This is the fifth and final post in my series about a collection of Neolithic monuments that can be found in a region of Mainland Orkney known as “the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.” In this post I am going to visit our fourth Neolithic site of interest, the Maeshowe chambered cairn and passage grave. Four earlier posts in this series will provide you with an introduction to the Ness of Brodgar, the region in which most of these sites are located, as well as the Stones of Stenness, the Barnhouse Settlement, and the Ring of Brodgar. Please go and read these four posts if you haven’t already, as they will help provide a fuller understanding of the current topic at hand. I also have a post available about Skara Brae, as well as a historical overview of Orkney that extends beyond the Neolithic era (this is where you’ll find out more about the Vikings!).
The Maeshowe chambered cairn and passage grave is a Neolithic monument that is located about 8 kms (5 miles) northeast of the town of Stromness on the Mainland of Orkney. From the outside, the site consists of a prominent, grassy mound that sits on a large, circular platform that is surrounded first by a ditch, and then an external bank. The shoreline of the Loch of Harray can be found about 500 meters (0.3 miles) to the southeast. Concealed within the central mound is an impressive stone passageway and chamber, considered by many to be a masterpiece in Neolithic design and stonework construction. One of the most intriguing aspects of Maeshowe is that its inner passage is aligned so that, for three weeks before and after the shortest day of the year on December 21, the light of the setting midwinter sun shines straight through and illuminates the back wall of its main chamber. The site derives the latter half of its name, howe, from the Old Norse word for hill or mound, ahug, which is pronounced as “howg.” The origin for the first half of the site’s name, Maes, is unclear. However, it has been recently suggested that it could come from an Old Scandinavian word, mað—the ð is pronounced as “th”—which translates as meadow. Please note that Maeshowe is the correct spelling of the site, as it more accurately reflects its Orcadian pronunciation as “Mezz(h)oo” or “Mezz(h)owe.” Historic Scotland used to refer to the site as if it were two separate words, Maes Howe, before switching to the version that the Orcadian community prefers. You may still see the Maes Howe stylization in older literature referencing the site or, regrettably, presently on Google Maps.
It is difficult to determine how old Maeshowe truly is. The only scientific data available is a radiocarbon date obtained from the ditch, which suggests that it was dug more than 4,500 years ago (sometime before 2500 BCE; 2700 BCE is often cited). However, it’s not known for certain whether the cairn was built before, concurrently with, or even after the ditch, and there could be a difference of centuries between the two features. Maeshowe is generally said to date to around 3000 BCE based on its form, as well as the similarities it has with other chambered cairns and settlements for which better scientific data is available. If 3000 BCE is correct, that means Maeshowe is younger than the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site (with its first structures appearing around 3300-3200 BCE) and the Stones of Stenness (where work was underway by 3100 BCE); is contemporary with the Barnhouse Settlement (which was occupied around 3100-2800 BCE); and predates the second settlement at Skara Brae (2900-2600 BCE) and the Ring of Brodgar (2600-2000 BCE). Maeshowe is also older than the Great Pyramid of Giza (work commenced on it around 2650 BCE), and likely predates Stonehenge as well (which was built between 3000-2000 BCE).
My description of Maeshowe’s physical components will begin with its exterior features: the platform, the ditch, its external bank, and the mound within which its passageway and cairn are concealed. I will then shift to the interior elements of the monument, examining them in the order one would encounter if they were to visit the site: first, the entrance and outer passageway; second, the inner passageway; and, finally, the main chamber with its side cells. As you’ll see, the construction of Maeshowe is deceptively complex.
The platform upon which Maeshowe was built originally consisted of a small, natural hill that was slightly higher than the surrounding landscape. At some point, Neolithic builders decided that they wanted to level this hill out in order to create a flat, sub-circular surface upon which they could place a monument. To do this, they had to cut and remove uneven sections of rock from about ¾ of the resulting platform. The workers then covered the platform with a thin layer of white clay. This may have helped level out the surface, making it even easier to build on. However, the clay could have also served an unknown, ritualistic purpose. In either case, the flat, white surface would have been visually striking. Interestingly, central platforms are also used at neighbouring Neolithic sites such as the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. The Barnhouse Settlement also features a couple of buildings, Structure 8 and House 2, that were similarly situated on top of clay-lined platforms (yellow clay, in their case).
Maeshowe’s central platform is surrounded by a ditch that measures up to 14 meters (45 feet) wide. During the Neolithic era, the ditch would have been about 0.7 meters (2.4 feet) deeper than it is today. Although there is a radiocarbon date available for the ditch suggesting that its construction took place sometime before 2500 BCE, it is not known whether the ditch was built before, concurrently with, or after the chambered cairn. A distance of 15-21 meters (50-70 feet) lies between the ditch and the central mound. It’s possible that this ditch contained water, although there is no clear indication (such as the presence of a causeway) of how people would have crossed it. Symbolically, this ditch would have furthered the impression that Maeshowe was a monument that separated the realm of the living from that of the dead, especially if it was filled with water. The ditches that encircle the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar would have served a similar purpose. Indeed, the use of water-laden ditches is a common feature that is present in several of Maeshowe’s neighbouring Neolithic sites. However, it is extremely rare for a passage grave and chambered cairn such as Maeshowe to be enclosed by one.
Maeshowe’s ditch is enclosed by a turf bank that measures about 2 meters (6.5 feet) high and 2.5 meters (6.5 feet) wide. Within this bank is evidence of an earlier external stone wall that was built at the same time as the ditch. Unfortunately, it appears that part of this Neolithic-built wall collapsed into the ditch at some point early in its lifetime. It’s not known how big its original dimensions were, but they could have been substantial. Interestingly, excavations have revealed that the external wall was rebuilt sometime in the 9th century, during the early Norse period in Orkney. An additional layer of rubbish was packed around what remained of the original Neolithic stone wall, resulting in the rounded turf bank that is present on-site today.
If you’ve read my previous posts about the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, or you’re otherwise well-versed in the features of Neolithic structures, you may have already put this equation together: central platform + interior ditch + external wall/bank = henge. That’s right, the Maeshowe site contains a henge! As mentioned in those earlier posts, henges and stone circles are separate structures. They may occur together or separately. Maeshowe’s unusual pairing of a henge with a passage grave and chambered cairn is intriguing. It’s possible that this could have come about because another type of monument preceded the existence of the cairn. In the 1990s, archaeologists discovered a drain near the entrance to the cairn, which could have belonged to an earlier house (such as those seen at Skara Brae and the Barnhouse Settlement). Soil analysis of the area revealed the presence of occupation-related deposits. This prior building may have been demolished and the area covered with clay to allow for the construction of Maeshowe, with both structures aligned towards the southwest. The purpose and age of this earlier building remains unknown. A socket for a single standing stone was also found behind the cairn. The socket was about 1 meter (3 feet) deep, which could have held a stone bigger and taller than the monoliths at the Stones of Stenness. There is a theory that a stone circle may have once stood on Maeshowe’s central platform, and that some of its stone uprights were later incorporated in the design of the cairn. I’ll discuss that idea further in later sections about the site’s interior features. However, it should be noted that archaeologists have only found evidence for the one lost standing stone. If there had actually been a stone circle present on the platform, there should have been more physical traces of it left behind; it is possible that other stone sockets remain hidden beneath the cairn structure itself, but this would be impossible to know for certain.
With this understanding that there is some ambiguity about whether the mound and its interior cairn has always been Maeshowe’s dominant feature, let’s move onto a description of it. To make it a bit easier, we’ll examine the mound’s different layers from the inside out. At the heart of the mound lies its main chamber. The walls of this chamber are made up of carefully stacked, meticulously-crafted slabs of Caithness flagstone. Many of these flat stones traverse nearly the entire breadth of the wall in which they are placed; all four walls measure around 4.6 meters (15 feet) in length. These massive stones can weigh up to 20 tonnes (20,000 kgs or 44,092 pounds) apiece. The stone walls of this chamber rise vertically to a height of 1.4 meters (4.5 feet) before they begin to slope inwards to form what would have originally been a vaulted, corbeled stone roof (corbeling is the technique of laying overlapping stones on top of each other). This roof may have stood as high as 4.5-6 meters (14.5-19.5 feet). Unfortunately, this Neolithic-built roof collapsed at some point, perhaps around the 13th century CE. The height of the chamber is now somewhat shorter at 3.8 meters (12.5 feet), which reflects the level to which the original stonework is preserved and then topped by a modern roof of white brick (added in the 19th century) and then a protective, unseen concrete cap (added after the site came into state care in 1910).
Beyond this interior chamber, the mound contains two low retaining walls that are also made of stone. They are topped by a thick layer of clay mixed with small stones. Finally, everything is sealed off by a clay skin. Yellow clay was used for these layers, which would have been brought over from the nearby Loch of Harray in baskets. Today, an envelope of green turf covers the entire structure. It’s uncertain whether the mound was similarly covered by a layer of earth during the Neolithic era. Either way, the original design of the mound and its interior tomb resulted in a strong, water-tight structure. The building impressively kept out the damp for thousands of years. It would have likely continued to do so if its original roof hadn’t collapsed. Unfortunately, the site’s modern brick and concrete roofs are not quite as adept at preventing water from leaking into the monument.
Today, the entire mound measures around 35 meters (115 feet) in diameter and 7 meters (23 feet) in height. In comparison, the interior chamber is about 4.6 meters (15 feet) across and has a present height of 3.8 meters (12.5 feet). Consider that for a minute: width-wise, there is around 30.4 meters (99.5 feet) of stone, clay, dirt, and turf encasing a much smaller structure; approximately 15.2 meters of fill extends outward from the side of either wall. Using these measurements, the cairn makes up roughly 13% of the diameter of the mound, whereas the protective fill comes to 87%. These width-related dimensions would have varied slightly during the Neolithic era, but not significantly. Height-wise, the 3.8 meter (12.5 feet) tall cairn is buried beneath 3.2 meters (10.5 feet) of material; this comes to 54% and 45%, respectively, of the mound’s total height. Of course, these measurements would have been different during the Neolithic era due to the unknown height of the original roof1.
The original shape of Maeshowe’s mound is unknown. Unfortunately, the monument has had a long history of people breaking into it through its roof, with damaging consequences. What we do know is that in the mid-19th century the mound was more conical in appearance than it is today, with a deep depression featured at its centre (shown in the illustration below). Measurements taken prior to the cairn’s excavation by archaeologist James Farrer in 1861 show that the mound stood taller at 11 meters (36 feet) in height and narrower with a width of around 30 meters (98 feet). In 1910, Maeshowe became a state property and a concrete cap was added to help protect the monument. The mound was then carefully groomed to give it a softer, more rounded appearance, resulting in its current dimensions around 7 meters (23 feet) in height and 35 meters (115 feet) in diameter.
I will now begin our examination of Maeshowe’s inner structures with a look at the passageway that leads into the cairn. This long, narrow passage is one of the monument’s defining features. As previously mentioned, this corridor is also aligned so that its south-western facing entrance allows the setting midwinter sun to shine directly through it and into the main chamber for three weeks before and after the shortest day of the year on December 21. Originally, the inner passageway would have been accessed first by an entrance and then by an outer passage. Unfortunately, when the monument was excavated in 1861, both the entrance and the outer passage were found to be in ruins. The former shape of the entrance could not be determined, and all but 2 meters (6.5 feet) of the outer passage was missing its roof. The outer passage was somewhat lower and narrower than the inner passage, which stands around 0.7 meters (27.5 inches) tall. Part of this outer passage has since been reconstructed, but the entrance has not. Today, both of these lost sections remain unroofed.
A stone recess marks the point near which the outer passage of Maeshowe connected with the inner passage. Today, this recess houses a large triangular-shaped boulder that was originally found in the passageway. The complementary dimensions of both the recess and this stone suggest that they were custom built to fit together. In spite of its massive size and weight, it is actually possible—although with considerable effort—to move this boulder from the side of it that faces into the chamber, due to it being balanced at a pivot point. It would have been far more difficult, if not impossible, to move it from the side that faces the exterior of the monument. In this way, the entrance to the interior chamber could have been blocked from the inside by sliding the stone across the passageway. The boulder is about 12 cms (4.7 inches) lower than the passage roof, so it did not form a complete seal. But it would have successfully concealed whatever secret activities and rituals were taking place inside from those who were decidedly not invited and kept outside. It has been suggested that this narrow gap between the blocking stone and the roof served as a lightbox (or roof box), similar to the one found at the Newgrange passage grave in Ireland2, which allows the glow of the setting midwinter sun to illuminate the chamber in a dramatic way. It could also be that this gap was more practical in nature, allowing for the continued circulation of air in and out of the cairn.
The inner passage continues on the other side of the blocking stone and its recess. This gently-rising corridor runs about 10-11 meters (32.5 feet) long and stands around 0.7-1.0 meters (27.5-30 inches) high. This low clearance means visitors are required to stoop and even crawl to gain access into the main chamber. This could have been a deliberate feature, meant to encourage a bowed posture of respect or submission in those who wished to pay homage to the ancestors or spirits thought to dwell inside the cairn. Each wall of the passage is lined with a single, gigantic sandstone slab that nearly traverses its entire length; the largest would have weighed about 3 tonnes (3,000 kgs or 2,204 pounds). Highly skilled engineers would have been needed to move and accurately set these four stones in place. It has been suggested that these monoliths were once part of a stone circle that was incorporated into Maeshowe. However, as I have already mentioned, more physical evidence would be needed to prove that is the case.
Maeshowe’s inner passageway leads into the monument’s main chamber. Th entry point from one to the other is located in the centre of the chamber’s southwest wall. The room is surprisingly small, about 21 square meters (225 square feet) in area. Each wall measures about an equal 4.6 meters (15 feet) in length, giving the chamber a square shape. As previously mentioned, the walls of this chamber are made up of carefully stacked slabs of long, heavy, quarried flagstone. The stones were all positioned so that they provided a smooth, dressed wall surface. Small chocking stones keep the individual courses level. None of these rocks are bonded by mortar; the entire monument features only drystone masonry of the highest quality. At a height of about 0.91 meters (3 feet), the wall’s construction changes from the use of flat to overlapping stone slabs (a technique known as corbeling), and the walls begin to slope inwards to form what would have originally been a vaulted, beehive-shaped roof that may have stood as high as 4-5.6 meters (14.5-19.5 feet).
Each corner of the chamber features a large standing stone that is encased within a corner-block of smaller stones. These four uprights, which are comparable in size to the tall monoliths found at the Stones of Stenness, are all faced inward so that they frame the direction through which the setting midwinter sun shines into the chamber. Interestingly, none of these four stones seem to serve any architectural purpose. They don’t offer support, nor do they strengthen the structure in any way. However, they do dictate the height of the chamber’s roof. They also appear to have been the first stones placed onsite. It’s possible that these stones originally stood all on their own in a square-shaped formation, and were later incorporated into the cairn when it was built. But if this is the case, they were not exposed to the elements for long as their surfaces remain fresh and unweathered. It’s not known whether these standing stones were quarried with their use in Maeshowe in mind, or if they were repurposed from another site.
While the southwest wall of the main chamber contains the entrance to the inner passage, the other three walls each contain a small, elevated side chamber (also referred to as a cell or recess). These cells are located at the midpoint of each chamber wall, about 80 cms (31.5 inches) above the ground. The sides of the individual cell walls are made of the same layers of dressed stone used throughout the rest of the cairn. But the roof, the floor, and the back of the cells are all formed of single slabs of stone. Two of these cells contain raised inner platforms, and it’s possible the third cell formerly had one as well. A stone lies on the ground below each of these cells; it is thought that they were once used to seal them shut. These cells may have been used to hold human remains. However, when they were originally investigated in 1861, they were found to contain only fragments of a human skull and some horse bones.
Some examples of Neolithic decoration can be found on the walls of Maeshowe. These consist of finely incised geometric shapes, lines, and peck marks that were made by a sharp-pointed tool, likely flint. These designs were lightly scratched onto their stone surfaces, which makes them highly fragile.
The Maeshowe chambered cairn and passage grave arguably represents one of Neolithic Britain’s greatest architectural achievements. Estimates vary about how long it took to build, with numbers ranging from 39,000-100,000 hours (80,000 is commonly cited). Although the physical properties of Orkney sandstone make it an ideal building material, the sheer size and weight of the stones, as well as the distance over which they had to be transported from their quarries, would have required the active participation and cooperation of many people. The digging and shaping of the central platform, the ditch, and the external wall would have also involved a lot of effort. All of this work would have been done without the benefit of metal tools; only implements made of stone and bone were available to the Neolithic people of Orkney. It was a demanding project of literally monumental scale, and yet its builders were determined to see it through, resulting in one of the finest chambered tombs found anywhere in northwestern Europe. Maeshowe was designed to impress, which it continues to do more than 5,000 years later.
Now that our discussion of Maeshowe’s physical features is complete, let’s pause and consider what chambered cairns actually are more specifically, and take a look at the history of their use in Orkney. This will help set us up for a later examination of Maeshowe’s likely purpose. A chambered cairn is a Neolithic monument that consists of a sizeable chamber or room, typically made of stone, that is then enclosed by a cairn (a man-made pile of stones). Chambered cairns are found throughout Britain and Ireland, with notable concentrations in southwest England, northern Ireland, as well as western and northern Scotland.
Some chambered cairns also contain passage graves, as is the case with Maeshowe. A passage grave consists of one or more burial chambers, covered in earth or with stone, that has a narrow access passage made of large stones. Passage graves typically date to the Neolithic era, and are largely found in western Europe (Ireland, Britain, Scandinavia, northern Germany, northeastern Netherlands). Some passage graves are designed so that they align with the sun at a significant point in the year, often the midwinter sunrise or midsummer sunset.
It is important to note that although the term “chambered cairn” is often used intermittently with the word “tomb”, these structures likely served as more than just storehouses for the dead. They may have also been the focal point for a number of different activities in the same way that, today, a cathedral or church functions as more than just a burial place for its community. Of course, there is no doubt that the storage and veneration of human remains played a role in the lives of some of these chambered cairns. But it’s also possible that this role has been overemphasized. Human remains have not been recovered from all of these sites in Orkney, which complicates the idea that chambered cairns were solely funerary in purpose. Scholarship tends to group all of these monuments together based on their architectural similarity, despite the differences they may have in layout, location, and content. It is then easy to make a generalization that Neolithic burial practices and ritual activities were carried out in an identical manner at all of these sites. However, it is more likely that the monuments were custom-designed by their communities to meet their own specific needs. As with many aspects of prehistoric life, there is simply not enough detail about these chambered cairns available to draw any certain conclusions. Keep this in mind, even as we later move this discussion into what we do know about Neolithic burial practices and the evidence found of this activity at Maeshowe and comparable sites.
The earliest chambered cairns appeared in Orkney alongside the first Neolithic settlers around 4000 BCE. They remained in popular use for an approximate period of 1,000 years before they began to experience a decline around 2900 BCE. These structures tend to be grouped into two main categories: the Orkney-Cromarty and the Maeshowe types. The distinction isn’t always clear-cut, as some sites contain elements of both types while others don’t align with either. In spite of its flaws, this categorization of chambered cairns into Orkney-Cromarty and Maeshowe types still provides us with a useful starting point for our discussion.
The first category of chambered cairn we’ll discuss, the Orkney-Cromarty type, are also known as “stalled cairns.” These structures typically consist of a narrow, central chamber in which there is a line of paired, upright stones that partition the space into several compartments that resemble stalls in a stable (hence the second name). These compartments range from as little as 3 in number (as seen at Bigland Round on the Isle of Rousay) to as many as 26 (the Knowe of Ramsay, also located on Rousay). The compartments may also contain bench- or shelf-like structures. A narrow walkway spans the length of the chamber in between the upright stones and their divided compartments before ending in a final, small room. This semicircular room was likely the most important area in the stalled cairn. It was often divided from the rest of the chamber by a low, stone sill; its walls contained several more shelves; and the rear wall contained a stone slab that was tilted slightly backwards. Orkney-Cromarty style cairns do not tend to have side cells branching off of their main chamber, although there are a few hybrid types that incorporate them in their designs, such as the Unstan chambered cairn4.
The entrance passages to the Orkney-Cromarty cairns are not as long as their Maeshowe counterparts, spanning a mere 1-6.5 meters (3.28-21 feet). They also had low ceilings, requiring visitors to stoop or crawl in on their hands and knees. All of these interior features were then enclosed by a circular or oblong cairn made of stone rubble, held in place by one or two layers of well-dressed stone masonry. The outer layer was designed to be seen and admired, and some of the decorative stonework on these cairns even featured herringbone patterns similar to the designs found on the rims of Unstan Ware pottery. Notable examples of Orkney-Cromarty cairns include Midhowe (dated to 3500 BCE); the Knowe of Yarso (3000 BCE); and Blackhammer (3000 BCE), all three of which are located on the Isle of Rousay.
Cairns of the Orkney-Cromarty category are found not only in Orkney, but on the Scottish mainland as well. A high concentration of them are located on the Orkney islands of Rousay, Westray, and Eday. There are considerably more Orkney-Cromarty type cairns than those of the Maeshowe style, with around 59 surviving sites of the former having been identified throughout Orkney versus 12 of the latter. Interestingly, Orkney-Cromarty cairns seem to share design similarities with early examples of Orcadian domestic architecture. The layout of the stone farmhouse (dated from 3700-2800 BCE) at the Knap of Howar5, with its two rooms sectioned off through the use of upright stones, is especially comparable. Orkney-Cromarty cairns are also associated with Unstan Ware pottery, as excavations at several monuments of this type have led to the discovery of notable collections of these pottery fragments. The clayware is named for the Unstan chambered cairn, where sherds from at least 30 bowls (an unusually large quantity) were found scattered across the floor6.
The Maeshowe type cairns are, of course, named for the monument we are discussing in this post. Cairns of this category are unique to Orkney, and they typically consist of a central chamber with adjoining side cells that is reached by a long, low entrance passage—a feature that was likely borrowed from the passage graves of Ireland. The cruciform (cross-shaped) layout of the monument’s interior and the alignment of its entrance passage with the midwinter sunset are also structural similarities that these Maeshowe type cairns share with their Irish neighbours. All of these interior features are then encased within a circular or oblong cairn. In addition to Maeshowe, other examples of this category include the Quoyness chambered cairn7 (2900 BCE), located on the Isle of Sanday; as well as the Quanterness chambered cairn (dated to 3250 BCE) and Cuween Hill (3000 BCE), both of which are located on the Orkney Mainland.
One distinctive feature of these Maeshowe type cairns is the presence of one or more side cells attached to their main chamber. The entries into these cells exist either as hatches if they are placed higher up on the chamber wall, or as very low doors if they are positioned along the ground. These cell openings are small, ranging in size from 0.6-0.73 meters (1.96-2.39 feet) in height and from 0.4-0.7 meters (1.3-2.3 feet) in width; these measurements indicate that moving in between the chamber and a side cell would have required someone to stoop or crawl, similar to the access point through the main passageway. The cells themselves are somewhat modest in size and irregularly shaped—Quanterness is the only cairn that contains rectangular cells—as they had to fit within the breadth of the chamber walls. The dimensions of the cells vary, with their width x length measurements ranging from about 1.2 x 0.8 meters (3.9 x 2.6 feet) to 3.4 x 1 meters (11 x 3.2 feet). The height of the cells would have allowed someone to stand once they made it through the entrance, as they span 1.7-2.2 meters (5.5-7.2 feet).
The construction of Maeshowe type cairns tends to be more monumental in scale than that of the Orkney-Cromarty cairns, featuring larger, well-crafted stones and higher-quality stone masonry. The cruciform layout and the presence of side cells in Maeshowe style cairns also calls to mind the design of later examples of Orcadian domestic architecture, such as the houses at Skara Brae and the Barnhouse Settlement. Maeshowe type cairns are also associated with Grooved Ware pottery, as sherds of this type of clayware have been discovered at its sites.
Former scholarship held the view that the Orkney-Cromarty style cairns were the first generation of the chambered cairn monument design, and that they later evolved into the Maeshowe type structures. However, recent re-analysis of radiocarbon and luminescence dates suggest that both types were actually first built and used concurrently around 3700-3500 BCE. The evidence does indicate that there was a difference between the two types of monuments and the dates at which the interment of human remains took place within them. This practice ended around 2900 BCE at the Orkney-Cromarty style cairns, but continued for another 400 years at the Maeshowe style structures. There is evidence that other activities, such as the deposit of animal bones, continued at both types of monument for a period of time after they stopped being used for humans. By 2500 BCE, the interment of human remains had also ceased at the Maeshowe type cairns. This more communal burial approach had persisted in Orkney long after other areas in Scotland made the switch to burying their dead individually8. Shortly after 2500 BCE, many of Orkney’s chambered cairns were filled with rubble, sealed up, and abandoned9. For several millennia, they were mostly left undisturbed by the local community, with the exception of a few “long haired greasy vandals” (as my brother calls them) who broke into Maeshowe on several occasions during the Viking era (more on this later).
With this examination of the two main types of chambered cairn and the history of their use in Orkney complete, let’s return to the topic of the purpose of Maeshowe. Unfortunately, the monument has a centuries-old history of being disturbed after it ceased being used by the local prehistoric community. Many clues to its original use, such as the presence of any Neolithic remains or grave goods, have since been stolen, lost, or destroyed. There are even indications that the site was repurposed at some point in the 10th century CE as a final resting place for a prominent Norse leader. If this is the case, the cairn was likely cleared out at that point. Further, when the site was officially excavated in 1861, it wasn’t done so in a proper scientific manner. The only findings, now lost, were said to be of fragments of a human skull and some horse bones discovered in the side cells. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know what era of settlement, Neolithic or otherwise, these items belonged to, as there was never an opportunity to date them.
As a result of these circumstances, there is not a lot of information that is known for certain about the prehistoric use of Maeshowe. Instead, archaeologists and researchers have developed theories about Maeshowe based on the better-conducted excavations at similar monuments that were better preserved. Of these, the Quanterness chambered cairn, located about 10 kms (6 miles) east of Maeshowe, provides the best comparison. When Quanterness (dated to 3250 BCE) was excavated between 1972-1974, archaeologists discovered the remains of more than 157 individuals of all ages, as well as a number of unburnt bones of birds and domestic animals. It is believed that the cairn could have originally held the remains of around 400 people. If Maeshowe is indeed comparable to Quanterness in how it was used, then it can be assumed that funerary activities and the rituals associated with them were a key part of its purpose. To understand more, we’ll now have to take a look at what is known about Neolithic burial practices in Orkney.
There are some aspects of prehistoric Orkney that may seem surprisingly familiar and modern. The shape of the stone furniture at Skara Brae, for example, or the indications that they also had a tradition of feasting at midwinter. But at the same time, as British novelist L.P. Hartley wrote, “[t]he past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” It seems to me that this is especially true when it comes to Neolithic burial practices. It is an understatement to say that human civilization has changed a lot in the last 5,000 years. Yet there is one inevitability that we still share: death. True, our modern parameters are vastly different. The typical life expectancy for a Neolithic person at birth was 20-33 years, whereas today we have an average of 72 years. I cannot even imagine what it was like to live a life shaped by that expectation of brevity, combined with the other hardships these prehistoric humans endured. Their mortal experience was so vastly different from our own that it is no wonder that their corresponding funerary rites may appear shocking, even upsetting, to modern sensibilities. But keep in mind that different doesn’t mean bad, worse, or even weird. Let interesting be your touchstone instead as we move forward in this discussion. Consider what it would have been like to live in a community that would have been disproportionately made up of younger people. Imagine not having the guidance and wisdom of older generations as a resource, or having the benefit of decades in which to develop a relationship with the elder members of your family. How did the Neolithic community try to compensate for this absence? How did they cope with the loss of their loved ones? They would have felt the sharp edges of grief, despair, and fear as keenly as we do. What emotional and spiritual comforts were they seeking through their ritual activity? Perhaps some of their practices make a little more sense if their context is considered a little more thoroughly.
Although much remains unknown about the specifics of Neolithic Orcadian culture, these prehistoric people did manage to leave a partial record of what was most important to them through the building of their monuments. Chambered cairns likely play a prominent role in the story of these early communities as so many of them were built throughout the entirety of the Orkney islands, and they were consistently used over a long period of time. The incredible degree of effort that went into constructing these sites suggest that they were considered crucial parts of their community. And since the interment of human remains were a large part of the activity that took place at many of these monuments, it is probably safe to say that funerary practices were an integral part of Neolithic culture. These people seem to have had a lot of reverence for their ancestral dead, certainly enough to dedicate hundreds of thousands of man hours to house their remains in these elaborate structures. However, these chambered cairns were not used to bury their dead in the manner we do today, with the bodies individually wrapped in a shroud or contained in a coffin and placed in a permanent, final location. Rather, something more curious was going on, and it was connected to the unusual (to us) manner in which Neolithic people interacted with the bodies of their loved ones.
Unlike today, it seems that in the Neolithic era the bodies of the deceased continued to play an important role in the activities of the living. There is evidence throughout Scotland that prehistoric people didn’t bury their dead immediately and permanently after their passing. Instead, the mummified bodies of their loved ones were circulated in and out of burial monuments, perhaps even over a period of generations, before they were interred for a final time10. Chambered cairns were used as much by the living as they were by the dead, and they were designed so that they could be entered repeatedly. Perhaps the deceased were still regarded as being an active part of the community, although they now resided in a structure that was reserved specifically for their own kind, a so-called “house of the dead.” This could explain why chambered cairns share some architectural similarities with Orcadian domestic architecture11. The interior space of these cairns could accommodate the activities of several living people in addition to serving as a repository for the dead. They weren’t just tombs, they could have also been used as community spaces where a number of visitors could congregate, perhaps to visit with the spirits who dwelled there. The similarity between the homes of the living and those of the dead could have reinforced the sense of an ever-present relationship between them.
This continued, frequent contact with the remains of their loved ones may have helped Neolithic people cope with their frequent losses, with their own impending sense of mortality, as well as with the lack of older voices in their families and communities. For them, perhaps death wasn’t a traumatic, final separation. It was a change deserving of grief, certainly, but one that may have been more communally recognized and shared on a regular basis. Perhaps moving the bodies of the deceased in and out of the cairns gave inhabitants of a local region the chance to gather seasonally in commemoration of those they mourned. They could have made a ceremony of offering and/or retrieving the remains of their ancestors at these monuments, symbolically reuniting the inside and outside worlds, while also making gifts of pottery or other goods. This is certainly possible, as the physical evidence indicates that these cairns were rearranged and/or cleared out regularly. Perhaps a few members of a religious or social elite were responsible for carefully arranging the bones and cremated remains. The presence of a blocking stone at Maeshowe suggests that there were occasions when only a select group of people were welcome inside the main chamber, perhaps during ritual activity. The rest of the community may have gathered outside, where the central platform would have provided them with plenty of room.
This now brings us to the most interesting part of our discussion concerning Neolithic burial practices: the manner in which human bodies were interned in chambered cairns. Human bodies weren’t discovered at every cairn site in Orkney. But in the cases that they were present, their bones were found in varying states. This suggests that communities differed in the way that they handled their deceased. Some chambered cairns contained entire skeletons, while others had piles of separated bones. Some of these piles were disorganized, whereas others had been neatly sorted by body part (skulls, femurs, etc.). Some cairns contained only a few bones that had been taken from a number of different people. Others contained the bones of humans and animals assembled together. What all of this suggests is that the Neolithic veneration of their deceased may not have required that the remains of each corpse be kept separate, with all the bones belonging to a specific person gathered together. Why might this be? Perhaps there was a more communal understanding of the dead, where individual bones were symbolically enough to represent being part of a greater whole. Maybe some bones were given the honour of public burial in the cairn, while others were kept in a location more intimate to the family, such as their home. Or perhaps the separation of the remains was based on more practical matters, such as the limited amount of space available in a cairn.
There were also differences in how Neolithic human remains were prepared for interment. If the bodies were destined to undergo a considerable amount of handling as they were moved in and out of the chambered cairns, some preparatory work was needed to allow for this. In some cases, the bodies were cremated. In others they were excarnated, which is the process through which the flesh and organs are removed, leaving only the bones. Excarnation could have been performed a number of different ways: one, the bodies may have been buried elsewhere or left inside the cairn and given time to decompose—this would have resulted in the examples where complete, articulated skeletons were discovered; two, the corpses may have been placed outside, exposed to the elements on raised mortuary platforms, which allowed birds to clean the soft tissue from the bones but kept the bodies safe from other animals; or, three, the bodies may have had their organic material excised by the hands of the living. Once excarnation was complete, the disarticulated bones would then be gathered up (or carefully selected) and placed inside the cairn. Although parts of this practice would be considered macabre to a modern audience, during the Neolithic era this transition from cadaver to skeleton could have been seen as a transformative, symbolic act. Perhaps there was a belief that a person’s soul or spirit was only released once the flesh had decayed. Again, we can’t judge these methods according to the standards we have today. A more instructive course of action would be to try and consider why it made sense to these communities to handle the bodies of their deceased in this manner, based on the conditions in which they were living.
Another mystery concerning the use of chambered cairns involves who, specifically, was buried within them. Former scholarship suggested that these monuments were built in specific locations so that every Neolithic community was provided with its own cairn, which then served as that settlement’s communal “graveyard.” However, this view may be too simplistic. The size of the cairns and the amount of remains discovered within them tends to be too limited to have allowed for the interment of an entire community. Even Maeshowe, designed to be the largest and most impressive of all these monuments, only had enough capacity to house a fraction of the considerable number of people that would have been required to build it. Instead, some sort of selection process was carried out, although it is not known what made an individual more eligible for burial within the cairn than others12—nor is it known where the excluded members of the settlement were laid to rest. Perhaps those given the distinction of burial within the cairn were distinguished ancestors, founding members of the community, or part of an elite social group. Maybe some of the cairns were associated with particular deities, with the remains housed within them reflecting certain aspects of their worship. This could explain why some sites featured notable concentrations of animal remains, such as the dog skulls at Cuween Hill and the white-tailed sea eagles at Isbister. As with many aspects of Neolithic life, rare is the occasion when a question leads to anything but more questions.
With this examination of Neolithic burial practices complete, let’s return to discussing the possible purposes of Maeshowe. Although the monument contained little to no surviving traces of prehistoric human remains or grave goods by the time of its excavation in the mid-19th century, a few lasting clues to its function can be drawn from the site’s physical features. One example can be found in the acoustic properties of its main chamber, which has varying zones of high and low sound. A drummer or chanter positioned at the centre of the cairn may have felt like their performance was being swallowed within a surrounding sense of silence but, instead, the shape of the chamber and the texture of the stones carried the sound away to other areas of the cairn where it was then amplified. The sound volume was concentrated highest in the regions around the side cells, which could have been used to produce a supernatural effect—as if an otherworldly sound was coming from the realm of the dead. It is likely that the cairn was intentionally designed to produce this acoustic quality, as Maeshowe’s engineers were too skilled for this to have been a coincidence. Perhaps this ethereal sound played a part in the ritual activity that took place within the chamber. Although there is no enduring record to indicate what specific words or music once echoed within these stone walls, this resonant sound quality does tell us that how they were spoken and performed was important.
One of the most intriguing physical clues to Maeshowe’s purpose is that it features a number of different areas and graded divisions between its outer and innermost environments. The monument consists first of an exterior stone wall; second, of a possibly water-laden ditch that had no discernible means over which to cross it (such as a causeway); third, the central platform; fourth, the mound with its long inner passageway, which may have occasionally been blocked off with a large stone; and, finally, the main chamber. It has been suggested that Maeshowe was a monument that served to symbolically separate the realm of the living (the exterior world) from that of the dead (represented by the interior chamber). Perhaps entry to this netherworld was strictly controlled via movement through Maeshowe’s various physical components and barriers, with increasingly restricted levels of access. Maybe a select few individuals were granted the honour of entering the monument’s innermost chamber, but only after they had adopted a posture of submission and respect by stooping or crawling through the low passageway. Many Neolithic monuments contain similar design features that seem to intentionally direct the movement of people through their structures. Considerable effort was made in the building of these sites to separate spaces from each other and place restrictions on who might enter them. In this way, the monuments conditioned people on where they could go and what they might do and experience when they got there. When several sites are concentrated together, they can even guide the flow of people through an entire landscape. The Ness of Brodgar is an excellent example of this, as it is sectioned into multiple areas by numerous monuments (including Orkney’s only known henge sites), as well as individual walls and ditches; movement through the entire region was controlled via narrow causeways, and may have been formerly guided by stone monoliths13.
Another physical clue to Maeshowe’s purpose is that it seems to have been the only cairn built on such a grand scale, suggesting that it played a pivotal role in Neolithic Orkney. The cairn was also located close to the region’s ceremonial heartland, the Ness of Brodgar, and in proximity to other significant Neolithic monuments such as the Stones of Stenness, the complex at the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site, and the Ring of Brodgar. In my previous posts about the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, I examined how the Ness of Brodgar seems to have been designed as an elaborate, ritual landscape that contains a series of interconnected sites (see my post on the Ring of Brodgar for more information). In turn, these sites seem to align with each other as if they were part of a carefully arranged puzzle. Both the size of Maeshowe and its prominent location indicate that the cairn was designed to be the most important, impressive, and symbolic structure of its kind. It was certainly more than just a communal burial site for a nearby settlement. Perhaps people from all over Orkney had reason to gather at the site, drawn there either by the importance of the cairn on its own or for the part it played in a greater ritual practice that included other nearby structures.
When discussing the purpose of other monuments that make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, I noted that they seemed to have been deliberately positioned so that they interacted with each other and the wider environment in meaningful ways. The same can be said for Maeshowe. Let’s begin with Maeshowe’s relationship to a nearby standing stone, known as the Barnhouse Stone, which is located about 700 meters (0.4 miles) to the southwest of the chambered cairn. The Barnhouse Stone is a single lichen-covered monolith that stands 3.2 meters (10.5 feet) tall, measures about 18 cms (7 inches) thick, and has a variable width from 1.1 meters (3.6 feet) at its base to 1.8 meters (6 feet) at its widest point about two thirds its height above the ground. Both the Barnhouse Stone and the Barnhouse Settlement, situated about 800 meters (0.43 miles) north of the monolith, are named after the stretch of farmland that contained both sites. Although the Barnhouse Stone is smaller than most of its more prominent Stenness counterparts, what it lacks in size it more than makes up for with its distinctive location. At first glance, the Barnhouse Stone seems to be occupying a casual, non-assuming spot that is not really that close to anything. But closer investigation reveals that something very intentional was going on with the stone’s positioning. In addition to its afore-mentioned proximity to Maeshowe and the Barnhouse Settlement, the Barnhouse Stone is located approximately 700 meters (0.4 miles) southeast of the Stones of Stenness—about the same as its distance from Maeshowe. It is in the relationship between the Barnhouse Stone, the Stones of Stenness, and Maeshowe where things start to get interesting. Visitors to any of the latter two sites might not think to connect their experience of these individual monuments to a somewhat distant standing stone (we certainly didn’t at the time). However, the Neolithic inhabitants of this region deliberately situated the Barnhouse Stone so that the three sites were aligned in a triangular fashion.
The plot thickens when you take the midwinter solstice14 into consideration. The centre of the Barnhouse Stone15 is perfectly aligned with the southwest entrance to Maeshowe and the centre axis of its inner passage. For 22 days before and after the shortest day of the year, the sun sets directly over the centre of the Barnhouse Stone. The final rays of the setting sun shine across the top of the stone and straight into the heart of Maeshowe, where it strikes and lights up the rear wall and recess of the main chamber. But the intrigue doesn’t stop there. If you were to stand at the Barnhouse Stone and look in the direction of the setting sun, towards the southwest and away from Maeshowe, you would see that line of sunshine stretch about 15 kms (9.3 miles) further to a distant point on Ward Hill, situated on the Isle of Hoy, behind which the sun directly sets for that period of 45 days. This active connection with the wider landscape was likely significant; it has even been suggested that Maeshowe was built so that its shape mirrored that of Ward Hill in miniature.
In addition to the Barnhouse Stone, there are some other notable connections that exist between Maeshowe and some of its neighbouring sites. To start, it is worth nothing that the Ness of Brodgar region is oriented on a northwest-southeast axis so that it aligns with sunset for the midsummer solstice (to the northwest) and sunrise at the midwinter solstice (to the southeast). This is in contrast to Maeshowe, as its main entrance faces southwest towards the sunset of the midwinter solstice. Was there a symbolic reason why Maeshowe was designed to be the Ness of Brodgar’s direct opposite? Did the Ness of Brodgar’s alignment represent light and life through the rising midwinter sun, and Maeshowe’s symbolize death with the setting sun?
Other interesting links between Maeshowe and other nearby monuments include:
- At the Stones of Stenness, an eastern view of the green mound of Maeshowe is framed between two smaller angular upright stones. Neolithic people would have been able to walk directly from one site to the other, a distance of 1 km (0.62 miles), as the water levels of the Loch of Harray were lower at this time.
- The Dyke of Sean features a stepped stone foundation that is similar to Maeshowe’s original Neolithic-built wall.
- House 2 at the Barnhouse Settlement was similarly constructed on a clay platform, using techniques comparable to those at Maeshowe. It also featured skilled stone masonry that was meant to be admired. House 2 also had a midwinter solstice connection, as the sun would shine through the house’s main passageway for an hour in the morning and light up a stone cist located there.
- Structure 8 of the Barnhouse Settlement was also built on a clay platform and enclosed within a stone wall. Its internal floor space was twice the size of the floor space of Maeshowe.
- The southeast entrance into the exterior stone wall of Structure 8 at the Barnhouse Settlement faced Maeshowe directly. However, the entrance into Structure 8 itself was pointed in the opposite direction, away from Maeshowe towards the northwest, but for a complementary reason: so that the midsummer sunset (as opposed to the midwinter sunset) shone directly into its entrance. A link was definitely intended between the two monuments, but for opposing reasons. Did Structure 8 represent life and light through its orientation to midsummer, and Maeshowe death and the dark with its association to midwinter?
- The entrance to Structure 10 of the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site also aligns with Maeshowe.
- A geophysical survey of the Ring of Bookan revealed a subterranean structure whose appearance was very similar to Structure 8 of the Barnhouse Settlement and Structure 10 at the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site. Perhaps they were all linked to Maeshowe in some way.
- The Ring of Bookan is aligned along a southeasterly-facing axis with the Comet Stone, the Stones of Stenness, and the Barnhouse Stone. The Barnhouse Stone is aligned to the northwest with Maeshowe (see the Google Map above).
Around 2500 BCE, a major cultural shift seems to have occurred in Neolithic Orkney. Many prehistoric settlements and ceremonial sites were abandoned, including Maeshowe, which was sealed up and likely filled with rubble after some 500 years of consistent use. More than 3,000 years passed before the monument seems to have attracted any further notable interest. In the 8th century CE, Viking raiders began to use the islands of Orkney and Shetland as a winter outpost. Word traveled home to their countrymen that the Northern Isles had a lot of suitable farmland, and so large numbers of Scandinavian settlers found their way to Orkney by the early to mid-9th century. A semi-independent Norse earldom was soon established, and Orkney became a key post along the major trading route between Ireland and Scandinavia. Excavation evidence has indicated that Maeshowe’s external wall was rebuilt sometime around 950 CE. It’s not known why, although there are a few theories. The cairn could have been repurposed as a place for Norse worship, or as a meeting point for one of their governing assemblies (known as a thing). Another intriguing idea is that the mound was used as a final resting place for a prominent Norse leader. Burial mounds were a popular Scandinavian funerary tradition, so it is easy to see why Maeshowe could have appeared as an appropriate tomb for an important member of the new community. However, as interesting as any of these theories may be, there is no evidence outside of the rebuilt stone wall to support or confirm them. Still, if the Norse did decide to use Maeshowe for any reason at this time, it is possible that they had the cairn cleared of any surviving Neolithic remains and grave goods. This would explain why there was little to nothing to be found when it was later excavated in 1861.
Aside from the rebuilt exterior wall, it was not until sometime in the 12th century that significant traces of human activity within Maeshowe reappeared. When the chamber was excavated in 1861, one of the most exciting discoveries was of 24 groups of Norse and Viking runic inscriptions that had been carved into the walls; the largest surviving collection of its kind outside of Scandinavia. None of these runes are stylistically older than 1125, and it is believed that they may have been gradually added to the chamber until around 1175. This suggests that the interior of the cairn was accessible for at least part of this 50-year period to a few different individuals and groups of people. The Norse inscribers selected flat surfaces to work on, and largely avoided areas that contained earlier Neolithic decoration. The Norse markings are deeper and more pronounced as their creators had the benefit of metal tools, whereas the Neolithic artists had only stone instruments (such as flint) to work with.
Many of the light-hearted messages are similar to what might be found on the walls of a bus shelter today, including: remarks about a person’s attractiveness (the words “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women” were accompanied by a picture of a drooling dog, shown below); claims of exceptional artistic merit (“these runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean”); tales of lost treasure (“is to me said that treasure is hidden here very well”); and even someone who seems to have sought distraction while his friend was otherwise occupied (“Thorni f*cked, Helgi carved”)—this inscription was carved on a wall located inside the northwest side cell. The messages were made by both men and women, indicating that literacy was commonplace in Norse society. 16 names were engraved on the wall, 11 of which were accompanied by some variation of “carved these runes.” Two female names, Sigrith and Líf (or Hlíf), appear alongside the names of 15 male counterparts, including: two separate instances of Arnfinn; Benedikt; Eyjolf Kolbeinsson; Helgi; Haermund Hardaxe; Ofram Siggurdsson; Ogmund; Ottar; Thorir; Tryggr; Simon; and Vemund. About 10 other names are referenced in the inscriptions in addition to these individual “tags”, such as: Gauk Trandilsson; Hakon; Ingibiorg; Ingigerth; Odd Orkason; Sigurd; and Thorni.
Runes are a northern European alphabetic writing system in which each character denotes one or more speech sounds. They can be used to write any language, but are not a language in themselves. Although most runes have been used to record Germanic languages (for which they are best suited), there are also examples of Greek and Hebrew runic phrases. In order to read runes, one must know both the language it is meant to represent as well as the sound that each character denotes. The Maeshowe inscriptions were written using the Younger Fuᚦark/Futhark runic alphabet (also known as the Scandinavian Fuᚦark), which is named after its first six letters. This runic alphabet consists of a series of characters that can be translated into 16 letters, although a fuller range of letters can be found at Maeshowe (runic alphabets were not consistent, and changed over the centuries). A copy of the Younger Fuᚦark alphabet was found helpfully inscribed on the southwest wall of Maeshowe’s main chamber; however, three of its last letters have an unusual form. The Younger Fuᚦark alphabet uses both standard long-branch (Danish) runes and short-twig (Swedish and Norwegian) runes. The long-branch runes consist of 16 characters that correspond with 16 letters. The short-twig runes also have 16 characters that can be translated into these same 16 letters. The only difference is that the short-twig runes contain 9 simplified variations of their long-rune counterparts, while the other 6 characters remain identical. What this means is that both long-branch and short-twig runes are used for the inscriptions at Maeshowe, and there can often be a switch between the two styles in a single message. It’s not known for certain why one style of runes was used over another, although it has been suggested that long-branch runes were used in a more official capacity for messages inscribed on stone while short-twig runes were meant for more private or everyday messages on wood. The Maeshowe inscriptions may have featured a mix of both styles as the messages were a blend of both professional and personal intent; they were written on stone, yes, but they were also informal and a little cheeky in tone.
Some Scandinavian rune-masters liked to play with the characters used in their inscriptions as a means of demonstrating their superior skill. At Maeshowe, some of the engravers used a cryptic alphabet that was based on the fuᚦark, but each letter was instead represented by a vertical line with branches on either side.The branches on the left usually indicated which of the three groupings of the fuᚦark it belonged to (fuᚦark, hnias, or tbmly), while those on the right gave the number of letters in the group. These are known as “cryptic twig runes.” To show off even further, these rune-masters sometimes wrote backwards or reversed the order of the three groups for the cryptic alphabet. One example of someone doing this at Maeshowe occurs at the end of a message that reads, through the use of standard runes, “Ingibjorg the fair widow. Many a woman has had to lower herself to come in here whatever their air and graces. A great show off.” The engraver then signed their name as “ærlikr” (which we can interpret as “Erling”) using cryptic twig runes in reverse-order. In another instance, the man “most skilled in runes in the western ocean” began his inscription with cryptic twig runes and progressed into standard runes.
Several questions are raised by the presence of these runic inscriptions, the most pressing of which include: Who were their creators? How did they get into Maeshowe? What were they using the monument for? Unlike the Neolithic era, some written records have survived from this period of Orkney’s history, so we do have some clues and details about the people who may have been drawn to the site. During the 12th century, the local Norse community was thriving. By this point, the Norse earls had converted to Christianity. They were wealthy, well-traveled, and had extensive international connections. Kirkwall was a flourishing urban centre located some 17 kms (10.6 miles) to the east of Maeshowe. In 1129, Earl Rögnvald Kali Kolsson was appointed Earl of Orkney and Shetland. Some political intrigue followed, which ultimately ended with Rögnvald’s triumph in 1136 and his decision to have St. Magnus Cathedral built in 1137 to honour the memory of his uncle, Saint Magnus Erlendsson, who had been murdered earlier in 1115. Rögnvald was a well-educated man, renowned for his skill as a poet as well as for his talent in runes; reading and writing; board games; music; handicrafts (such as metalwork, carving,and carpentry); and for his athleticism in skiing, archery, and rowing. The sagas describe Rögnvald as popular, intelligent, strong, and capable. In late 1150, Rögnvald gathered a group of Norwegians in Orkney. They spent the winter there in anticipation of later embarking on the Second Crusade to Jerusalem in the summer of 1151. The future crusaders stirred up trouble with the local community as they tried to find ways to keep themselves occupied. It’s possible that during this time the company turned their restless energies towards the mound at Maeshowe and decided to break into it, perhaps in search of treasure or as a test of their bravery. One inscription on the chamber wall certainly suggests that this is the case, claiming “Jerusalem-travellers broke Orkhaugr” (possibly the Norse place name for Maeshowe, which translates as “great howe” or “Orkney mound”). This message was signed by “Líf, the Earl’s cook” (or Hlíf, the Earl’s housekeeper, depending on your translation). This may have been done prior to the crusaders’ departure in 1151, or after their return in 1153. A few separate, but related, nearby inscriptions may have also been carved by other members of this company at the same time16.
An interesting document that dates to this time period is the Orkneyinga Saga (also called The History of the Earls of Orkney and Jarls’ Saga), an Icelandic saga that was compiled sometime between 1192 and 1206 by an unknown Icelandic scribe (or scribes). It is thought to draw from numerous sources, including oral tradition, and presents a semi-factual political history of Orkney and Shetland that outlines the lives of the many Jarls/Earls who ruled the Northern Isles from the 9th-13th centuries. Five chapters of the Orkneyinga Saga recount Rögnvald’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land with his large band of Norse warriors, sailing in a fleet of 15 ships. However, while Rögnvald was away, one of his political rivals, Erlend Haraldsson, used the Earl’s absence as an opportunity to seize partial control of Orkney (both Erlend’s father and uncle, Harald and Paul Hakkonsson, were joint-rulers of Orkney before they were murdered, so he had a strong family claim). It was up to Rögnvald’s ally and co-ruler of Orkney, Earl Harald Maddadsson, to defend the Northern Isles from Erlend’s attempt at usurpation. It is through the Orkneyinga Saga’s re-telling of one of Harald’s efforts to do so that Maeshowe earns its first mention in a surviving written source, where it is referred to as Orkahaugr. The saga states that on January 6, 1153, Harald’s men landed their four ships at a harbour on the Orkney Mainland. They then marched towards Firth, where they hoped to surprise Erlend’s men while they were celebrating at a Yuletide feast. While en route, the party got caught in a snowstorm and opted to take refuge within the mound of Orkahaugr. While waiting for the blizzard to abate, the group likely entertained themselves by carving some of the messages found on the chamber walls. The (translated) saga reads: “They spent the Yule-holiday at Orkahaugr. There two of their men were seized with madness, which retarded their journey.” This delay meant that Harald and his men missed their chance to catch Erlend during his Yuletide festivities, as they didn’t arrive at Firth until the next morning. They managed to kill two men and seize four prisoners, but Erlend managed to escape. Rögnvald returned from his pilgrimage in 1153, and he and Harald later managed to defeat Erlend by killing him during a raid in 1154.
Although this story in the Orkneyinga Saga should be considered with at least a small degree of critical skepticism, especially the detail in which two of Harald’s men went insane for an unspecified reason, it does provide us with some useful information about the state of Maeshowe in the 12th century. First, that the monument was a familiar enough landmark that the audience of this story would know it merely by their name for it, Orkahaugr, without any further description. Second, that the mound had likely been opened and made at least partially accessible prior to this 1153 adventure. Maeshowe was likely filled with rubble when it was sealed around 2500 BCE and would have required a lot of effort to be cleared out—a task not well-suited for people experiencing adverse weather conditions, nor for a war band embarking on a time-sensitive mission. For the mound to be considered a viable option for a winter shelter, the properties of its interior would have to have been somewhat familiar to Harald and his men. Perhaps the monument was first broken into by the restless “Jerusalem-travellers” as the one inscription claims, although this would have to have happened in 1150-1151 in order for Harald’s men to have made use of it in 1153. In all likelihood, the site was accessed by a different group even earlier.
The runic inscriptions also provide us with other fascinating clues about the state in which their 12th century creators encountered the mound. The message that reads, “[m]any a woman has had to lower herself to come in here” is a pun that plays both on the physical need of an individual to bend down when walking through the low inner passage as well as their elevated sense of social status. This inscription suggests that visitors were entering the main chamber via the passage, and had been doing so for some time. Five of the other inscriptions include references to treasure, including: “In the north-west great treasure is hidden”; “It was long ago that a great treasure was hidden here”; “Happy is he who can find the great wealth”; and “Hakon alone carried treasure out of this mound.” It is unlikely that the Neolithic users of Maeshowe left anything that the Norse would have considered valuable, as their existence predated the use of gold, silver, or any other fine metals. If Maeshowe had indeed been used previously as a burial place for a Norse leader in the 10th century, then it is possible that his body was laid to rest accompanied by grave goods that other Norse would have equated with treasure. Perhaps the story of their discovery was told by those who originally raided the cairn (Hakon?) and then retold by others impressed with their good fortune (and hopeful of their own). However, it is also entirely possible that these runic references were more imaginatively than factually inspired. As the Orkneyinga Saga demonstrates, the Norse loved telling stories! The reference to “Hakon” carrying away the treasure might have even been an inside joke.
One of the highlights of the Norse inscriptions is the engraving of an animal that has been alternately identified as a dragon, a lion, a wolf (perhaps the monstrous Fenrir, a character from Norse mythology), and even a hare being attacked by a sea eagle. It is not known which beast is actually depicted, nor when it was carved. The animal combines both Romanesque and late Viking artistic elements that were popular until the end of the 11th century, about two generations prior to the presence of Rögnvald’s crusaders within the monument17. The Maeshowe dragon/lion is similar in artistic style to a silver cup found at the tomb of King Gorm the Old in Jelling, Denmark, which is dated to the middle of the 10th century; the cup is ornamented with an intricate pattern of twisted snakes and other mythological animals18. The Maeshowe lion/dragon also shares a resemblance to figures found on two rune stones that are both dated to the middle of the 11th century: the first was discovered at St. Paul’s churchyard19 in London, and the other at the Hunnestad Monument20 in Scania, Sweden. It’s possible that the carving was made by one of the Norse crusaders around 1150-1151. If so, the image could be related to the Christian legend of Saint George slaying a dragon, which served as an allegory of Christianity overcoming paganism; the 12th century crusades helped spread this legend and its related iconography to western Europe. The Norse artist could have chosen to use a traditional, if slightly dated, design style that they still admired in their depiction of the dragon. No matter what the original animal was meant to be, it has since become a powerful and potent symbol of historic Orkney. Two other creatures can be found carved into the wall below it: the first is of another indeterminate animal (a walrus, otter, or seal); and the second is of a knotted serpent or snake.
It is not known for certain whether Maeshowe’s 12th century Norse visitors accessed the monument through the roof of its chamber and/or its inner passage. However they were doing it, it does seem that they were able to close or keep their entrance to the monument sealed as there is no evidence of interior weathering, as might have been expected if they had merely broken through the roof and left it open. Unfortunately, this Norse use of Maeshowe may have led to the collapse of part of the monument sometime in the late 12th-early 13th century. If they had initially entered the cairn through the top of the mound, digging and breaking through the original corbeled stone ceiling, it’s likely that they weakened the structure. Further visitors would have contributed to the architectural strain on the site, especially if they continued to walk over the mound, until it finally succumbed.
Regardless of what led to the collapse of the monument’s roof, there is no evidence of significant human activity occurring within Maeshowe from the 13th-19th centuries. The local community seems to have largely left the monument alone during this period, and they similarly tended to avoid disturbing other earthen mounds such as the nearby sites of Fresh Knowe, Salt Knowe, South Knowe, and the Plumcake Mound. This may have been due to a few superstitions that had developed around them, which were based on some pre-Christian Norse beliefs that had been imported to Orkney by its Scandinavian settlers. After death, the pagan Norse believed that a person’s spirit continued to live on or near the family home. This was especially true if the deceased had been the founding member of the family estate. To honour this pioneer and their legacy, a large burial mound (a haugr) was built to enclose this individual’s body. The spirit of this revered patriarch, known in Old Norse as a haug-bui or haug-buinn and in Norwegian as a haugbonde (meaning “howe farmer”), was thought to live within this mound, where he served as the farm’s guardian.
When the first Norse settlers began to arrive in Orkney during the late 8th century CE, they would have found many earthen mounds (dating back to both the Neolithic and the Bronze Ages) adorning the landscape. Perhaps they situated their new homes close to these sites, believing that the mound-dwelling spirit living within them would bring their family good fortune. Maeshowe may have even been repurposed in the 10th century as the final resting place for a prominent founding member of one of these recently established Norse estates. This new-to-Orkney tradition of the hogboon (derived from the Old Norse haug-buinn) soon became a potent local mythology, and continued even after the Norse converted to Christianity. At one point, almost every mound in Orkney was said to house a hogboon. Maeshowe was once said to house an ancestral spirit that was equal in power and distinction to the monument’s great size and renown. When archaeologist James Farrer excavated the mound in 1861, he noted that the local rural community advised him that Maeshowe had formerly been occupied by a person named “Hogboy”, who was said to possess “great strength.”
Although this ancestral guardian spirit was benevolent in origin, it was somewhat more fickle and demanding in character. The hogboon was meant to be treated with an awed, even fearful, respect. He kept a close watch over his former home, and was especially resentful of anyone who might try and disturb his final resting place. In most stories, the hogboon could not leave his gravesite, but he could attack people who trespassed on his land; rambunctious children and wandering livestock should also beware his wrath. This risk of supernatural animosity may have served as an effective deterrent to would-be treasure hunters and their like who might have otherwise sought to interfere with the many earthen mounds located throughout Orkney. The hogboon also required regular offerings of the farm’s bounty, especially during the annual Yule celebrations. Some examples include the first milk of a cow that had just been calved, the first jug of ale brewed in the household, as well as portions of butter, ground barley, bannock, produce, or even sacrifices of poultry and cattle. These items would be left on or poured over the burial mound. If the hogboon was pleased with his offering, he would protect the family and provide them with good luck in return. If he was displeased or, worse, an offering was not even made, the hogboon would torment the family by playing tricks, inflicting them will illness, damaging property, or even killing livestock and crops. He was definitely not a spirit you wanted to risk offending!
The hogboon can be compared with two other mound-dwelling creatures of Orcadian folklore who possess similar features. These characters may even represent an evolution of this earlier ancestral guardian into a new type of supernatural being that better suited its bad-tempered, trickster spirit. The first is the Scandinavian-imported draugr who, like the hogboon, resided within the mound it had been buried in. However, unlike the hogboon, the draugr was able to leave its mound and wander among the living. It did so not as a spirit like the hogboon, but as a reanimated human corpse, similar to a zombie or vampire (but without the bloodsucking). The draugr was usually grotesque in appearance, with its body described as emitting a foul stench and being morbidly black, blue, or white in colour. Some stories attribute the draugr with shapeshifting abilities, or with the power to curse humans and enter their dreams. They can also have supernatural strength, which matches the description of Maeshowe’s “Hogboy.” It was believed that the draugr grew more powerful as the days grew shorter and darker, reaching its prime at Yule, when it had the ability to leave its burial mound. Like vampires, these monstrous creatures had the ability to turn their victims into other draugrs. A draugr’s presence might be indicated by a great light glowing from a mound, like foxfire. Like the hogboon, the draugr attacked would-be grave robbers. Animals grazing near a mound could also be driven mad by the draugr’s poisonous presence. A draugr was motivated by its jealousy of the living, as well as the longing it had for the former pleasures of life that it was now denied. It was said that any cruel, greedy, or nasty person could become a draugr. If a corpse was found in a standing or sitting position, rather than lying horizontally, there was an increased risk they would return as a member of the undead. Breaking the corpse’s unusual posture might help prevent them from becoming a draugr. A pair of iron scissors could also be placed on the chest of the recently deceased, and straws or twigs hidden in their clothes. Measures could also be undertaken to try and prevent the corpse from walking, such as tying its big toes together or driving needles into the soles of its feet. If Maeshowe was considered to be the resting place of a creature as fearful as a draugr, I can see how the locals left it relatively alone for 600 or so years!
Orkney’s other mound-dwelling creatures are the trows (pronounced to rhyme with “cows”), which are described as small, ugly, mischievous beings that are somewhat similar to fairies, elves, or goblins. Stories of trows are unique to Orkney and Shetland. They seem to derive from a blend of the pre-Norse folkloric tradition of sprites and fairies (found throughout Northern Europe) with the Scandinavian haugbui and draugr characters, as well as with Norwegian trolls. In some stories, trows are invisible to most humans, with only a few people having the ability to see them. In others, trows can pass as humans, although they appear to be old, deformed, and considerably shorter. A trow’s presence could be indicated by a glowing blue light, similar to the draugr. Like the hogboon and draugr, trows live in earthen mounds, which are known as “trowie knowes.” They decorate their knowes as lavishly as any palace with gold, silver, and precious metals. Trows love music and dance, as well as fine food and drink. In some stories, they kidnap musicians or lure them into their mounds. Trows are nocturnal and frequently like to venture into mortal homes at night, when the residents are sleeping, where they then get up to mischief. Humans are advised to keep their homes unlocked, especially at Yule when trows are most active and dangerous, as the small creatures hate locks and will take retribution if they are barred entry.
Although members of the Orkney community seemed to be content (or at least intimidated) enough to leave Maeshowe and the region’s many other similar earthen mounds relatively alone due to the superstitions and folklore that had developed around them, the same cannot be said for visitors to the islands. Strangers had not been brought up to fear the wrathful hogboon, the horrific draugr, nor the impish trows. In 1784, Reverend Doctor Robert Henry commented that, back in the 17th century (sometime between 1651-1658), soldiers dispatched to Orkney by English general Oliver Cromwell “dug tolerably deep into the mound” of Maeshowe but found “nothing but earth.” Curiosity seekers would have had to dig through at least 3 meters (9.8 feet) of fill before they found anything interesting, which would have likely dissuaded most. During a visit to Orkney in 1851, Lieutenant F.W.L Thomas noted that “many attempts had been made to explore [Maeshowe], as there were 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.” I’m not sure what those explorers found nor what they did with the site, but suffice it to say that Maeshowe had been probed numerous times prior to its first modern excavation in the mid-19th century.
I have already alluded to the 1861 excavation of Maeshowe by archaeologist James Farrer several times in this discussion; I will now go into slightly more detail. Farrer was very active in the digging of several prominent sites in Orkney, including the earthen mounds of Salt Knowe (in 1853), Fresh Knowe (also 1853), and the Plumcake Mound (1854). Unfortunately, Farrer was not keen on recording his findings, nor was he careful and patient in his excavation methods. He was more interested in speedily acquiring artefacts that he could either have displayed in museums or keep for himself, and was even known to willingly inflict damage on a site in order to pry out an item of interest on at least one occasion. Thankfully, George Petrie, a diligent Orcadian antiquarian and the Sheriff Clerk for Orkney, accompanied Farrer and kept some records of the sites that they investigated, including Maeshowe. Without Petrie’s work, much more crucial information would have been forever lost. It was Petrie who recorded the process by which Farrer and his assistants excavated Maeshowe in July 1861. Farrer had received the permission of the man who owned the land upon which Maeshowe was situated, a Mr. Balfour, to conduct his exploration. Digging began on the west side of the mound, where the group came upon the covering stones of the inner passage. They soon found that the inner passage was blocked with clay and debris, making it inaccessible, so they turned their attention towards the top of the mound instead. A shaft was driven through the dirt, which helped them locate the main chamber. They dug down until they found the cairn, which was completely filled with the clay and collapsed stones of the original roof and upper portion of the walls. The workers then spent a few days hastily clearing the chamber and inner passageway of all its “rubbish.” Farrer was more intrigued by the Norse inscriptions than anything else the cairn may have contained. He didn’t even record any findings: it wasn’t until two years later that mention of a “small fragment of a human skull” surfaced, whereas Petrie referred to several “skull fragments.” As previously mentioned, these items have since gone missing, and were never dated. Farrer quickly abandoned Maeshowe once he was done with it. It was Mr. Balfour who opted to build the white-brick roof to protect the monument shortly after it had been opened. Further excavations of Maeshowe took place in the 1950s, 1970s, and early 1990s.
That is finally it for Maeshowe! (Except for the footnotes). I hope you found it as fascinating as I did. Thank you for reading, and I hope you had a chance to read my other posts about Orkney as well. Over the course of 7 posts I have now written more than 73,500 words (or 163 pages) on this northern archipelago, so it is safe to say that I certainly think it is worth your visit! Please note that entrance to Maeshowe is based on timed entry, so you will have to book tickets in advance in order to see it.
1 Please note that I’ve done these calculations purely for fun, to try and give a general sense of scale. I’m sure there are more mathematically accurate calculations available than these.
2 The entrance to the Newgrange Passage Grave is shown in the picture below. Overtop this entrance is the light box/roof box, which is used to channel the light of the rising midwinter sun through the passage and into its main chamber for one day only (see how in the following diagram). It has been suggested that the gap between the blocking stone and the roof of the inner passage at Maeshowe was used in a similar manner, but to channel the light of the setting midwinter sun instead, for a longer period of time (3 weeks before and after the solstice).
3 The Dwarfie Stane is comprised of a huge block of red sandstone, a glacial erratic, that measures 8 meters (26 feet) long and 2 meters (6.5 feet) high. A blocking stone was formerly used to seal the entrance, which can be seen lying on the ground in front of the monument in the photo below. The site acquired its name from a local legend that it was the home of a dwarf named Trollid. Despite its unique construction, the interior layout of the Dwarfie Stane shares similarities with the Orkney-Cromarty chambered cairn type. The interior chamber is sectioned off into two small separate compartments on either side of the passageway using stone dividers. The north compartment measures about 1.2 meters (4 feet) in length and 0.6 meters (2 feet) in width, and contains a stone divider that is no higher than a step, but works all the same. The south compartment measures about about 1.5 meters (5 feet) in length and 1 meter (3.5 feet) in width. The stone divider into this compartment is taller than the one used for the north compartment. Within the far end of the south compartment is a block of uncut stone that resembles a pillow.
4 The Unstan chambered cairn is a hybrid between the Orkney-Cromarty and Maeshowe types. The main chamber is typical of an Orkney-Cromarty stalled cairn, with a rectilinear shape divided into stalls by thin upright slabs. However, the cairn also contains a small side cell within the wall opposite the entrance, a feature of the Maeshowe category cairn. The Unstan chambered cairn is located about 4.5 kms (2.8 miles) west of Maeshowe, and is dated from 3400-2800 BCE. When it was “opened” in 1884, the remains of several individuals were found within the stalls, along with stone tools (including flint arrowheads) and the sherds of at least 30 pottery vessels (now known as Unstan Ware).
5 The Knap of Howar on the island of Papa Westray consists of a single Neolithic farmstead that was occupied from 3700-2800 BCE. It may contain the oldest preserved stone house in western Europe.
6 Unstan Ware and Grooved Ware were the two distinct styles of pottery produced in Orkney. Unstan Ware pottery is typically shallow, round-bottomed, and has a high-collared rim decorated with patterns of slanting lines or triangles. There are also many plain bowls and jars with simple rims. Unstan Ware pottery has been discovered at earlier Neolithic structures such as the Knap of Howar, the Unstan chambered cairn (for which it is named), the Ibister chambered cairn (also known as the “Tomb of the Eagles”) and the Taversöe Tuick chambered cairn. Grooved Ware pottery has a flat-bottom, straight sides that slope slightly outward, and decorative spiral and zig-zag patterns. Grooved Ware turned up at larger and more recent Neolithic settlements such as Skara Brae, the Barnhouse Settlement, the Stones of Stenness, and Maeshowe. Interestingly, Grooved Ware decoration is very similar to the decorative patterns found on the walls and kerbstones of Irish passage graves—a further link between them and Maeshowe type chambered cairns.
7 The Quoyness chambered cairn, located on the Isle of Sanday, would have once been covered by a grassy mound, similar to Maeshowe. Today, the entrance passage is only partly roofed, which offers a look at its two retaining walls. Quoyness consisted of a main chamber that had six adjoining side cells. The cairn is dated to around 2900 BCE. Bones from at least 10 adults and 5 children were discovered when it was explored in the 19th century, as well as two carved stone objects similar to those found at Skara Brae.
8 Neolithic burials tend to be more communally focused. Individual burial began to increase in popularity during the Bronze Age, as increasing social stratification led to a rise in separate interments of high-status, wealthy individuals with personalized grave goods.
9 2500 BCE marked a real change in the Neolithic communities of Orkney. Many of their settlements and ritual sites were abandoned. This was likely due to a gradual change in cultural beliefs as the British Bronze Age began to reach its shores, leading to a more stratified, individualistic society.
10 This reminds me of the skeletons of two women that were discovered in House 7 at Skara Brae. They had been buried under one of the beds and partially beneath a wall—suggesting that they were placed there before the house was built. See my post on Skara Brae for more information.
11 There is a theory that stone circles may have also been built as massive outdoor houses for the spirits of the dead. Some stone circles share architectural similarities with domestic houses, as is the case with the Stones of Stenness and structures in the nearby Barnhouse Settlement. The discovery of post holes and evidence of a former timber structure within the Stones of Stenness also suggests that a mortuary platform may have stood within the monument, which could have been used for excarnation purposes.
12 Examination of the bones discovered in the cairns of Quanterness and Ibister indicated that many of the people who had been interred there suffered from diseases such as scurvy. However, it’s hard to determine whether this had any bearing on their selection for burial. The findings of two specific cairns make for a small sample size, and may not be representative of what was happening at other cairns in different communities. It’s also possible that scurvy was a wider regional issue not deserving of special burial treatment, as the relatively recent switch of Neolithic people from a nomadic to a settled agrarian lifestyle may have led to nutritional deficiencies in their diet.
13aHenges, stone circles, chambered cairns, and stone monoliths represent some of the earliest attempts made by humans to physically mark or alter their environment in a purposeful and important way. It is interesting that all of these monuments were designed so that their spaces were heavily structured and restricted; for some reason, this was really important to the Neolithic community. All of this can be seen in the Ness of Brodgar, and seems to have featured heavily in the ritual activity of this region.
13b It has also been argued that the Watch Stone, the former Stone of Odin, the Comet Stone, and a pair of stones located at the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site once formed part of an avenue between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. Alternatively, the discovery of sockets for twin stones at the Watch Stone and the Stone of Odin suggests that the pairing of stones might indicate a series of portals or “symbolic doorways” linking the two henges. This apparent physical link between the two stone circles, which is paralleled at Avebury and Stonehenge, may help to explain the functioning of the Brodgar ceremonial complex.
14At the midwinter solstice, the sun rises around 9:17 am, although it can be closer to 10:00 am before it is high enough to be seen above the surrounding hills. The sun barely crests above the horizon before it finally sets, a mere 6 hours later, around 3:17 pm.
15 A relationship has also been suggested between the Barnhouse Stone, the Watch Stone (situated near the Stones of Stenness), and the centre of the Ring of Brodgar. These three stone monuments form a straight line in a northeast to southwest direction that may be related to the position of the setting sun on May 1, the day that lies halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice; this has been historically celebrated in Scotland and Ireland as the festival of Beltane, marking the first day of summer. The Barnhouse Stone is not just an isolated rock in the middle of a remote field; rather, it occupies a prominent position that has wider ranging connections with all of the surrounding monuments throughout the Ness of Brodgar.
16a Ingigerth (also spelled Ingigerd) was the name of Earl Rögnvald’s daughter. If she is the same Ingigerth who is referred to in one of the inscriptions as “the most beautiful”, perhaps it was her husband, Eric Slagbrellir, who carved the message alongside the drooling dog. The couple had a daughter, Ingibjorg (also spelled Ingibiorg), who could have later been the “fair widow” of ærlikr/Erling’s cryptic twig rune message. Helgi was the name of a close friend of Rögnvald; perhaps he was the same person who created the infamous “Thorni f*cked, Helgi carved” message. Or maybe not! There could have also been multiple uses of the same names in the Orkney community. Still, it’s kind of fun to think about!
16b The same area that contained the “Jerusalem-travellers” message also contained an inscription that read: “This mound was built before [Ragnar] Lothbrok’s. Her sons were brave, smooth-hide men, though they were.” Ragnar Lothbrok is a legendary Viking hero, a Danish and Swedish king of mythological status featured in many Icelandic sagas and Old Norse poetry, who is said to have led many raids against the British Isles and the Holy Roman Empire (including a siege of Paris) in the 9th century. His last name translates as “shaggy breaches” or “hairy legs”, so the reference to his sons being “smooth-hide men” is meant to be amusing. The Norse inscribers had it correct that Maeshowe was constructed before Ragar’s time, although they had no idea of its true origin or age.
16c Another interesting message is the one that reads, “These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean.” I failed to mention that a 2nd nearby inscription, thought to be by the same person, seems to continue the message by saying “with this axe owned by Gaukr Trandilsson in the south land [Iceland].” Gauk Trandilsson is a character in Njál’s Saga, and is described as a brave warrior who was slain by his foster brother, Asgrim Ellida-Grimsson, sometime before 980 CE. The carver of this inscription has been identified as Thorhall Asgrimsson, a direct descendant of Asgrim (a great-great-great grandson), and master of the ship that brought Earl Rögnvald back to Orkney. If what Thorhall relates in this message is true, he engraved these runes using a prized axe that had been a heirloom in his family for almost 200 years!
17 In the latter half of the 11th century, an unknown Scandinavian (or Scandinavians) inscribed a lion statue in Piraeus (a port city of Athens) with two sets of lengthy runic figures into its shoulders and flanks. These runes were carved in the shape of an elaborate lindworm dragon-headed scroll, similar to the style used on runestones in Scandinavia. They tell of Swedish warriors, likely Varangians, who were mercenaries in service of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Emperor. So, Scandinavians of the 11th century liked lions and serpentine, wingless dragons. The Piraeus Lion is now on display at the Venetian arsenal, as it was looted and relocated by a Venetian commander in 1687.
18 The Gorm silver cup:
19 The mid-11th century runestone discovered in St. Paul’s churchyard:
20 The mid-11th century runestone from the Hunnestad Monument: