Around the Ness: a hearth in Maeshowe?

Antiquarian sketch has us wondering whether there might be more to the 5,000-year-old chamber than we see today

By Sigurd Towrie

Maeshowe interior sketch c.1861

The 19th century sketch showing the interior of Maeshowe after it was cleared of ‘rubbish’ in 1861. The stone feature that looks remarkably like a Neolithic hearth is clearly visible in the centre of the chamber. (Picture courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive)

Back in 2016, a nineteenth century sketch had us pondering whether there might be more to Maeshowe than we see today.

The anonymous drawing shows the interior of the chambered “after excavation”, with three Victorian gentlemen, flanked by two ladies, standing atop the 5,000-year-old chamber looking in.

But it is what appears to be on the floor of the Neolithic structure that aroused interest. Directly opposite the entrance passage are what looks like three long, stone slabs forming three sides of a square.

To anyone who has visited the Ness of Brodgar, Skara Brae, or even the Stones of Stenness, this arrangement will be very familiar. Did Maeshowe once contain a hearth?

Although the sketch is undated, similarities between it and illustrations of Maeshowe’s interior published in the 1860s, suggests it shows the chamber during, or soon after, its “excavation” by James Farrer in 1861.

The sketch must have been made when the bulk of the rubble and infill had been hastily removed – apart from the side-chamber blocking stones, two of which are clearly visible.

But it is the hearth-like feature that is particularly interesting.

Although the three slabs could simply be remnants of the collapsed roof, they bear a remarkable resemblance – in appearance and position – to the hearths typical of the Neolithic in Orkney.

If it is a hearth, does it relate to Maeshowe itself or is it part of an earlier structure underneath? [1]. Whatever the explanation, it is an intriguing mystery — the answer to which may still survive below the gravel now covering the chamber floor.

As we’ve seen, the notorious mound-breaker, James Farrer targeted Maeshowe in July 1861. And once his team had gained access through the roof, they didn’t hang about.

According to Farrer’s brief report, it took a “few days’ labour” to clear out the “rubbish” filling the chamber [2].

But although he did make the connection between the chamber’s side chambers and their blocking stones, he, nor the usually more-reliable Orkney antiquarian George Petrie, made no mention of a hearth-like feature. That may be for the simple reason that the excavators had other things on their minds.

As Farrer explained: “ …long ere [the rubble removal] was accomplished, the keen eye of Mr Joseph Robertson discovered the first of the runic inscriptions” [2].

These 12th century runes immediately became the focus of the investigation – indeed even on the sketch they are prominently and carefully marked. Recorded and debated for years afterwards, there is no doubt that the “rubbish” in the chamber was seen as a hindrance to their further study.

In the obvious rush to clear “the mass of ruins filling up the interior”, it would not be at all surprising if any evidence of a hearth was hastily cleared away with the rest of the stone rubble — particularly, if, as the sketch suggests, the feature was skewed and did not obviously relate to the architecture of the chamber.

The significance of the hearth

The hearth played a major role in Neolithic life.

The central hearth at the Stones of Stenness. (Sigurd Towrie)

The central hearth at the Stones of Stenness. (Sigurd Towrie)

Fire provided warmth and illumination and, not surprisingly, the hearth was the centre of domestic and social life. Its importance for the maintenance of life also led to the hearth acquiring symbolic significance.

For example, while excavating the Barnhouse Settlement in the 1980s, Professor Colin Richards discovered that the houses’ hearths were arranged on the same alignment — to the midsummer sunrise and sunset and midwinter sunrise and sunset. In addition, the hearthstones were often reused when a new structure was constructed, perhaps as a link to the building or people who had gone before.

It is this symbolic function that may account for examples of hearth settings found in decidedly non-domestic locations.

The best-known example of this is at the centre of the Stones of Stenness. But at Barnhouse’s Structure Eight, a short distance away, a hearth was incorporated at the threshold of the narrow entrance passage, but had been paved over [3].

The hearth in the middle of the Stones of Stenness had been carefully transplanted from the outskirts of the Barnhouse village to the centre of the stone circle. This not only connected the settlement to the monument but may have held a wider significance: “The hearth was not simply a symbol of inter-group meetings and ceremonies, but came to embody the relationships and identities of those who participated.” [4]

The original site of the Stones of Stenness hearthstones was also “maintained or remembered” and rebuilt to become the central hearth within Barnhouse’s Structure Eight [4].

Returning to Maeshowe, there is a major fly in the ointment.

Professor Richards is clear that the Neolithic hearth — “a potent symbol that embodied the warmth of life” — was “not appropriate within the context of death.” He is not wrong. Hearths are notably absent from chambered cairns.

House One, Skara Brae.

The central hearth in House One, Skara Brae. (Sigurd Towrie)

So, if we accept that the sketch shows a hearth, could it relate instead to Maeshowe’s predecessor? Or was it part of the chamber’s construction process and ceremonies and then deliberately covered over afterwards? A dead hearth in the domain of the dead?

When the Stones of Stenness central hearth came to the end of its life it was “monumentalised” with massive stones and left. Here the evidence suggests the hearth was only used during the erection of the stone circle [4].

Maeshowe stands apart from other Orcadian chambered cairns. It is, for example, the only example we have which was specifically built to encase a set of four standing stones.

The term “house of the dead” is often applied to chambered cairns because of the architectural similarities between them and domestic dwellings. Perhaps Maeshowe took this concept to its pinnacle and was created as a monumental dwelling for the ancestors — a house that incorporated an old, perhaps covered, hearth.

While the hearths burned brightly elsewhere, including at the centre of the Stones of Stenness, did the hearth at Maeshowe lie cold, empty and dead? A memory of those who had gone before?

Or was Maeshowe something entirely different? Did it, along with its entrance-free surrounding ditch and wall/bank, commemorate and contain an earlier building? As we have seen previously, it has been suggested the Stones of Stenness enclosed an earlier structure with a ring of stones, a ditch and bank [4]. It is hard not to wonder whether the next stage there might have been the construction of a massive passage grave.

When we consider that the hearths in the houses of the living were aligned to the solstices, was a hidden hearth in Maeshowe — a structure orientated towards the midwinter sunset — an extension of that?

If the chamber did once contain a hearth, it is tempting, although undoubtedly fanciful, to ponder whether the fireplace lay cold and empty until the dying winter sun hung in the south-western sky and illuminated the monument.

Then, and only then, in the darkest depths of an Orkney winter, were the flames rekindled?

Notes

  • [1] Challands, A., Muir, T. and Richards, C. (2005) The Great Passage Grave of Maeshowe. In Richards, C. (ed) Dwelling among the monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness, Orkney. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
  • [2] Farrer, J. (1862) Notice of runic inscriptions discovered during recent excavations in the Orkneys. Private circulation.
  • [3] Hill, J. and Richards, C. (2005) Structure Eight: Monumentality at Barnhouse. In Richards, C. (ed) Dwelling among the monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness, Orkney. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
  • [4] Challands, A., Edmonds, M. and Richards, C. (2005) Beyond the Village: Barnhouse Odin and the Stones of Stenness. In Richards, C. (ed) Dwelling among the monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness, Orkney. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

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