Monday, January 20, 2014

Ghosts of Dwellings Past

The western U.S. 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 village of Skara Brae 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.

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


  1. We had an opportunity to see Skara Brae about ten years ago. But the seas were so rough the ship wasn't able to stop there. I was pretty bummed about that. There is also something there called the ring of Brodgar, which just sounds like something from Tolkien or Howard's Hyborian Age.

    I'm glad i have my own space, even if I do end up sharing it with my cat. :)

    1. There is some speculation that largely below-ground dwellings such as these might have influenced tales of elves and like creatures, which is another roundabout reminder of Tolkien.

      Solitude is great -- not all the time, of course, but at least as a way to recharge. I'm sure one reason I enjoyed college so much is that I had a single dorm room -- no roommate. The room was the size of a walk-in closet, but it was mine alone.