once was littered liberally with ghost towns. Most of these communities had
sprung up quickly thanks to some local mine or industry, and then emptied out
with equal rapidity when the mine or business closed shop. The majority of
these towns over the past several decades have decayed away into scarcely
recognizable piles of rotting lumber, but a few remain largely intact. The best
preserved ones have achieved new life as tourist attractions. The appeal of
these places is hard to explain, but it probably has something to do with a
sense of parallel to one’s own individual birth, life, and death.
American ghost towns offer nothing like the deep history of the ones in the
Old World, though the Anasazi ruins come close. The most famous
ghost town in the world is Pompeii,
and for good reason. Not only does the place give us a superbly preserved look
at Classical Roman life, but the cataclysmic circumstances of its death give it
an eeriness that more recent sites can’t match. Besides, it’s a pleasant day’s
outing from Naples,
which makes it supremely accessible to tourists. Yet, accessibility isn’t
everything. One site far older than Pompeii – in
fact, older than Stonehenge, Sumer, or the Pyramids – is the Neolithic in the Orkneys. It is less visited
precisely because it is out of the way, but is in many ways more intriguing.
After centuries of habitation, the village was vacated nearly 5000 years ago
for unknown reasons. There is some circumstantial evidence (e.g. beads from a
broken necklace left on a floor) that it was abandoned in a hurry, but we can’t
know for sure. The structures were covered over by sand and grass; they
remained buried until a storm in 1850 washed away the surface and revealed what
was underneath. The excavated structures consist of seven private homes and a
building of indeterminate use – possibly a workshop of some kind. Others may
have been washed to sea (the shoreline has shifted) and still others may yet
lie buried and undiscovered. village of Skara Brae
The fascinating thing about the private homes at Skara Brae is that they are unmistakably recognizable as such. It was a hardship for the Neolithic Orkneyans but a windfall for us that there was no native wood growing on the islands. Accordingly, the walls and even the furniture were made of stone, and so have survived. (The roofs have not, which suggests they were organic; turf atop ribbings of whalebone is one proposed construction.) There are stone dressers, stone bed frames (presumably once topped with straw), stone storage alcoves, and central stone hearths. What did they burn in the hearths? Possibly driftwood, peat, dung, dried seaweed, or some mixture of them. The dwellings were not cramped: they average 36 square meters (385 square feet) with more headroom than in modern houses. They all look very familiar – Flintstone-ish, to be sure, but familiar.
The Neolithic revolution generally is considered to have been about farming. People added to what they hunted and gathered with what they grew and raised. In some locales they replaced wild foods altogether. But maybe it also was about domesticity – about replacing communal space with substantial private homes. Private space for ourselves as individuals or as small family units changes our perspective. I know that my perspective changes when I return home in the evening to my own world within my own walls. Without that degree of privacy and coziness I very likely wouldn’t be writing this blog. Neolithic peoples didn’t give up on communities but they expanded private space. Skara Brae is a village, after all, but the entrance doors to the houses could be barred from the inside. Perhaps this is when a more individualistic and modern outlook developed: when “home” became one’s own space rather than the whole village.
It’s not generally a compliment to say of someone, “He lives in a world of his own,” but maybe it should be, at least when the person in question is not actually delusional. “Groupthink” is not a compliment either, and innovative thought is necessarily idiosyncratic. Private space gives us more freedom to be idiosyncratic. It also lets us form tighter bonds with romantic partners and with members of an immediate family with whom we choose (“choose” being the key word) to share the space. The track record for human happiness on that last basis is mixed, but some folks regard the opportunity highly.
House in Skara Brae
A World of Our Own, recorded by The Seekers in 1968