Until 1850, Skara Brae lay under the sand dunes behind the bay. Rough seas and high winds in that year stripped away the grass, revealing several houses, while in 1924 the remainder was uncovered as a result of similar weather. Although there were several phases of occupation, all that can be seen today is the last phase. The settlement of eight dwellings, linked together by a series of low alleyways, was fully excavated between 1928 and 1930.
The dwellings contain a number of stone-built pieces of furniture, including cupboards, dressers, seats, and box beds. A sophisticated drainage system was even incorporated into the village's design, one that may have included a primitive form of toilet.
The ancient inhabitants of Orkney built structures known as chambered cairns. These pyramid-like structures were built as communal burial places, revealing burials according to tribal staus. The history of chambered cairns in Orkney spans thousands of years, during which time a variety of designs developed. Though these designs vary, they all fall into one of two main types: the Orkney-Cromarty and the Maes Howe type of chambered cairn.
A comparable -- if smaller -- site exists at Rinyo on Rousay Island. Unusually, no Maes Howe type tombs have been found on Rousay and although there are a large number of Orkney-Cromarty chambered cairns, these were built by Unstan Ware people.
The site at Skara Brae is believed to have been occupied from about 3100 BC, for about six hundred years. Around 2500 BC, after the climate changed, turning much colder and wet, the settlement was abandoned by its inhabitants.