Maeshowe is western Europe’s finest chambered tomb (cairn) and was described by renowned British archaeologist Stuart Piggott as ‘a superlative monument that by its originality of execution is lifted out of its class into a unique position’.
On the island of Orkney close to the Loch of Harray’s south-eastern shore, Maeshowe was built around 2,800BC (around 300 years earlier than the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt) and it is widely considered to be a masterpiece of Neolithic architectural design. The burial mound itself measures approximately 37m in diameter by 7.4m high and it has been estimated that 100,000 man hours were involved in its construction.
It’s postulated that much of the material used to construct the mound came from the outlying 2m deep, 14m wide surrounding ditch, presumably as a form of protection or defence in the same way moats protected medieval castles.
Archaeological studies suggest that the burial mound was built atop an earlier Neolithic structure – possibly a dwelling – and the complex nature of the construction, consisting of a central chamber and three side chambers accessed by a long, low passageway points to the possibility that it was used to display the power of an elite social class within prehistory’s tribal systems.
Amongst many, one of the most fascinating elements of Maeshowe is the illumination of the 11m-long passageway. Used as a rudimentary calendar, at sunset on midwinter’s day the low-lying sun hits the back wall and rather than a druid-esque pseudo-religious explanation, it’s more likely that it’s practical – people living this far north needed to know when the days were starting to get longer.
Unfortunately, while much is known about how the original structure was built, little is known about why. Archaeological presumptions suggest that it was used as an ossuary to house the bones of the dead but when the site was first excavated in 1861 by antiquarian James Farrer, only tiny bone fragments were found.
In around 2,000BC Maeshowe fell into disuse, possibly because the climate was so frigid and the Orcadian society that lived here mass-migrated south in search of more temperate climes and for 3,000 years it simply sat there. That was until January 1153 when, according to the Orkneyinga Saga (an historical narrative of Orkney’s history), Vikings led by Earl Harald Maddadarson broke into Maeshowe through the roof and sheltered there and on their return from their crusade later the same year, Ragnvald, Earl of Møre and his troops also went in, uninvited.
What they left was unquestionably the finest example of runic writing found anywhere in the UK. As well as telling tales of their conquests, the Vikings left graffiti which is ostensibly no different to what you’d find today, such as ‘Ottarfila carved these runes’; ‘Tholfr Klossienn's son carved these runes high up’, ‘Ingigerth is the most beautiful of women’ and ‘To the north-west is a great hidden treasure. It was long ago that a treasure was hidden here.’ This residence may explain the lack of bones…
This stunning burial mound represents Neolithic architecture at its zenith and any historical trip to the Orkney Islands should include a visit to Maeshowe.
Access to Maeshowe is only by guided tour from the Skara Brae Visitor Centre and you will be taken to the site by coach. Tickets can be bought on the day of your tour.