The word “Maes” has been variously translated as “maiden” or “great” in the old Norse, suggesting the names such as The Maiden’s Tomb or The Great Tomb. Perhaps the reference to a maiden bears a connection to the feminine nature of ceremonial cairns and mounds, which symbolically represent the “womb” of Mother Earth; a symbol particularly related to the winter solstice and found throughout many ancient sacred sites aligned to that time of year.
Interestingly, Maeshowe is called Orkahaugr in the Orkneyinga Saga – a historical narrative of the history of the Orkney Islands. The first element of that name, orka, signifies power or greatness.
Maeshowe was declared a World Heritage in 1999.
The Tomb That’s Not Quite a Tomb
Unlike other burial tombs, no significant human remains were found at Maeshowe. Rather it is referred to as a tomb hypothetically because of the similarity in construction to passage tombs. A separate actual burial tomb was found elsewhere in the vicinity.
Giulio Magli, author of Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy: From Giza to Easter Island, highlights that unlike other burial tombs, the doorway to the sole passageway at Maeshowe is designed to close from the inside, hinting at different use of the cairn.
The study of the cairn’s precise winter solstice alignments denotes a more likely ceremonial use instead, but more on this later.
Discovery, Looting and Reconstruction
Maeshowe was excavated in 1861 by an antiquarian James Farrer, at which time it had a different shape than today. It was more conical, about 30m in diameter and 11m high, with a considerable portion of the upper part being thrown down during the excavation.
After the state reconstruction in 1910, a concrete roof was added, and the mound was adjusted to give it its present, more rounded shape.
As with many other sacred sites, it appears that Maeshowe may have also been used over centuries by different cultures. Excavations revealed that the external wall surrounding the ditch was rebuilt in the 9th century, suggesting that the mound was used by Vikings from about the 9th to the 12th centuries AD.
The Norsemen also left a series of runic inscriptions on the stone walls of the chamber, some of which were left by a group of crusaders in the winter of 1153–54.
This event was also recorded in the Orkneyinga saga. According to this text, a group of Viking warriors broke into the cairn in a snowstorm. While waiting for the storm to end, they carved over thirty runes into the walls, making it the largest single collection of such carvings in the world. Most of the inscriptions are of a mundane nature, simply following the pattern of “x was here” or “x carved these runes”, with a few making reference to Christianity.
Design and Construction
Maeshowe appears as a grassy mound rising from a flat plain near the southeast end of the Loch of Harray. The mound is about 35-meters-wide and 7 meters high, surrounded by a 14-meters-wide trench that varies in depth from 1 to 2.5 meters.
The tomb consists of a long passageway leading to a 4-meters-tall square central chamber with 3 smaller side chambers/cells connected to it in a cruciform shape. Two of the cells have raised flagstone floors. The stones corresponding in size and shape to the openings in the walls were found on the floor in front of each cell, indicating that they might have been originally functioning as the seals.
The walls of the main chamber consist of large stone slabs that make up the whole length of the wall. In each corner lie huge angled buttresses that rise to the vaulting. At about 6 feet from the floor, the walls start to converge, creating a characteristic conical shape of the roof.
At the beginning of the entrance passage there is a triangular recess in the wall. A stone of corresponding shape and dimensions was found in front of it too, suggesting the idea that it might have been used to close the passage, and that it was pushed back into the recess in the wall when admission into the chamber was desired.
No mortar of any kind was used to built the tomb, and the complexity and grandness of its architecture has been perplexing the scholars since its discovery, being described as ‘one of the greatest architectural achievements of the prehistoric peoples of Scotland’.
A beautiful animation of the structure together with its winter solstice alignment can be seen in this short video:
The cairn appears to have been built upon a more ancient site, as there is evidence (a socket hole by the mound) that the site once hosted a stone circle. The circular trench around the cairn is also similar to the surroundings of other henges and stone circles.
Solar and Stellar Alignments
Maeshowe is an example of a prehistoric cruciform passage mound with a prominent winter solstice alignment. The mound is oriented towards the winter solstice sun setting behind the distant Hills of Hoy. As the sun sets, its light streams through down the passage to illuminate the inner chamber.
An interesting phenomenon during this time is that the sun illuminates the passage not just once, but twice, with a several minutes break between each flash:
This phenomenon is repeated again approximately 2.5 hours later, but this time the chamber is illuminated by the light of the Venus star. And just like with the sun, the light of Venus also reappears about 15 minutes later, to illuminate the chamber once again.
During the winter solstice sunset, the sun also perfectly aligns with another structure about 800 meters away from Maeshowe – the Barnhouse Stone monolith. This alignment is in effect for three weeks surrounding the solstice.
The solar alignment and the overall architecture of Maeshowe is very similar to those of Newgrange and Knowth in Ireland, or Bryn Celli Ddu in Wales. Its similarities to Newgrange are especially noteworthy, as both tombs have their chambers in the shape of a cross and are aligned to the winter solstice.
Maeshowe as well as other similar structures are being increasingly recognized as the places of spiritual significance and people from all walks of life are coming to witness the winter solstice sun entering the “womb of the mother Goddess”.
Orkney Ceremonial Landscapes
Orkney is an archipelago off the northeastern coast of Scotland. The ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ encompases a group of 5,000-year-old sites on Mainland, the largest island.
It consists of Maeshowe chambered cairn, Standing Stones of Stennes, Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae settlement. Most of these monuments (with the exception of Skara Brae) are located in the Stenness parish.
Ness of Brodgar, the recently discovered archaeological site between Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness, is not yet included in the World Heritage Site, but according to the Historic Scotland contributes greatly to the overall understanding of the whole area.
Maeshowe is aligned in various ways with its surrounding Neolithic neighbors; the entrance to the Barnhouse settlement directly faces Maeshowe, the entrance of which points to the Barnhouse Stone. Additionally, there is a stone ‘gate’ which frames the cairn when viewed from the nearby Stones of Stenness.
The concentration of monuments in the Stenness parish hints at its importance within the ceremonies of the Neolithic people of Orkney. The area is geographically ideal for the construction of such monuments, forming a massive natural ‘cauldron’ by the hills of the surrounding countryside.
The archaeological works at the Ness of Brodgar have also revealed that the Orkneys’ placement of the monuments into the landscape shares similarities with the ritual landscape at Stonehenge. Not surprisingly, the ancient Neolithic complex at Orkney is often compared to the Wessex landscapes of Avebury and Stonehenge, and even regarded by some as the older one, from which the spiritual culture may have spread to the rest of Britain.
A fascinating documentary by BBC2, with the investigator Neil Oliver, presents the ceremonial Neolitic landscapes of Orkney with an emphasis on the recently discovered Ness of Brodgar temple complex:
Article written and researched by Lucia Beznik. Edited and co-researched by Jenny Belikov
C. Knight & R. Lomas. Uriel’s Machine. Century. 1999.
Giulio Magli. Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy: From Giza to Easter Island. Praxis Publishing Limited. 2005. P. 30-31, 45.