, a follower of Luther's reformation, found shelter on the Scharfenstein in 1521. But he joined the more radical and anti-nobility preacher Thomas Müntzer who led a peasants' army in revolt against not only the Catholic Church but against the nobility as well. Many castles in Thuringia fell prey to the peasants and went up in flames; Pfeiffer led his men to castle Scharfenstein and destroyed it (1525). So much for gratitude.

Interior of the chapel

The peasant revolt was put down and the leaders executed. Friedrich of Wintzingerode rebuilt the castle in 1532. Friedrich was a Protestant and at the time held the castle as pawn from the Catholic archbishop of Mainz. Who probably was not happy about that. The archbishop was looking around for money to redeem the pawn and kick that Protestant guy out. He succeeded in 1587, during the Counter-Reformation, and regained the Catholic foothold in the Thuringian Eichsfeld.

The gate house

The Eichsfeld came to Prussia in 1802, and the Scharfenstein was turned into a royal domain. But it was not one of the most important places; the crumbling granary and keep were demolished instead of reapaired in 1864. A few years later the castle - or what was left of it; basically the great hall - became the lodge of the district forester. It served in that function until 1956. (Not so different from the fate of another Eichsfeld castle, the Altenstein)

The great hall in the inner bailey

The Wintzingerode still had some interest in the castle. In 1905, Baron Wilhelm Chlothar of Wintzingerode tried to rebuy the Scharfenstein from Prussia, but his offer was turned down. Well, maybe he counted himself lucky a few years later when most of the outbuildings of the castle were destroyed in a fire (1909). I wonder if the forester kept sending letters about the bad repair of his lodge to the revenue of Prussia like his colleage from the Altenstein did to the revenue of Hessia.

Another view of the yard, towards the gate house and the former granary

Today, excavation and restoration work is still going on. One feature-in-constuction is a modern tower with glass walls at the site of the former keep. One can discuss the addition of modern elements in a Mediaeval castle (instead of restoring the old buildings), but since the place is intended as convention centre, the modern elements may work. After all, the community has to get some money out of the expenses it put into the castle.

There is a restaurant at the site of the former granary, with a terrace that offers a good view.

Former wall of the granary, with the gate now leading to a terrace

Footnotes
1) There are two more castles called Scharfenstein, one in the Middle Rhine Valley and one in the Ore Mountains near Chemnitz in Saxony.
2) Which leads to the fun fact that Thuringia gets the Catholic holidays which Lower Saxony does not get; and twice a year all the Thuringian Eichsfeld comes to Göttingen for shopping..
3) They lost most of it during the GDR-expropriations, but got returned some of their land and the castle Bodenstein after the reunion.

 




The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and central / eastern Europe. It includes virtual town and castle tours with a focus on history, museum visits, hiking tours, and essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, illustrated with my own photos.


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Location: Goettingen, Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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The Choir Screen in the Cathedral of Mainz
The Gospels of Heinrich the Lion
Mediaeval Monster Carvings
The Viking Treasure of Hiddensee

Medieaval Craftmanship
Goldsmithery
Medical Instruments

Mediaeval Warfare

Mediaeval Weapons
Swords
Trebuchets

Castles and Fortifications
Dungeons and Oubliettes

Essays about Specific Topics

Feudalism

The History of Feudalism
The Beginnings
Feudalism in the 10th Century

Privileges and Special Relationships
The Privilege of the deditio
A Note on handgenginn maðr

The Hanseatic League

The History of the Hanseatic League
Introduction and Beginnings

Hanesatic Architecture
Examples of Brick Architecture

Goods and Trade
Stockfish Trade

The Order of the Teutonic Knights

Wars and Battles
The Conquest of Danzig
The Siege of Vilnius 1390

The Vikings

Viking Ships
The Nydam Ship


Germany

Geneaology

List of Mediaeval German Emperors

Geneaologies
Anglo-German Marriage Connections
Heinrich the Lion's Ancestors

Kings and Emperors

The Salian Dynasty
King Heinrich IV

House Welf and House Staufen
Emperor Otto IV, Introduction

Princes and Lords

Princes
Otto the Quarrelsome of Braunschweig-Göttingen
The Dukes of Braunschweig-Grubenhagen
Otto of Northeim
The Ludowing Landgraves of Thuringia
Albrecht II and Friedrich I of Thuringia

Counts and Local Lords
The Marshals of Ebersburg
The Counts of Everstein
The Counts of Hohnstein
The Lords of Plesse
The Counts of Reichenbach
The Counts of Winzenburg

Famous Feuds

Royal Troubles
Otto IV and Bishop Adalbert II of Magdeburg

Local Feuds
The Lüneburg Succession War
The Thuringian Succession War - Introduction
The Star Wars


England

Kings of England

King Henry IV
King Henry's Lithuanian Crusade

Normans, Britons, Angevins

Great Fiefs - The Honour of Richmond
The Dukes of Brittany and the Honour of Richmond
The Earldom of Richmond and the Duchy of Brittany

Contested Borders

Northumbria
King Stephen's Troubles with King David of Scots


Scotland

Kings of Scots

House Dunkeld
Malcolm III and Northumbria
Struggle for the Throne: Malcolm III to David I
King David and the Civil War, Part 1
King David and the Civil War, Part 2

Houses Bruce and Stewart
Robert the Bruce and Stirling Castle
The Early Stewart Kings

Scottish Nobles and their Quarrels

Clan Feuds
MacLeans and MacDonalds
A Scottish Wedding


Wales

Welsh Princes

The Princes of Gwynedd
The Rise of House Aberffraw

Rebels

A History of Rebellion
From Llywellyn ap Gruffudd to Owain Glyn Dŵr


Denmark

Kings of Denmark

House of Knýtlinga
Harald Bluetooth's Flight to Pomerania

Danish Rule in the Baltic Sea

The Duchy of Estonia
Danish Kings and German Sword Brothers


Norway

Kings of Norway

Foreign Relations
King Eirik's Scottish Marriages
King Håkon V's Swedish Politics
Beginnings of the Kalmar Union

A Time of Feuds

Famous Nobles and their Feuds
Alv Erlingsson of Tønsberg


Sweden

Troubles and Alliances

Scandinavian Unity
Beginnings of the Kalmar Union


Russia

The History of St.Petersburg
(to come)


Livonia
(Latvia and Estonia)

Towns of the Hanseatic League

Tallinn
The History of Mediaeval Tallinn


Lithuania

The Northern Crusades

The Wars in Lithuania
The Siege of Vilnius 1390

Lithuanian Princes

The Geminid Dynasty
Troublesome Cousins - Jogaila and Vytautas


Poland

The Northern Crusades

The Conquest of Pomerania / Prussia
The Conquest of Danzig

Royal Dynasties

The Jagiełłonian Kings
Władysław Jagiełło and the Polish-Lithuanian Union


Bohemia
(Including Silesia and Moravia)

The Bohemian Kings of House Luxembourg
(to come)


Other Times

Prehistoric Times

Germany

Development of Civilisation
European Bread Museum, Ebergötzen
Open Air Museum Oerlinghausen

Orkney

Neolithic Orkney
The Neolithic Landscape of Orkney
Ring of Brodgar
Skara Brae
Life in Skara Brae

Scandinavia

Gotland
The Ship Setting of Gnisvärd


Post-Mediaeval History

Explorers and Discoveries

Explorers
Fram Expedition to the North Pole
Fram Expedition to the South Pole

Discoveries
Otto von Guericke and the Magdeburg Hemispheres
Raising a Wreck, Now and Then (Vasa Museum in Stockholm)

Biographies

European Nobility
Prince Wilhelm Malte of Putbus


Miscellanea

History in Literature and Music

History in Literature

Biographies of German Poets and Writers
Theodor Fontane

Historical Ballads by Theodor Fontane
(Translated by me)
Archibald Douglas
Gorm Grymme
Sir Walter Scott in Abbotsford
The Tragedy of Afghanistan

History in Opera

Belcanto and Historicism
Maria Padilla - Mistress Royal
The Siege of Calais in Donizetti's Opera

Not so Serious History

Romans
Building Hadrian's Wall
Playmobil Romans

Mediaeval Times
Kings Having a Bad Hair Day
The Case of the Vanished Wine Cask

Other
Rules for Writing Scottish Romances
Tourist Kitsch in St.Petersburg


Geology

Geological Landscapes

The Baltic Sea
Geology of the Curonian Spit
Chalk Cliffs on Rugia
Flint Fields on Rugia

The Harz
Bode Valley and Rosstrappe Cliff
The 'Hübichenstein' Rock
Karst Formations in the Southern Harz
The Lonau Falls
The Rhume Springs

Meissner / Kaufunger Wald
Blue Dome near Eschwege
Diabase and Basalt Formations
Karst Formations

Solling-Vogler
Raised Bog Mecklenbruch
Hannover Cliffs

The Shores of Scotland
Staffa

Fossils and Other Odd Rocks

Fossilized Ammonites
The Loket Meteorite


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