Maeshowe’s standing stone and the structure beneath

“Here the masters of stone built
The dark winter round.
Here the masons built a hive
That the dead lords and ladies
Might eat always honey of oblivion.
Here masons and starwatchers
Conspired: in midwinter
The good star, the sun, would awaken the sleepers.”
George Mackay Brown. Orkney Pictures and Poems.
Maeshowe. (Adam Stanford/www.aerial-cam.co.uk)
Maeshowe. (📷 Adam Stanford)

By Sigurd Towrie

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…
“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 at Howe 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.

Notes

  • [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.

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