Around the Ness: Maeshowe
“But the most remarkable tumulus in Orkney is situated to the north-east of the Ring of Stenness and is called M’eshoo or Meashowe (sic).”
By Sigurd Towrie
Probably the best-known Neolithic chambered cairn in Orkney, Maeshowe stands less than a mile to the east of the Ness of Brodgar complex. Appearing today as a grassy mound, the 5,000-year-old structure dominates a low, gently sloping plain to the east of the Harray loch.
Beneath the clay and rubble mound is a large, high-roofed chamber with three side-chambers in the north-east, south-east and north-west walls. The structure stands on an artificial platform surrounded by a ditch and bank/wall. Access to the interior is by a long, low and narrow entrance passage on the south-western side.
The chamber was “excavated” in 1861, the explorers gaining entry through the roof. Leading the operation was the notorious antiquarian James Farrer – “an assiduous if, by modern standards, unscientific digger of mounds”. Farrer’s was very active in 19th century Orkney and as notable for the damage he caused as his lack of documentation. Fortunately, he was often accompanied, or followed, by the Orcadian antiquarian George Petrie, who on at least one occasion politely urged Farrer to moderate his activities.
Documenting the attempts to get into Maeshowe, Petrie explained: “Mr Farrer’s explorations were commenced on the west side and in a few hours the workmen came upon the covering stones of the passage which leads to the interior. As the inner extremity was found to be blocked up with clay, an excavation was made on top of the tumulus and the walls of the building were soon found.”
The ten-metre-long entrance passage slopes slightly downwards towards the exterior and is divided into two sections by a door jamb about six metres (19ft) from the mound’s perimeter. The outer passage is narrower and lower than the inner section and was probably ruinous when the passage was cleared in 1861. All but a two-metre (6.5ft) section of the outer passage was found to be unroofed. To Petrie the roof slabs had been removed while John Stuart’s 1864 account of the excavation stated they had fallen in.
The innermost surviving section of the outer passage was roofed at a height of 70cm (27.5 inches) so it was assumed that the rest of the passage had been the same.
The ruinous condition of the outer section, however, means the form of the original entrance is not at all clear. It has been suggested that at least part of the outer passage took the form of an open trench, much as it appears today.
Just beyond the door jambs, in the north side of the inner passage is a triangular alcove that now houses a large stone. The triangular stone, which is only slightly narrower than the width of the passage, fitted perfectly into the recess.
“This block suggests the idea that it had been used to shut up the passage … and that it was pushed back into the recess in the wall when admission into the chamber was desired.”
Anyone who has seen the size of the stone will agree that moving it in and out of the entrance could not have been an easy task – a fact that has led to the suggestion that Maeshowe was never intended to be entered – or at least not regularly. To others, the position of the door jambs in relation to the blocking stone suggests the passage was sealed from the inside.
After bending double to negotiate the entrance passage, the main chamber unfolds as a vast expanse of space. In 1861, the excavators found it to be “completely filled with the stones which had originally formed the upper part of the walls and roof, and with the clay which had completed the top of the tumulus.”
“After a few days labour,” wrote Farrer, “the whole of the rubbish filling the chamber was removed”.
Farrer’s so-called “rubbish” hastily extracted, the excavators found a well-built square chamber, 4.7 metres (15.4ft) across, with side chambers in the centre of each of the three walls facing the entrance. Maeshowe differs from other chambered cairns in that the side cells are not at ground level but about 80cm (31.5 in) from chamber floor. A single large stone lies outside each of the cells, thought to have been used to seal the chambers.
Once inside Maeshowe’s chamber, the skill of the Neolithic builders becomes immediately apparent. The quality of the drystone stonework is impeccable. The walls rise vertically to a height of 1.4 metres (4.6 ft) before they begin to slope inwards to finish in a corbelled roof. The original height of the original roof is not known, although it could have been anything from 4.5m (14.7ft) to 6m (19.6ft) high. Maeshowe’s present roof is a “modern” one, installed in 1910, when the monument was taken into state care.
Among the features that set Maeshowe apart from other Orcadian chambered cairns are the four standing stones incorporated into the central chamber – one in each corner.
Often described in the literature as buttresses, they actually serve no architectural purpose. In fact, their presence was not only unnecessary but may have impacted the stability of the structure.
The megaliths were clearly a planned feature from the outset and the fact the chamber was built up around them means the standing stones must have been erected first. For an unknown period, they stood in the landscape as a square feature, until the construction of Maeshowe encased them in stone. Four more megaliths are incorporated into the inner section of the entrance passage.
Whatever they may have represented, or symbolised, physically they accentuate the scale of the chamber and draw the eye upwards to the lofty corbelled roof. Given the areas decoration and embellishment noted within the chamber, one cannot help but wonder what sight greeted the Neolithic visitor.
Where did the standing stones come from? Were they quarried specifically for the construction of Maeshowe? Or re-used from an earlier monument? Wherever they came from, one thing is beyond doubt – their inclusion also linked the chambered cairn to other monuments on and around the Ness of Brodgar.
“Maeshowe is one of the supreme achievements of Neolithic Europe and stands apart because of its very excellence…”
We do not know when Maeshowe was constructed, although these days it is generally accepted as being around 3000BC. At some point the chamber was enclosed by a wall and, around the same time, a ditch with no entrance causeway – additions that separated the monument from the surrounding landscape.
The only confirmed radiocarbon date from Maeshowe came from its enclosing ditch. This c2700BC date has become firmly attached to the chambered cairn, based on an assumption that the ditch and chamber were contemporary. But as regular readers will know by now, we cannot assume that any monument – particularly those made up of multiple elements – was a single-phase construction.
With Maeshowe, we simply do not know whether the chamber, ditch and external wall were planned from the outset and built as part of a single, unified project. Although there is no doubt the ditch was dug around 2700BC, it may have been added centuries after the chamber’s construction.
For decades it was suggested, and generally accepted, that Maeshowe-type cairns were a later “evolution” of the stalled Orkney-Cromarty cairns – stalled cairns came first, centuries before the advent of the Maeshowe-type. This notion was dealt a blow in 2017, following a major reassessment of Neolithic radiocarbon dates from Orkney. This suggested both styles emerged in the middle of the fourth millennium BC (around 3700-3400BC) and remained in use, for the deposition of human remains, until around 2900BC. Is it likely that Maeshowe was built 200 years after the Orkney-wide use of chambered cairns ceased?
By modern standards, Farrer’s rush to clear out Maeshowe leaves a lot to be desired and explains why the published accounts differ on the scant quantity of human remains encountered.
Farrer himself makes no mention of any remains . Two years later, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland heard there was a “small fragment of human skull”, while Orcadian antiquarian George Petrie referred to “several skull fragments”. Suffice to say there was not a huge quantity of bone and those recovered were subsequently lost. Hence the lack of radiocarbon dates.
Over a century later, however, another Maeshowe-type passage grave, a few miles to the east, was found to be packed with human remains. Quanterness was excavated in the 1970s and the re-analysis of radiocarbon dates now suggests it was continually in use from around 3400BC until 2900BC!
If Maeshowe was constructed around the same time as Quanterness, it would be contemporary with the nearby Barnhouse Settlement and the piered buildings at the Ness of Brodgar. That this was the case, and that Maeshowe played a major role in the lives of the Barnhouse inhabitants, was proposed in 2005, based on architectural parallels between the two sites.
Early incursions and later additions
Today, Maeshowe has a rounded, dome-shaped profile – the result of consolidation work in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Prior to its “excavation” in 1861, Maeshowe’s exterior looked very different, described as an 11-metre-high (36ft) “conical tumulus” with a “bluntly conical outline” and a deep depression in the top. The present mound, approximately seven metres high (23 ft), still stands out today so Maeshowe’s pre-excavation form must have been an even more imposing sight.
We cannot, however, assume that this was the form intended by the Neolithic builders. Maeshowe had seen much activity, inside and out, before Farrer’s crew broke in. As Petrie pointed out in 1861: “[The tumulus] had evidently been previously opened.”
Some years previously, Lieutenant Thomas, surveying the monuments of Stenness, noted: “Many attempts had been made to explore [Maeshowe], as there are several small heaps upon its sides; but at last sufficient force and perseverance was brought to work, and a huge misshapen mass upon the east side shews [sic] the explorers were successful.”
This apparent interference with the mound, and perhaps its contents, goes back centuries.
The earliest account of Maeshowe is found within the pages of the Orkneyinga saga, written In Iceland around AD1200. According to the saga, a group of Viking warriors, led by Earl Harald, sought shelter within the prehistoric chamber during a blizzard in 1153.
“Earl Harald set out for Orkney at Christmas with four ships and a hundred men. He lay for two days off Graemsay then put in at Hamnavoe on Hrossey [Mainland Orkney], and on the thirteenth day of Christmas they travelled on foot over to Firth. During a snowstorm they took shelter in Orkahaugr [Maeshowe] and there two of them went insane, which slowed them down badly, so that by the time they reached Firth it was night-time.”
The saga account is borne out by the fact that Maeshowe is renowned for containing one of the largest collections of Viking runes in Europe. These were spotted soon after Farrer’s workers entered the chamber and, I would argue, became the focus of his investigation.
But how do we know Orkahaugr is Maeshowe? Fortunately, an obliging Viking left a runic inscription that tells us that it is. The inscription reads: “Jórsalafarar brutu Orkhaug,” which translates to: “Jerusalem-travellers [crusaders] broke Orkahaugr”.
Unfortunately, the saga tells us nothing more about Maeshowe, but there are a few things we can glean from the story.
Firstly, it is highly unlikely that a travelling warband seeking shelter in a snowstorm would dig their way into the ruins of a prehistoric chamber. Instead, it implies the chamber was already at least partially accessible.
Secondly, the saga account tells us that chambered cairn was clearly a well-known landmark. Familiar enough to the readers to know what it was without explanation.
Why was it well known? There are a number of possibilities. The placename element “howe” comes from the Old Norse “haugr” meaning “(burial) mound”. The practice of burying the dead inside or under mounds was a common practice among early Norse settlers and excavation outside the chamber in the 1970s suggested the bank had been rebuilt in the 10th century AD:
“The radiocarbon date from within the bank at the south side of the monument now gives clear corroboration that the early, low stone bank was indeed modified at a later stage [AD950]. Indeed, it is not impossible that the chamber may have been used for a Viking burial in the tenth century, when the bank was reconstituted, which would perhaps lend substance to the twelfth-century claim (in the runes) that ‘treasure was carried off in the course of three nights’.”
There is, however, a lack of evidence for Viking reuse of Maeshowe – not surprising given Farrer’s excavation method – prompting Graham-Campbell and Batey to declare the idea “lacks conviction”.
They add: “The reason for this rebuild is unknown but it is possible that the great mound was chosen as a pagan cult-place – or it might well have been the site of an unrecorded thing, given its central location.”
Based on their format of the runes, the chamber was first entered before 1125 because none of the runes inside are stylistically older than that. They date from 1125 to 1175 and may have been added piecemeal over a period in which Maeshowe’s interior was freely accessible.
The fact there are runes at ground level also suggests the initial incursion cannot have been responsible for the mass of rubble encountered by Farrer in 1861. We don’t know how access was gained but it may be that the entrance passage was cleared out and used.
Carved in runes high above Maeshowe’s entrance are the words: “That is a Viking…then came underneath to this place”  Clearly this does not necessarily refer specifically to the passage, but another implies that “visits to Maeshowe were a regular feature of mid-twelfth-century Orkney life.” 
The rune in question is Interpreted as: “Ingibjorg, the fair widow. Many a woman has gone stooping in here.”
Does this refer to the height of the entrance passage? If it does, it suggests the passage was open for an unknown period. Farrer’s discovery of a “rune” in the passage has been cited as evidence of this but this marking, dismissed as one of a group of “unimportant ‘scribbles’ and scratches”, is probably one of the Neolithic carvings identified in the chamber in the past 20 years.
However the medieval visitors were entering Maeshowe, it seems they were closing their access point afterwards. There is no evidence of interior weathering that would be expected had it stood open to the elements for any length of time. In July 1866, five years after Farrer broke in through the roof, a small “aperture at the summit” remained, causing a visiting scholar studying the runes to comment that the walls were “streaming with moisture”.
Vague local traditions that Maeshowe remaining a trysting place for the young men and women of the parish would seem to be disproved by a 1784 “rude woodcut” of the area produced by Rev Dr Robert Henry in 1784.
Highlighting Maeshowe, which must have been inaccessible by this time, the good reverend explains that, in the 17th century, soldiers sent to Orkney by Oliver Cromwell “dug tolerably deep into the mound” but found “nothing but earth.”
Aside from people digging into the mound, an Orkney tradition recorded by George Warwick in the late 19th century suggests the top of Maeshowe was, and had been, added to regularly:
“[A]t every full moon, every young lass for a mile round the knoll had to take a ‘caisy’ [basket] of ashes and go to the top of the knoll during moonlight, coup the caisy of ashes and make water on it.”
Marwick added: “I have often heard an old Stennis man tell all these particulars; his grandmother told him she carried ashes every moonlight night to the knoll top.”
-  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.
-  Ashmore, P. (2000) Maeshowe. Historic Scotland: Edinburgh.
-  Petrie, G. (1855) Description of antiquities in Orkney recently examined, with illustrative drawings. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 2, pp. 56-62): “Mr Farrer again visited Orkney last summer and resumed the excavations in Burray. I accompanied him to the island, and suggested the propriety of leaving the building undisturbed, and of the careful removal of the rubbish, both outside and inside.”
-  Petrie, G. (1861) Letter to The Orcadian newspaper. July 20, 1861.
-  Stuart, J. (1864) Notice of Excavations in the Chambered Mound of Maeshowe, in Orkney, and of the Runic Inscriptions on the Walls of its central Chamber. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 5, pp. 247-279).
-  Davidson, J.L. and Henshall, A.S. (1989) The Chambered Cairns of Orkney: an inventory of the structures and their contents. Edinburgh University Press.
-  Farrer, J. (1862) Notice of runic inscriptions discovered during recent excavations in the Orkneys. private circulation.
-  Edmonds, M. (2019) Orcadia: Land, Sea and Stone in Neolithic Orkney. Head of Zeus Ltd.
-  Thomas, A. (2016) Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney: Process, Temporality and Context. UHI Archaeology Institute Research Series: 1. Oxford, Archaeopress.
-  Bayliss, A., Marshall, P., Richards, C. and Whittle, A. (2017) Islands of History: The Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney. Antiquity, 91(359), pp. 1171–1188.
-  Marwick, H. (1931) Modern views of ancient Orkney. Proceedings of the Orkney Antiquarian Society 9, pp 9-16.
-  Thomas, F.W.L. (1851) Account of some of the Celtic Antiquities of Orkney, including the Stones of Stenness, Tumuli, Picts-houses, &c., with Plans, by FWL Thomas, RN, Corr. Mem. SA Scot., Lieutenant Commanding HM Surveying Vessel Woodlark. Archaeologia, 34(1).
-  Barnes, M. (1993) The Interpretation of the Runic Inscriptions of Maeshowe. Viking age in Caithness, Orkney and the North Atlantic : select papers from the proceedings of the Eleventh Viking Congress, Thurso and Kirkwall. Edinburgh University Press.
-  Somerville, A.A. and McDonald, R.A. (2014) The Viking Age: a Reader. University of Toronto Press.
-  Renfrew, C. (1979) Investigations in Orkney. Thames & Hudson.
-  Graham-Campbell, J. and Batey, C.E. (1998) Vikings in Scotland: an archaeological survey (p. 296). Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.
-  Barnes, M.P. (1994) The runic inscriptions of Maeshowe, Orkney. Univ., Inst. för nordiska sprak.
-  Bradley, R., Phillips, T., Richards, C. and Webb, M. (2001) Decorating the houses of the dead: incised and pecked motifs in Orkney chambered tombs. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 11(1).
-  Carr, R. (1868) Note on No. VII. of Mr George Petrie’s Copy of the Maeshow Runes. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 8, pp. 139-142).
-  Hibbert, S. (1823)The Tings of Orkney and Shetland. Archaeologica Scotica VIII.
-  Marwick, G. (1892) Howastedgarth, The Standing Stones, Stennis. In Muir, T. and Irvine, J. (eds) 2014. George Marwick: Yesnaby’s Master Storyteller. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.