THE GREAT mound of Maeshowe has dominated the skyline of Orkney for almost 5,000 years. It is a spectacular sight and a visit to the chambered tomb provides one of the highlights for visitors to the Orkney islands. Today, as we stoop to enter and walk down the low 11 metre passage to the chamber with its massive stonework, we are reminded of the ingenuity of those original builders.
Its apparent uniformity masks a long and complex history of change. The story of Maeshowe began at midwinter around 3,000 BC and even today it is the winter solstice that really brings the monument to life.
It was, no doubt, used throughout the year, but the most important time was the midwinter solstice on 21 December. Around this time the setting sun hangs low in the sky and shines directly along the passage to strike across the main chamber into the rear cell. A shaft of light pierces the monument. The angle of the passage is designed to allow a leeway for several days either side of the solstice. So even if midwinter is cloudy, there are likely to be clear days that allow the passage of the sun. The phenomenon attracts people from across the world to this place of ancient worship.Maeshowe is one of the largest burial mounds of Neolithic Europe. It was built by the Stone Age farmers of Neolithic Orkney as a place of ceremony and ritual. We do not know precisely what went on here, but comparison with other sites suggests that it was designed to be visited repeatedly by a select group of the community. It is likely that the rituals involved the dead and that the bones of some were laid to rest here. By the time Maeshowe was re-discovered by archaeologist James Farrer in 1861, the original contents of the chamber had long since disappeared, so piecing together the picture of this great site has been slow.
The earliest remains at Maeshowe comprise a structure, perhaps a small ceremonial centre, about 5,000 years old, which was subsequently levelled and covered with clay to create a circular platform, surrounded by a ditch and bank, and known today as a henge. A setting of tall standing stones was erected next, four of which formed the heart of the great chamber that lay at the centre of the mound that was subsequently built on the platform. The setting of the stones was crucial for they allowed the mound builders to align the passage and chamber with the midwinter sun as it sets to the southwest.
The chamber is impressive, originally standing some five metres high, with three side rooms each roofed with a single flagstone. Where the entrance passage meets the outside world a carefully dressed and pivoted block can act to seal the chamber from the inside. Entry, it seems, was controlled. Architecturally Maeshowe is a masterpiece that must have involved complex engineering just to get the stones into place, but this was not all – the mound was carefully designed with layers of turf and clay to prevent damp from penetrating.
Maeshowe lies at the heart of a number of ceremonial settings, all built and used in Neolithic Orkney. This was a focus for the wider prehistoric population of the islands, but the importance of Maeshowe has not decreased with the passing of time. For many centuries the site acted as a focus for burial and the area was once dotted with smaller Bonze Age burial mounds. With the coming of the Vikings, Maeshowe really came into its own again.
Orkney was a thriving part of the Norse world, governed by local Earls who owed allegiance to the king in Norway. In the 12th century, Maeshowe was broken into on more than one occasion. One group of Norsemen, apparently returning from the crusades, sheltered in the tomb during a thunderstorm; others entered for other reasons. Inside the chamber they left their mark: the stone walls are covered by graffiti in the form of runic messages which vary in content from the boastful to the pornographic.One passage suggests that treasure was removed, which is puzzling because metal was unknown to the original Neolithic users of the monument. It may be that the tomb was used for the burial of a Viking noble. Whatever their motive, Maeshowe caught the imagination of the Norse inhabitants of the islands and the runes here comprise the largest collection outside Scandinavia.
Today, Maeshowe is still important and recognised as a World Heritage Site. There are so many visitors that Historic Scotland, who manages the property, has had to introduce a timed ticketing system. Do not worry if you wish to witness the winter solstice but can't make the journey. Cameras inside the tomb and relayed over the internet mean that anyone can now watch the sun as it enters the chamber, so carefully planned 5,000 years ago and still as fascinating today.
Caroline Wickham-Jones is an archaeologist who lives and works in Orkney.
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