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The main chamber

Illustration: Sigurd TowrieAfter bending double to negotiate the narrow, low, entrance passage, when the visitor reaches Maeshowe's main chamber, it unfolds as a vast expanse of space.

With an area of approximately 4.7 square metres, the chamber has four massive buttresses (see picture below left) built into each corner.

A large stone slab, facing the centre of the chamber, flanks each buttress.

It has been suggested that these four megaliths were once part of an older stone circle, perhaps one that stood on the site before Maeshowe.

The discovery of a standing stone socket hole, outside the cairn in 1996, seems to add weight to this idea.

Picture Sigurd TowrieBut once inside the chamber, the skill of the Neolithic builders becomes immediately apparent. The quality of the drystone stonework is impeccable.

The structure's walls rise vertically to a height of 1.4 metres (4.6 ft) before they begin to slope inwards to finish in, what would once have been, a corbelled roof.

And built into the centre of each of the three walls facing the entrance is a side chamber.

Maeshowe's present roof is a “modern” one, installed in 1910, when the monument was taken into state care.

Prior to this, and as confirmed by James Farrer's 1862 sketch, pictured below, the chamber's roof had not survived.

The top of the structure was damaged during the 1861 excavation.

Because the entrance was blocked, the 19th century excavators were the latest in a series of "visitors" who entered the prehistoric cairn by breaking through the roof.

The height of the original roof is not known, although it could have been anything from 4.5m (14.7ft) to 6m (19.6ft) high.

Runic grafitti

Maeshowe’s central chamber is renowned for containing one of the largest collections of Viking runes in Europe.

Runic inscriptions are found scratched throughout the chamber - the legacy of a group of Norsemen who sheltered in the cairn in the 12th century.

Click here for more details.

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