Around the Ness: Maeshowe – part two

Maeshowe. (Adam Stanford/

By Sigurd Towrie
(Part One here)

The flagstone pathway covering the earlier drain outside Maeshowe in 1991. (Challands et al. 2005)

Based on shared architectural elements, Maeshowe has given its name to a specific class of chambered cairn.

Characterised by side cells branching off from a central chamber accessed by a long, low passage, the Maeshowe-type cairns have been linked to relationships further afield, specifically Ireland. Irish passage grave architecture, it is suggested, was just one element copied by “ambitious and widely travelled” Orcadian groups looking to “enhance their power by appropriating an exotic tradition” [1].

But despite the similarities, Maeshowe has distinct differences and, it could be argued, may have had a different role. As we have seen, it contained little, if any, human remains and it has been argued that access to its interior was never intended. Maeshowe perhaps represented something else entirely. Does this anomalous nature hint that it was later in the history of chambered cairns?

An earlier building

Maeshowe was built on an artificial platform fashioned by depositing huge quantities of clay on a natural knoll to create a level surface. In 1991, excavation outside the entrance revealed a stone drain beneath the clay platform. Soil analysis suggested occupation deposits, so the drain was interpreted as the remnants of an earlier Neolithic house [2]. This building, it was suggested, had been demolished and the area covered with clay to allow the construction of Maeshowe – on the same alignment as its predecessor.

To the excavators, the location chosen for Maeshowe was clearly influenced by the earlier building: “…it can be confidently suggested that the place selected for the construction of [Maeshowe] was already occupied by some form of structure…” [2]

“Whatever the role of the structure beneath Maeshowe, it was deemed appropriate to act as the place for the construction of the massive passage grave.” [2]

Because we have no dating evidence for Maeshowe, how its suggested predecessor fits into the timeline of Neolithic Orkney remains unknown. But as we will see below, the construction of a Maeshowe-type cairn on top of earlier buildings has been encountered elsewhere.

Standing stone

The position of the standing stone socket to the rear of Maeshowe (Challands et al. 2005)

The position of the standing stone socket to the rear of Maeshowe (Challands et al. 2005)

The 1991 investigations also revealed a large standing stone socket hole on the platform to the rear of Maeshowe. Based on its depth, the megalith it once contained was bigger and taller than those found at the nearby Stones of Stenness [2]. It had been carefully removed in antiquity but on the available evidence we do not know when. Nor do we know how it related to Maeshowe.

A very similar situation was encountered at Howe, Stromness, about three miles to the south-west of Maeshowe.

The position of the stone socket at Howe, Stromness. (Ballin-Smith. 1994)

There, excavation between 1978 and 1982 showed that an equally large standing stone stood beside a Neolithic structure that was replaced by a building interpreted as a stalled cairn [3]. This interpretation is problematic, however, considering the presence of a hearth – a feature highly unlikely to be found within a funerary structure. Instead, architectural parallels between Structure Twenty-Seven at the Ness of Brodgar and the Howe “stalled cairn” suggests it served a different, and as yet unclear, role.

Whatever this role was, the Howe structure was very carefully dismantled and covered in a thick layer of clay. On top of this a Maeshowe-type passage grave was built, on the same alignment as its predecessor.

“From the quality of the masonry that survived it is clear that this tomb would have been one of the finest Orkney Neolithic tombs yet discovered, possibly the equal of Maeshowe in its quality and constructional details.” [3]

Although smaller than Maeshowe, the passage grave was stylistically so similar that the excavators considered it “probable that same builders were involved.” [3]

How the standing stone related to the Maeshowe-type cairn is not clear.

All that can really be said is that it was removed at some point before the Early Iron Age re-occupation and remodelling of the site. The excavators thought it may have been removed prior to the construction of the Howe cairn and ditch. The fact the stone socket cut the surrounding ditch, however, has been taken as evidence the Maeshowe-type structure and the megalith were contemporary [2].

Plan of the Maeshowe-type passage grave encountered at Howe. (Ballin-Smith 1994)

Plan of the Maeshowe-type passage grave encountered at Howe. (Ballin-Smith 1994)

Back at Maeshowe, in 1991, the orientation of the stone socket suggested it may have been part of a stone circle. Unfortunately, there was no conclusive evidence for other stone sockets [2]. If the standing stone was earlier than Maeshowe and part of a stone circle, it may be that more sockets lie beneath the clay platform on which the passage grave was built.

Were the megaliths incorporated into Maeshowe once part of this ring of stones? Until proof is found – which is unlikely given Maeshowe’s protected status – the existence of an earlier stone circle must remain hypothetical.

The dark of winter

Maeshowe in winter. (Sigurd Towrie)

Maeshowe in winter. (Sigurd Towrie)

“Surely there could be no darker place in the be-wintered world than the interior of Maeshowe. One of the light rays is caught in this stone web of death. Through the long corridor it has found its way; it splashes the far wall of the chamber. The illumination lasts a few minutes, then is quenched.”

George Mackay Brown
Maeshowe entrance passage from the interior. (Sigurd Towrie)

Maeshowe entrance passage from the interior. (Sigurd Towrie)

With its south-westerly facing entrance, Maeshowe’s best known attribute is its orientation towards the setting sun around midwinter. But although the idea of the last rays of the winter solstice setting sun piercing the darkness of the cairn’s interior conjures suitably dramatic imagery the actual situation is much more complex.

As archaeoastronomer Clive Ruggles pointed out: “[A]lthough it has been stated a number of times that the setting sun’s rays around the midwinter solstice illuminate, or at least once illuminated, the rear wall of the central chamber, the mean axis of the inner part of the passage (azimuth 221°) was more in line with sunsets some three weeks earlier or later.” [4]

Although this seems pretty clear cut, note that the orientation refers specifically to the inner passage. And therein lies the problem. Much of what has been written about Maeshowe and the winter solstice relates to the current configuration of the entrance and outer passage.

Not only was the outer arrangement reconstructed at some point after the excavation but details of the original layout are lacking. Not only was it probably ruinous but further damaged by Farrer’s operation to clear it out.

Maeshowe from the rear. (Sigurd Towrie)

Maeshowe from the rear. (Sigurd Towrie)

As Petrie pointed out in 1861, the outer passage appeared to have originally 71cm (28in) high [5] – lower than the intact inner section. Although unroofed when excavated, if the outer section was originally covered then this would dramatically impact the sunlight entering the chamber [6].

There is, however, no reliable evidence that the outer passage was covered.The situation is not helped by inconsistencies in the early accounts and plans. As mentioned previously, in his 1861 letter to the local newspaper, Petrie said “the covering stones had been removed for about 22½ feet” [5]. A very brief report to the Archaeological Journal, also written in July 1861, states: “the covering stones for about 15ft were wanting” [7]. Knowing Petrie’s work elsewhere, I find it hard to believe he would not have spotted and recorded collapsed roof material.

It has been suggested that the outer section “may have been in the form of an open trench” leading to the actual entrance – much as the reconsolidated entrance appears today [6]. It is interesting to note that the excavators of the Maeshowe-inspired passage grave at Howe suggested a forecourt enhanced the grandeur of that construction [3].

If it was the blocking stone that marked the original entrance to Maeshowe, via the megalith-lined inner passage, and was used to seal the chamber, it did not completely block the passage.  The top is lower than the passage roof so, when in place, left a distinct gap. It is often suggested this gap acted as a “lightbox”, similar to the one found in Newgrange, Ireland. However, once again, given the uncertainty surrounding the original entrance, this function cannot be verified.

Because the form of Maeshowe’s outer passage is not clear, we cannot say how the midwinter sunsets affected Maeshowe and how, if at all, they were experienced in the central chamber. But whether the sunlight penetrated the depths of the chamber or the setting sun was framed by the entrance, the time around the winter solstice was clearly significant.

Maeshowe - Sigurd Towrie

It may be then, as now, it marked the passing of time – the death of the old year and the birth of the new one. In the dark depths of an Orkney winter today, the solstice remains a welcome indicator that the sun is returning.

To the people of Neolithic Orkney the return of the sun heralded a resurgence of light and the return of life to the land – just as it still does.

Although in Orkney the worst of winter often follows the solstice, it remains a comforting thought to know the days are lengthening again.


  • [1] Schulting, R., Sheridan, A., Crozier, R. and Murphy, E. (2010) Revisiting Quanterness: new AMS dates and stable isotope data from an Orcadian chamber tomb. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 140, 1-50.
  • [2] 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. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, pp. 229–248.
  • [3] Ballin-Smith, B. (1994) Howe: four millennia of Orkney prehistory excavations, 1978-1982. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
  • [4] Ruggles, C. (1999) Astronomy in prehistoric Britain and Ireland. Yale University Press.
  • [5] Petrie, G. (1861) Letter to The Orcadian newspaper. July 20, 1861.
  • [6] Davidson, J.L. and Henshall, A.S. (1989) The Chambered Cairns of Orkney: an inventory of the structures and their contents. Edinburgh University Press.
  • [7] Petrie, G., (1861). Notice of the opening of a tumulus in the parish of Stenness, on the Mainland of Orkney. Archaeological Journal, 18(1), pp.353-358.

You may also like...