Europe before Rome


Herodotus’s world (You don’t want to travel to the land of the Androphagi, that’s for sure.)

The civilization of Greece and Rome make such an impact upon the pages of history that everything before and after is cast in shadow. Despite this, history since the fall of the Roman Empire has been fairly well documented–but European history before Herodotus laid quill to parchment is known almost solely through archaeology (and, increasingly, genetics.)

What was Europe like before the Romans conquered it? Was it rather like Europe after the Fall of Rome, but with less Christianity and fewer scribes? Had Europe already started down the path to technological development and innovation, or was it still a barbarian backwater that only became significant later–perhaps because of the Romans, Christianity, or trade routes to other, more developed parts of the world?

Oddly, some of the world’s oldest still-standing houses are found on a tiny island off the far northern tip of Scotland, at a site named Skara Brae, (occupied between 3180 and 2500 BC):








Or perhaps this isn’t so odd–not because people on windswept islands in the middle of the North Atlantic developed house-building skills before anyone else, but because they had to work in stone because they had so few trees. Most people–especially folks living in hot places–build houses out of materials like wood and reeds, which biodegrade over the course of a few thousand years. Skara Brae, built in a nearly treeless, cold, windy island, looks an igloo made of stone instead of ice and surrounded for insulation with turf instead of snow.

Skara Brae’s isolation has probably also helped preserve it–there haven’t been a bunch of people wandering around the Orkneys, plowing up the land, building hotels, and generally obliterating ancient sites.

Likewise, those footprints on the moon are likely to be there for a very long time.

The Orkney islands boast some even older houses, at the Knap of Howar (occupied between 3,700 and 2,800 BC):








Most of the other structures we have from this time period appear to be tombs or stone circles. The Great Pyramid of Giza, for example, is a giant tomb (and since it was built in 2,560 BC, it’s younger than Skara Brae.) Stonehenge was built sometime between 3,000 and 2,000 BC and serves no obvious purpose, but given the 100+ people interred there, it probably also began as a fancy graveyard.

The preservation of houses and other structures on the Orkney islands may be an accident of geography, but it is a lucky one, for it allows us a rare glimpse into how these people lived.

Orkney boasts not just houses, of course, but also chambered tombs and stone circles, more houses at the Links of Noltland, and a possibly ceremonial complex–or just regular complex of buildings–now known as Ness Brodgar (photos and map belong to the Ness of Brodgar excavation site):

ness2015plan Site-overview






(Sorry these pictures are oriented in different directions, and the map shows a different stage in the excavation than the photos.)

Structure-10-note-more-of-the-paving-around-it-revealed-at-the-bottom-of-the-photoFor orientation, Structure 10 is in the lower right on the map, the lower left in the overview photo, and oriented toward the top of the second, close-up photo. For comparison, there is a modern house in the lower-left hand corner of the overview photo, which does not appear much bigger than the excavated structures.


Wikipedia gives us some more detailed descriptions of the site:

There are the remains of a large stone wall (the “Great Wall of Brodgar”) that may have been 100 metres (330 ft) long and 4 metres (13 ft) or more wide. It appears to traverse the entire peninsula the site is on …

The temple-like structure, which was discovered in 2008, has walls 4 metres (13 ft) thick and the shape and size of the building are visible, with the walls still standing to a height of more 1 metre (3.3 ft). The structure is 25 metres (82 ft) long and 20 metres (66 ft) wide … The archaeological team believe it is the largest structure of its kind anywhere in the north of Britain…

In July 2010, a remarkable rock coloured red, orange, and yellow was unearthed. This is the first discovery in Britain of evidence that Neolithic peoples used paint to decorate their buildings … Only a week later a stone with a zigzag chevron pattern painted with a red pigment was discovered nearby.[14]

A baked clay artefact known as the “Brodgar Boy”, and thought to be a figurine with a head, body, and two eyes, was also unearthed in the rubble of one structure in 2011… archaeologists discovered a carved stone ball, a very rare find of such an object in situ in “a modern archaeological context”.[17]

Prehistoric roof tiles were used in Ness of Brodgar. The archaeologists at the ongoing Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) excavations have found Orkney’s first real evidence of a Neolithic roof. In most reconstructions of prehistoric buildings, one will often see the roof made of turf, animal skins or thatch. But on the Ness, the builders used stone slates for at least one of their buildings the remains of which have been uncovered within the side recesses along the interior walls of Structure Eight.[18]

The Wikipedia page on Prehistoric Scotland gives a quick description of the Knap of Howar and Skara Brae :

At the wonderfully well preserved stone house at Knap of Howar on the Orkney island of Papa Westray (occupied from 3500 BC to 3100 BC) the walls stand to a low eaves height, and the stone furniture is intact. Evidence from middens shows that the inhabitants were keeping cattle, sheep and pigs, farming barley and wheat and gathering shellfish as well as fishing for species which have to be line caught using boats. …

The houses at Skara Brae on the Mainland of the Orkney Islands are very similar, but grouped into a village linked by low passageways. This settlement was occupied from about 3000 BC to 2500 BC. Pottery found here is of the grooved ware style which is found across Britain as far away as Wessex.

Old map of the Orkney Islands
Old map of the Orkney Islands

The page on Skara Brae further notes:

On average, the houses measure 40 square metres (430 sq ft) in size with a large square room containing a stone hearth used for heating and cooking. Given the number of homes, it seems likely that no more than fifty people lived in Skara Brae at any given time.[5] …

The dwellings contain a number of stone-built pieces of furniture, including cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes. Each dwelling was entered through a low doorway that had a stone slab door that could be closed “by a bar that slid in bar-holes cut in the stone door jambs”.[9] A sophisticated drainage system was incorporated into the village’s design. It included a primitive form of toilet in each dwelling.

Seven of the houses have similar furniture, with the beds and dresser in the same places in each house. The dresser stands against the wall opposite the door… Each of these houses had the larger bed on the right side of the doorway and the smaller on the left. Lloyd Laing noted that this pattern accorded with Hebridean custom up to the early 20th century suggesting that the husband’s bed was the larger and the wife’s was the smaller.[10] The discovery of beads and paint-pots in some of the smaller beds may support this interpretation. …

One house, called House 8, has no storage boxes or dresser. It has been divided into something resembling small cubicles. When this house was excavated, fragments of stone, bone and antler were found. It is possible that this building was used as a house to make simple tools such as bone needles or flint axes.


Continuing on:

Other artefacts excavated on site made of animal, fish, bird, and whalebone, whale and walrus ivory, and killer whale teeth included awls, needles, knives, beads, adzes, shovels, small bowls and, most remarkably, ivory pins up to 10 inches (25 cm) long.[32] These pins are very similar to examples found in passage graves in the Boyne Valley, another piece of evidence suggesting a linkage between the two cultures.[33] So-called Skaill knives were commonly used tools in Skara Brae; these consist of large flakes knocked off sandstone cobbles.[34] Skaill knives have been found throughout Orkney and Shetland.

Not bad for such a small, isolated place!

In the spirit of speculation, BBC Travel asks, Were these remote, wild islands the center of everything?

“…the Ness of Brodgar, an elaborate ceremonial complex the size of four US football fields, is reshaping our understanding of the people who lived more than 5,000 years ago. …

To appreciate the Ness, though, you also have to visit the Ring of Brodgar: … Each of the stones, measuring up to 4.5m tall, was dragged from quarries as far as 10 miles away. (The earliest example of a wheel in Britain dates to about 1100 BC, some 600 years later.) The surrounding ditch was cut 9m wide and 3m deep through bedrock – all without the use of metal. Including the ditch and bank … the Ring of Brodgar’s diameter is 130m… Among Neolithic structures in Britain, its size is exceeded only by Avebury and Stanton Drew; it edges out Stonehenge, whose ditch and bank measure 100m. In all, the Ring of Brodgar is estimated to have taken as many as 80,000 man hours to complete.

The Ness of Brodgar underscores that even further. Both the size and intricacy of the complex are unlike anything that’s been found in Europe before. The main building, nicknamed the “cathedral”, had an area of some 465sqm, including a forecourt; the entire Ness was surrounded by a wall more than 365m long…

All of that opulence was for something likely never meant to be a permanent settlement. Instead, the Ness was used periodically for more than 1,300 years. Around 2300 BC, near the end of its life, shinbones from some 400 cattle were deposited on the site – likely the remains of a very large feast, when you consider that a single cow could feed about 200 people.

… that final ceremony – along with the rest of the finds, and the size and design of the buildings themselves – has led archaeologists to believe that its purpose was largely ritual, with people gathering here from many miles away. … It’s also adding evidence to what might be the most surprising takeaway of all: that this corner of Scotland wasn’t just a centre of Neolithic civilisation in Britain. It may have been the centre.

Today, the remote location of the archipelago’s 70 islands means that it is widely ignored by all but the savviest of history- (or prehistory-) loving travellers. But once, it was this very location made them a centre of civilisation. The islands were along the North Sea route that prehistoric people would have taken from northern Europe to Britain and back. Archaeologists have already found, for example, that Orkney invented grooved-ware pottery some 5,100 to 5,300 years ago – a development that later made its way across the rest of Britain, probably accompanied by other types of technology, art and ideas.

The grooved ware pottery point is interesting. According to Wikipedia:

Unlike the later Beaker ware, Grooved culture was not an import from the continent but seems to have developed in Orkney, early in the 3rd millennium BC, and was soon adopted in Britain and Ireland.[1]…

Since many Grooved ware pots have been found at henge sites and in burials, it is possible that they may have had a ritual purpose as well as a functional one. …

The earliest examples have been found in Orkney and may have evolved from earlier Unstan ware bowls. … The style soon spread and it was used by the builders of the first phase of Stonehenge. Grooved ware pottery has been found in abundance in recent excavations at Durrington Walls and Marden Henge in Wiltshire. …

One way the tradition may have spread is through trade routes up the west coast of Britain. … Evidence at some early Henges (Mayburgh Henge, Ring of Brodgar, Arbor Low) suggests that there were staging and trading points on a national ‘motorway’ during the Neolithic and Bronze Age. This evidence perhaps explains how Cumbrian stone axes found their way to Orkney.

Was Orkney some sort of important trade point?

Since the invention of the wheel, the road, and the internal combustion engine, I suspect that we moderns have begun defaulting to thinking about trade routes in terms of places you can get to by car (or train.) But these sites were constructed before the wheel reached Britain–in the days when burdens taken overland had to be carried on one’s back or loaded onto an animal.

It was likely far easier to trade by water than by land–simply load all of your goods into a boat, shove off, and row. The close association between “Greek” cities and “Turkish” cities in Hellenic times exemplifies this–it makes more sense to think of ancient Greek civilization as an island-hopping Aegean-based people than to think of them as a land-based people. Even today, human settlements cluster around ports–the easiest places to load and unload shipped goods.

Just as the Aegean was to Greece, the Mediterranean to Rome, the Nile to Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates to Babylon, and the monsoon trade routes to the Indian ocean, so may the Baltic have been to northern Europe:


This map doesn’t show Scotland, but it is rather to the West of the southern tip of Norway. It is not a coastal-hugging route, but if you just aim your boat due West, you’ll probably hit it.

But due to the big chunk of hard-to traverse European land in between the Baltic and the Mediterranean, none of these potential trade routes connect with Herodotus’s world.




8 thoughts on “Europe before Rome

    • LOL, if Stonehenge had an obvious purpose, there wouldn’t be so many theories. You come across a square building with beds and a hearth inside of it and conclude, “probably a house.” A tall, round building with stairs inside and a platform on top: observation platform. Hollow building with bits of grain in the bottom: granary. Bunch of rocks arranged in an interesting pattern with ditches around them? People start coming up with theories like “Merlin did it.”


  1. Yes, the Baltic was a major trade throughfare in Antiquity for the proto-Germans, -Finns, and -Old-Prussians. The amber trade seems to have been pivotal for international traders – read, for Phoenicians and Greeks – although I’m sure there was a likely local trade in furs and fish as well.

    Wiki tells me that Pytheas got as far as the Vistula; later explorers and traders found their way further.


    • Some Greek guy (I forget which) got far enough north to observe the midnight sun; the Egyptians circumnavigated Africa. Of course, everyone else seems to have regarded these reports similar to Herodotus’s giant ants–“hey, get a load of what this guy thinks happens in summer way up north!”

      I wonder what amber is used for.


      • Pytheas says the locals used amber for “fuel” but something is probably lost in the translation. Wiki says that it smells nice when burned. So, incense; especially for pagan religious ceremonies.

        (It’s also quite pretty in jewelry.)


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