- Storm and Stone:Accidental Archaeology at Skara Brae in Orkney
By the end of the nineteenth century, archaeology was a science: haphazard digging had been replaced by meticulous excavation. The romantic days of breaking into tombs and hacking off souvenirs had given way to a profession that valued techniques of preservation. Moreover, archaeologists came to appreciate the importance of the physical context of objects and ruins, and they developed methods designed to analyze finds in situ. However, even when archaeologists attempted to be deliberate in their work, accidents often played key roles in the excavation and interpretation of material remains. In this essay, I offer a brief case study of Skara Brae, a prehistoric cluster of dwellings in the Orkney Islands, inhabited five thousand years ago and discovered suddenly in 1850. Careful reading of George Petrie’s 1870 report on the ruins reveals an emphasis on the central role accidents can play in scientific discovery.
Victorian archaeology in Britain offered a vision of the past rising to the surface in a landscape layered with history and meaning. Some domestic archaeology was deliberate and more or less scientific,1 but some was unexpected, the unintended by-product of excavation done for non-archaeological purposes. For example, urban improvements in London led to the discovery of Roman remains, such as a Roman villa accidentally unearthed in the digging of the foundations for the new coal exchange in 1848.2 Smaller-scale private works also revealed important archaeological material. For instance, in 1884, Thomas Hardy discovered Roman artifacts during construction of his new house, Max Gate, in Dorset, a find that may have rekindled “Hardy’s fascination with the buried past,” as Norman Vance asserts in The Victorians and Ancient Rome (1997) (244). Hardy comments on these remains in an address to a meeting of the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club: he says his “sole right” to speak on the “few relics of antiquity lately uncovered in digging the foundations of a house at Max Gate” derives from happenstance, as he was “one of only two persons who saw most of the remains in situ, just as they were laid bare, and before they were lifted up from their rest of, I suppose, fifteen hundred years” (Hardy 191). Hardy’s experience was not unique. Farmers and landowners throughout the country chanced upon objects of archaeological significance. For some, the material intrusion of the past into the present was a nuisance.3 For others, such as Hardy, these were happy accidents.
Much like the unexpected unearthing of artifacts at Max Gate, the discovery of Skara Brae occurred on private land and its excavation was for many years the domestic business of the landowner, William Graham Watt, the seventh Laird of Skaill. However, this find is distinct from Hardy’s and many others in being the consequence of a different sort of accident—a natural [End Page 39] disaster. In February 1850, a violent storm ravaged the coast of Orkney with strong winds and high waves. The storm tore away the turf from a knoll on Watt’s property and exposed a cluster of prehistoric dwellings, laid bare for Watt to see as he inspected his property for storm damage. When builders or farmers happen upon archaeological material, the find is an unintended consequence of human agency, but when the catalyst for discovery is a natural event, it can seem as if the buried site rises of its own volition from the past into the present. In an 1870 sonnet on the Stones of Stenness, a henge a few miles from Skara Brae, John Stuart Blackie writes, “Time, the stern warder, keeps / the key of dateless secrets underground” (7–8). But at Skara Brae, the storm exposed the “dateless secrets.” Figure 1, from Petrie’s report, shows the prehistoric stone structure escaping Time’s imprisonment and emerging into the present-day landscape.
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Presented to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Petrie’s “Notice of Ruins of Ancient Dwellings at Skara” is...