Thursday 21st September 2017,
Frontiers Magazine

Maeshowe on the internet

Charles Tait August 17, 2013 Archaeology & History
Exterior view with Barley

Go to maeshowe.co.uk for live winter coverage from the Maeshowe webcams.

Maeshowe (HY315128), considered to be one of the greatest architectural achievements of Neolithic Europe, is Orkney’s largest and finest chambered cairn. The Orkneyinga Saga refers to it as Orkahaugr (ON Mound of the Orks).

The name Maeshowe may derive from ON Maers-howe, Maiden’s Mound. There is a persistent tradition that Maeshowe was a meeting place for young lovers. Another tale says that “at one time young girls would take some ashes to the top of the mound at full moon and urinate on them”.  The age and veracity of these stories are open to the reader to decide.

Another derivation may be ON Mathhaugr, meadow mound. There is a Maesquoy about 5km (3mi) north of Maeshowe on the Netherbrough Road (HY311166).  There are also several farm names which end in “may”, so this could well be the correct meaning, if rather mundane.

The mound, 35m in diameter and 7m high, consists mostly of packed stones and clay, with an inner layer of stones around the chamber. A stone and concrete roof was installed after it was cleared out in 1861. Before this it was rather higher in profile. Other unrecorded repairs to the outer end of the entrance passage were also made, which means that the original entrance layout is unknown.

Maeshowe was included in the first Ancient Monuments Act of 1882, and has been in state care since 1910. It was designed and constructed with great attention to detail, the large dressed slabs being skillfully set together and finished by master stonemasons. The chamber is 4.5m square and about the same in height. A tapered orthostat faces each corner buttress giving an impression of space and strength. The original roof design and height is unknown, but it may have been 6m high.

A dragon, a serpent and a walrus

There are three cells within the walls which were sealed with stone blocks now on the floor.  The entrance passage, 14.5m long and 1.4m high, is lined with huge slabs, the largest weighing over 30 tonnes. When opened in 1861, the building was empty bar a piece of human skull, and some horse bones, but this was certainly not the first such incursion. The Vikings visited Maeshowe during the 12th century and have left one of the largest collections of runes anywhere, as well as carvings of a dragon, a serpent and a walrus.

Maeshowe was built on a levelled area of ground with a surrounding bank and ditch, peat from the bottom of which has been dated at 2750BC, making it contemporary with the Standing Stones and Skara Brae. Since no artefacts were found in 1861, little can be deduced about its usage. The surrounding bank was rebuilt on top of an original drystone wall in early Norse times, suggesting possible reuse in the 9th century.

Evidence of sockets for large standing stones around the outside of the mound only adds mystery to the original design and purpose. Carvings on some of the stones very similar to those found at Skara Brae and the Ness of Brodgar, are present. The overriding impression is of a Neolithic Cathedral, not a simple tomb.

While the other Maeshowe-type chambered cairns are all very well constructed, only Maeshowe itself is truly monumental with its huge slabs of stone lining the passage. Each cell is roofed by a single massive flagstone weighing up to 30 tonnes. After 5,000 years there has been little settlement and only a few of the horizontal slabs have cracked, attesting to the competence of the engineers who built the cairn.

The winter solstice

It has long been known that the setting sun shines directly down the passage of Maeshowe at the  winter solstice, illuminating the back wall and passage in a dramatic fashion. Much speculation has been published over the years about this.

Moonrise over Maeshowe, winter solstice.

Moonrise over Maeshowe, winter solstice.

Recent research by Victor Reijs and the author has shown that the sun illuminates the passage and interior of Maeshowe for several weeks on either side of the solstice. Since the original layout of the outer part of the passage is unknown, present events may differ from those of 5,000 years ago.

The large blocking stone at the entrance seems designed to be shut from the inside, but also would leave a gap of about 20cm to allow light through. The floor of the passage slopes upwards, so that water runs outwards towards a drain. Some collects at the entrance and acts as a reflector, greatly increasing the illumination of the interior.

Looking across to Hoy

From mid-November until mid-January the sun shines into the chamber at sunset and lights up the back wall, gradually creeping down the passage and across the floor. At the winter solstice the shaft of light hits the back wall at about 14:40 GMT, and by 15:05 the sun has set behind the Ward Hill of Hoy.

As the winter solstice approaches, the sun sets progressively further south until eventually it disappears behind the Ward Hill of Hoy. For several days it reappears some minutes later on the north side of the hill, sending a beam of light down the east side of the passage and lighting up a patch on the back wall. About 22 days before the solstice the sun briefly flashes before setting, but for the next 44 days it does not reappear in this fashion, as it is too low in the sky.

A similar alignment can be observed about 44 days before and after the winter solstice, when the setting sun disappears behind the Cuilags on Hoy and then briefly reappears below the Kame. Thus, there are at least five days when observations can determine the actual shortest day.

Maeshowe was most carefully placed in its environment. Today it is impossible to divine the original layout, since many standing stones and other features have been destroyed, and thus further alignments may well have existed. What is clear is that the builders had a definite vision and purpose. Ceremonies were undoubtedly held here, which would have included those for the dead, but also for the living and perhaps the return of the sun.

Vikings did not seem in the least worried about using it as a shelter, and are known to have done so on several occasions. The author was first introduced to Maeshowe at midwinter by his grandfather, who himself had been taken there as a young man. There is no better time to visit and view this structure than on a winter afternoon with a clear sky to the west.

The Maeshowe internet project

The Maeshowe internet project first broadcast images in November 1997. Victor Reijs first visted Orkney that year on account of his interest in archaeoastronomy. He made a series of measurement in and around Maeshowe, which suggested that the structure may have more complex alignments than the well known winter solstice event.

Visiting Maeshowe had for long been a family event for the Tait family. Charles Tait’s grandfather, Charles William Tait, had written an article for the Orkney Herald in about 1925. He took a great interest in all things antiquarian and archaeologists such as Gordon Childe were frequent visitors to Buttquoy House, his Kirkwall home. The author fondly recalls many midwinter visits to see the light in the chamber as a little boy, in a time when very few people were interested in such events.

In 1997 the Internet was still a slow, dial-up, system. Considerable technical issues had to be overcome in order to beam images from Maeshowe to Tormiston Mill and then upload them automatically to a web server. Initially we used a wireless network to send images from a single camera over to the Mill. The connection was frquently lost due to large trucks cutting the signal. We also encountered many problems keeping the Internet connection live.

However we were able to conclusively demonstrate that “flashing” did in fact occur on 2 December and 11 January, which several academics had refused to believe. Historic Scotland very helpfully had an ISDN line installed in Maeshowe for the 1998 season, and in 1999 we upgraded the system to have two internal cameras and one external.

Each year upwards of 40,000 visitors viewed the website at maeshowe.co.uk. We had problems due to power cuts, lightning strikes and rates eating cables, but each year we managed to broadcast all the good sunsets. In 2012 the cameras were upgraded again to full HD, Power over Ethernet devices, which no longer required a computer in Maeshowe and are remotely controllable.

The broadcast has been instrumental in bringing many visitors to Orkney. Over the years many organisations have sponsored the event. These have included Historic Scotland, HEAnet, SURFnet, Orkney Tourist Board, Highland Park, Sheila Fleet and other.  Victor Reijs and Charles & Magnus Tait have financed cameras, computers, routers, software and spent a great deal of time keeping the system operational. Throughout, Historic Scotland have been very helpful.

Azimuth measurements and photography from within and around Maeshowe have conclusively proven that it is has a complex series of solar alignments. Combined with the Watchstone, and probably other long-gone markers, a highly redundant Neolithic system existed to determine the exact day of the solstice, doubtless New Year for these people.

Future plans

Having acquired three new cameras in 2012, the next steps are to upgrade the website and make available time lapse videos of the best sunsets. Reliability has been greatly enhanced along with picture quality. We hope to be able to records video sequences at several of the key locations, including the Watch Stone, Ring of Brodgar and from the Ness of brodgar site.  The Ring of Bookan also has solar alignments over Hoy. All of these depend on actually getting clear skies!

Finally, running this Internet broadcast has been expensive. We have had constant support and cooperation from Historic Scotland, not least in providing the telephone line and broadband connection. We have had sponsorship over the years from a numbers of businesses and organisations, but this has only covered a small fraction of the costs. The camera and equipment upgrade in 2012 cost Magnus and myself about £3,000, not to mention many hours spent on the website and on setup or maintenance visits to Maeshowe.

As previously stated many visitors have based their decision on having followed the Maeshowe website. We continue to operate the broadcast purely out of interest and commitment, but would greatly appreciate any assistance that might be available. Such operations seem to fall between all official stools.

Runes

Ingibiorg runes

Ingibiorg runes

Maeshowe has one of the largest groups of Norse runic inscriptions known. They are common all over Scandinavia and the Norse colonies, with the earliest dating from about 200AD. The younger fuzark was developed about 700AD and was the form of runes used by the Vikings.  Many inscriptions are on artefacts and tell who carved the runes. Runic memorial stones are also common, often using existing boulders to commemorate the exploits of the dead.

Few such inscriptions have been found in Orkney, possibly because of the nature of the sandstone. Fragments only remain of what must have been a larger number. Graffiti writing has presumably been a popular pastime for many years, but is usually regarded as a mess to be cleared up, rather than something to marvel at.

Runes developed as a way of carving letters into wood, bone or stone using a blade or similar implement. They represent most of the Latin alphabet as required by Old Norse. There are many variations in the runic alphabet, but most of the characters have Latin equivalents. Runes were used throughout the Germanic lands, but were probably developed in Scandinavia.

The Maeshowe runes were carved in the 12th century, some by returning crusaders. There are about 30 inscriptions, many of the style, “Thorfinn wrote these runes”. Some gave the father’s name, or a nickname, others are by women and several are about them.

Clearly the Vikings were interested in Maeshowe and left inscriptions on at least one other occasion, when stories about treasure were being told, as in “Haakon singlehanded bore treasures from this howe”. The very long inscription on the monolith to the northwest of the entrance passage describes how “Treasure was carried away three nights before they broke this mound.”  In other words a lame excuse for the Vikings not finding any of what they would call treasure.

Women were also discussed, as in No 9,  “Ingibjorg the fair widow”.  “Many a woman has come stooping in here.  A great showoff.  Erlingr”.  No10 is less polite, “Yorny fucked.  Helgi carved.”  Or No 5, quite mundane, “Vermundr carved.”

Gaukr’s Axe  No 20 is on two separate blocks on the southeast side of the chamber.  “The man who is most skilled in runes west of the ocean carved these runes with the axe which Gaukr Trandilssonr owned south of the country [Iceland]”.

The carver may have been, according to the Orkneyinga saga, Thorhallr Asgrimsson, captain of Earl Rognvald’s ship when they returned in 1153 from the Crusades. He was the great-great-grandson of Asgrimr Ellidtha-Grimssonr, who is claimed to have killed Gaukr Trandilson in the late 900s in Iceland. If true, the axe must have remained in this family for five generations.

Tree Runes  Some, including No 20, have cryptic tree runes which are easily deciphered by a numeric code based on the fuzark, the runic alphabet. Little could the Viking graffiti writers of c.1152 have realised how interesting their runes would be today! In the magnificent setting of Maeshowe, the Viking visitors seem not so far away.

Simple graffiti  No 1 is typical of many of the inscriptions. High on the southwest wall above the entrance passage is a very clear inscription which read, “That is a Viking… then came underneath to this place”.

Maeshowe Dragon  The Maeshowe Dragon is a very familiar Orkney icon, which has been interpreted in various ways. Most Orcadians consider that it is a mythical dragon. Some try to interpret it as a motif depicting pagan beliefs being killed by a Christian sword.

Maeshowe Dragon: some give it other names and that is fine, but to me it is a dragon

Maeshowe Dragon: some give it other names and that is fine, but to me it is a dragon

This seems unlikely since the Vikings had been converted for over 150 years. Others think it is a lion.  Rognvald and his men had just been to Jerusalem and the crusades, visiting Venice along the way, which could have inspired a dragon or a lion. Whatever the thoughts of the artist, it looks fresh after over 860 years.

Below the dragon there is an animal which is probably a Common Seal, which would fit very well with the Norse name for Maeshowe. The fanciful have suggested that it may be an Otter or even a Walrus. Again there is common local agreement that it is indeed a selkie.

Further down an intricately knotted sea serpent, perhaps a kraaken appears almost to writhe. This worm-knot is of a similar standard to the dragon. Visitors must make up their own minds as to what these carvings may be intended to represent, but none can deny the craftsmanship and beauty of these 12th century graffiti. Today we strongly discourage such things, but at the same time these Norsemen immeasurably increased the interest of a visit to Maeshowe.

Finally we would like to offer a very sincere “Thank You” to all those individuals and bodies who have helped the project along the way.

Dr Charles Tait showed photographs of the solstice in his talk ‘Winter Light in Maeshowe’ in the 2014 Orkney International Science Festival.

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About The Author

Charles Tait

Dr Charles Tait has a BSc in genetics from Edinburgh, a PhD in biochemistry from Aberdeen, and a lifetime’s interest and knowledge of his native Orkney islands, where he has photographed, sailed and explored in all weathers and all seasons. He is the author and published of the definitive Orkney Guide Book, as well as guide books for Shetland, the Outer Hebrides and the North Highlands. His passion for photography has taken him on countless journeys, seeking out wildlife and historic sites, and conditions ranging from storming seas to the shimmering aurora borealis in winter skies. His family has been at the heart of Orkney life, through the family farm supply business built up by his father, with at the same time a keen eye for the beauty of the world around them, as exemplified by his aunt, the filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait. The Maeshowe internet project has brought together his passion for photography with his love of delving into Orkey’s past in search of new insights.