From ScotsWiki
Jump to: navigation, search


Maeshowe (or Maes Howe; Norse: Orkhaugr) is a Neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave situated on Mainland, Orkney, Scotland. It was probably built in around 2800 BC. It gives its name to the Maeshowe type of chambered cairn, which is limited to Orkney. Maeshowe is a significant example of Neolithic craftsmanship and is, in the words of the archaeologist Stuart Piggott, 'a superlative monument that by its originality of execution is lifted out of its class into a unique position'. The monuments around Maeshowe, including Skara Brae, were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.<ref>Piggott, Stuart (1954). Neolithic Cultures of the British Isles (Cambridge University Press)</ref>


Maeshowe from the air
Maeshowe's location in relation to other Orcadian Neolithic sites

Location: Mainland, Orkney

Region: Scotland

Coordinates: 58.9966°N 3.1882°W

Type: Chambered cairn

Period: Neolithic

Ownership: Historic Scotland

UNESCO World Heritage Site

Type: Cultural

Criteria: i, ii, iii, iv

Designated: 1999 (23rd session)

Part of: Heart of Neolithic Orkney

Reference No.: 514

Region: Europe and North America


The tomb is surrounded by a ditch and low bank and appears to have been built around 2700 BCE.<ref>Caroline Wickham-Jones, Orkney, A Historical Guide, 44</ref> Today it appears as a massive grassy mound which covers an earth and stone barrow, over a complex of passages and chambers constructed by slabs weighing up to thirty tons.<ref>Wickham-Jones, Orkney, 44</ref> However, it is a complex monument and may have had different appearances in the past.<ref>Wickham-Jones, Orkney, 44</ref> It appears to have fallen into disuse around 2000 BCE, perhaps due to difficulties Orcadian society was experiencing.<ref> (accessed 30th June 2014)</ref>


Maeshowe appears as a grassy mound rising from a flat plain near the south-east end of the Loch of Harray. The land around Maeshowe at its construction probably looked much as it does today - treeless with grasses representative of Pollen Assemblage Zone MNH-I reflecting "mixed agricultural practices, probably with a pastoral bias – there is a substantial amount of ribwort pollen, but also that of cereals."<ref>Davidson, D.A.; Jones, D.L. (1985). The Environment of Orkney in The Prehistory of Orkney BC 4000-1000 AD Colin Renfrew, ed. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) 27</ref>

Maeshowe is aligned with some other Neolithic sites in the vicinity, for example the entrance of "Structure 8" of the nearby Barnhouse Settlement directly faces the mound. In addition, the so-called "Barnhouse Stone" in a field around 700 metres away is perfectly aligned with the entrance to Maeshowe.

A Neolithic "low road" connects Maeshowe with the magnificently preserved village of Skara Brae, passing near the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.<ref>Castleden, Rodney (1987). The Stonehenge People. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd) 117</ref> Low roads connect Neolithic ceremonial sites throughout Britain. It is possible that the circular platform originally contained a stone circle.<ref>Wickham-Jones, Orkney, 45</ref>

The complex including Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, Skara Brae, as well as other tombs and standing stones represents a concentration of Neolithic sites that is rivalled in Britain only by the complexes associated with Stonehenge and Avebury.<ref>Castleden, Rodney (1987). The Stonehenge People. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd) 117</ref>

Design and Construction

The tomb has been designed so that the central chamber is illuminated by the sun during the winter solstice.<ref>Hedges, John W. (1984). Tomb of the Eagles: Death and Life in a Stone Age Tribe. (New York: New Amsterdam) 160</ref> A similar display occurs in Newgrange, in Co. Meath, Ireland. <ref> (accessed 30th June 2014)</ref>

The entrance passage is 36 feet (11 m) long and leads to the central almost square chamber measuring about 15 feet (4.6 m) on each side.<ref>Childe 1952, 18-19</ref>The current height of the chamber is 12.5 feet (3.8 m), this reflects the height to which the original stonework is preserved and capped by a modern corbelled roof. In recent times the tomb was entered through the roof, and the white painted cap for the entrance hole can be seen in the centre of the vault. <ref>Wickham-Jones, Orkney, 45</ref> The original roof may have risen to a height of 15 feet (4.6 m) or more.<ref>Ritchie, Graham & Anna (1981). Scotland: Archaeology and Early History (New York: Thames and Hudson) 59</ref>

The entrance passage is only about 3 feet (0.91 m) high, requiring visitors to stoop or crawl into the central chamber. That chamber is constructed largely of flat slabs of stone, many of which traverse nearly the entire length of the walls. In each corner lie huge angled buttresses that rise to the vaulting. At a height of about 3 feet (0.91 m), the wall's construction changes from the use of flat to overlapping slabs creating a beehive-shaped vault.


Ariel view

There are no traces remaining of the original occupants of the tomb from the Neolithic period.<ref>Wickham-Jones, Orkney, 45</ref> Although it was presumably used to accommodate the dead of the local community only one trace of bone was found during an 1861 excavation.<ref> (accessed 30th June 2014)</ref> Maeshowe does however contain artistic evidence from the Neolithic, as inscribed on the south west upright slab within the chamber are a series of triangles and diamond shapes, along with various lines.<ref>Wickham-Jones, Orkney, 45</ref> These were carefully carved with a sharp stone tool.<ref>Wickham-Jones, Orkney, 45</ref>

Graffiti left by Vikings in the twelfth century mentions the 'removal of a great treasure' from the tomb, but this presents a puzzle.<ref>Wickham Jones, Orkney, 46</ref> It is known that Neolithic tomb builders did not use metal.<ref>Wickham Jones, Orkney, 46</ref> Some have suggested the runes should not be taken seriously, while others have pointed out that as the bank surrounding Maeshowe was rebuilt in the ninth century, the tomb might have been re-used long after its original building.<ref>Wickham Jones, Orkney, 46</ref>

Interior view


The size and complexity of the site has led archaeologists to interpret it as a tomb of an important and high ranking family, housing many generations.<ref>Wickham Jones, Orkney, 46</ref> It has been estimated the tomb took over 100,000 man hours to build.<ref>Wickham Jones, Orkney, 46</ref>


During the twelfth century the tomb was raided by Vikings. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Earl Rognvald of Orkney led a crusade to the Holy Land in 1150.<ref> (accessed 30th June 2014)</ref> On 6 January 1153, Harald Maddadarson landed in Orkney from Argyll in an effort to take the islands in the absence of the Earl. He and his men broke into Maes Howe through the roof and spent some time sheltering there.<ref> (accessed 30th June 2014)</ref> Later in 1153 Earl Rognvald and his followers returned from their crusade, and they in turn explored the newly-opened tomb.<ref> (accessed 30th June 2014)</ref>

The evidence for this comes directly from the walls of the tomb, which carry many examples of graffiti left by the Vikings in the form of carved runes. <ref> (accessed 30th June 2014)</ref> The similarity of these runes to contemporary graffiti has been commented upon. They include:

Maeshowe interior on the winter solstice

"Ottarfila carved these runes"; "Haermund Hardaxe carved these runes"; "Tholfr Klossienn's son carved these runes high up" (high on the wall near the roof); or the less modest "These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean with this axe owned by Gauk Trandilsson in the South land".

Cross section of the tomb

The roof of the tomb became weak and at some point collapsed, filling the chamber with rubble.<ref> (accessed 30th June 2014)</ref> It was reported that Oliver Cromwell's troops tried to dig into the mound during the 1650s. <ref> (accessed 30th June 2014)</ref>In 1861 the tomb was opened by James Farrer, an antiquarian and the Member of Parliament for South Durham. <ref>Ritchie 1995, 9</ref>

He tried and failed to make his way in by the entrance passage, then followed the Vikings in via the roof.<ref> (accessed 30th June 2014)</ref> Over a period of days he emptied the main chamber of material that had filled it completely. He and his workmen discovered the famous runic inscriptions carved on the walls, proof that Norsemen had broken into the tomb at least six centuries earlier.<ref>Ritchie 1995, 10</ref>The landowner, David Balfour of Shapinsay, installed the protective roof that exists today.<ref> (accessed 30th June 2014)</ref>