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"[Maeshowe is] one of the greatest architectural achievements of the prehistoric peoples of Scotland".

The parish of Stenness, in Orkney’s West Mainland, is home to some of the county’s best-known ancient monuments.

Among these is the prehistoric chambered cairn, Maeshowe - one of the monuments that make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.

Approximately 500 metres from the south-eastern shore of the Harray loch, Maeshowe is, by far, the largest and most impressive of Orkney’s many chambered cairns.

We have no date for its construction, although radiocarbon dates for the surrounding ditch suggests it was dug around 2700BC. It is important to remember, however, this ditch may post-date the chamber by centuries.

Appearing as a large grassy mound, it is clearly visible for miles around, including the nearby Standing Stones of Stenness, the Barnhouse Settlement and the Watchstone.

Archaeologist James Farrer first excavated the cairn in 1861, prior to which the mound had a distinctly different shape than it has today.

As can be seen in the illustration (right), Maeshowe was once conical, with a deep depression in the top. It had a diameter of around 30m (100 ft) and stood 11m (36 ft) high.

The cairn was taken into state care in 1910, at which time a concrete roof was added to the structure. At the same time, the outer mound was sculpted to give it is present "rounded" dimensions of 7.3m high and a 37m diameter.

A Neolithic elite?

Picture Sigurd TowrieMaeshowe was built in the Neolithic period. Constructed on a platform of levelled ground, like the nearby stone circles of Brodgar and Stenness, the monument is surrounded by a ditch and raised bank.

Archaeological work in recent years hints that the cairn was built on top of an earlier structure - perhaps an early Neolithic house.

It has been suggested that this house was replaced by a stone circle - four of the stones of which came to be incorporated into Maeshowe.

An excavation outside the chamber, in 1996, led to the discovery of a socket-hole on a platform to the rear of the mound. This added weight to the theory that the site had one housed a stone circle.

The massive stone slabs used to line the entrance chamber may also have once been part of this stone ring.

At the same time, it was suggested that the chamber's encircling ditch was originally intended to be filled with water. This would have had the effect of further isolating the world of the living from that of the dead.

Maeshowe is made up of a large central chamber, with three side chambers built into the walls. It is accessed by a low, long entrance passage (see illustration below).

Plan view of Maeshowe

The complexity of the chamber's architecture, and the grandness of its scale, has led to the idea that Maeshowe was built to demonstrate the power of a "social elite" within the prehistoric social systems of the time.

Estimates for the labour required to build Maeshowe have been placed at 100,000 man-hours, compared to 10,000 hours required for its lesser contemporaries.

This, suggest some, shows a society where the emphasis had shifted from the community as a whole, to one elevated class, or individual.

The midwinter connection

Perhaps one of Maeshowe's most famous attributes is its midwinter alignment - something it shares with the chambered tomb of Newgrange, in Ireland.

For a few days each year, as the midwinter sun slips below the horizon, its last rays shine directly through Maeshowe's entrance passage to illuminate the rear wall of the central chamber.

For more on this work of Neolithic engineering, click here.

Stone ring links?

At the nearby Standing Stones of Stenness, stand two angular slabs, standing side by side, with a large prone stone beside them.

Maeshowe Connection?It is intriguing, although perhaps mere coincidence, that when viewed from the centre of the stone circle, Maeshowe is aligned to the gap between the two "dolmen stones".

This could indicate that the stones formed some sort of symbolic link, or connecting "portal", between the chambered cairn and the stone circle.

Viking invaders

During the 1861 excavation, Maeshowe’s entrance passage was inaccessible, so an access shaft was driven down through the top of the mound. Once inside, however, the archaeologists discovered that they were not the first to break into the tomb.

Runic "graffiti" found on the inner walls confirmed the Orkneyinga Saga account that several groups of Norsemen had entered the tomb - known to them as "Orkahaugr" - in the middle of the 12th century and recorded their presence on the ancient stone.

For more on these Viking invaders, and the Maeshowe runes, click here.