Chamber of secrets: Historic Scotland launches virtual tour of Maeshowe
It is an excellent video.....
Orkney is world-famous for its spectacular Neolithic archaeology, and now visitors from all over the globe will be able to explore one of its most enigmatic monuments, after a new virtual tour of Maeshowe chambered tomb went live today (29 August)... continues...
EVEN 5000 years ago, Britons were an understated bunch. About 250 years before work began on Egypt's ostentatious Great Pyramid of Giza, the early settlers of Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland, were building impressive stone chambers of their own - and burying them under mounds of dirt... continues...
Despite arriving at Tormiston Mill at 10.00am the earliest tour we could get on was 7.00pm! (Twilight tour) We spent the day visiting other sites in the area and duly returned at 6.30pm as requested. Unsurprisingly Dafydd was the only child on the tour and he was the only one with a head light on!
Karen and Sophie stayed and looked around the shop whilst myself and Dafydd followed the painted footprints across the road and to the chamber – just in case we couldn’t find it!
The tour was full (12 people I think) and we were soon joined by Ben our guide – who also had a torch.
A brief introduction talk was given outside and we then all slowly entered the burial chamber. Dafydd and myself hung around at the back so we could walk a bit slower and take in as much as possible. Once inside, the main chamber was larger than I expected and there was plenty of room for all of us. As previously mentioned the stonework is excellent.
Ben then gave a very informative talk and invited questions from the ‘audience’ which he duly answered as best he could. It was then time to see the Viking Runes and the lights were turned off so they could be highlighted by Ben’s torch – which it did superbly.
(I wasn’t expecting to see a dragon/griffin carving)
We took it in turns to have a closer look and before we knew it, it was time to leave.
The time went really quick and everyone seemed to enjoy their visit.
Make sure you book well in advance if you are under time constraints. It must get mega busy in the main holiday period.
I know this type of organised tour is not everyone’s cup of tea but I don’t have a problem with them. At least this way you are guaranteed to be able to have a look in the tomb with a relatively small number of people. Without this system it would be like sardines in the chamber. I don’t know how you would get out once you were inside!
It does also allow the site to be protected for future generations to enjoy.
I was surprised that we had to book in advance as it was hardly tourist season, but we dutifully turned up at 2.45pm and all got slightly hysterical! This was our first real site and there were 9 rather excitable amateur archaeologists just itching to get inside! The first disappointment was the "no photography" warning. Why do they do this? Is it so you will buy the guidebook at the end, so you can have pictures of the place? Grrr. It always really annoys me (having said that, the Historic Scotland "Maes Howe and the heart of Neolithic Orkney" guide book is rather good!)
Anyhoo, the 9 of us and 3 other visitors dutifully filed in and the first thing that struck me was how small it was! I have seen Maes Howe on TV many times and it always seemed so much bigger. When you see in on The Modern Antiquarian, it looks positively roomy - and Julian Cope isn't exactly small, is he? - but once in there with 12 other people, the place seemed really compact. The guide spent a lot of time talking about the inscriptions and less time about how and why it was built but it was generally an interesting visit. There was some discussion as to whether the internal stones had been part of a stone circle- or possible 4 Poster - and the burial mound built around it at some later date, which was thought-provoking and set us amateur archaeos off on one of our rambling debates (more of which to come later!).
Maes Howe is spectacular and interesting and worthy of more than a 20 minute tour - I just really wish they would let you have some time in these places to really get a feel for them. Lord only knows what it is like in high season when the tourist coaches are pulling in, one after the other but at least we had a fairly small group and no one else queuing to get in behind us.
Maes Howe...... of all the chambered cairns you'd wish to be teleported to the end of a two mile mountain track, far away from the vaguely interested hordes, it'd be this beauty. But that would be elitist, wouldn't it? And of course remove it from its finely determined position within the Stenness landscape.
Despite only being accessible via (the dreaded) guided tour, there are no carvings or Neolithic art to protect here. Just the - no doubt drunken - braggings of Erik the Viking scrawled on the walls like some 15 year old in the school toilets (no doubt Helga would have disagreed and asserted that he was crap in bed, actually.... ha!). Although not without interest, surely a few slabs of perspex would cater for what are, after all, nothing more than graffiti? In my opinion too much emphasis is placed upon the runes and not nearly enough on what must surely be the finest chambered tomb in the British Isles? But everyone's heard of the Vikings, right?
Everything about the construction of Maes Howe is exquisite, from the unfeasibly long slabs fitted together in a manner that would make a dry-stone wall builder freak out (not to mention an Inca), to the superb entrance passage and blocking stone. But for me the four monoliths built into the corners - more than suggesting an existing stone circle or other arrangement was deliberately incorporated within the design - is the salient point. Never seen this before.
Maes Howe will never possess the atmosphere of, say, Cuween Hill or Wideford Hill just up the road. But it is the crowning achievement of Neolithic Britain and an essential visit.
Standing inside this monument transports one to the very age of the builders and permits for an instant a glimpse of their world and time. As I studied the massive, finely hewn, precision fitted drystone, I had a sensation of the completeness of this simple design: a sensation rarely derived from contemporary architecture. Examining the alignment of the entrance passage, I enjoyed thinking of how incredible it would be at the time of the winter solstice sunset, when a narrow ray of light will pierce the chamber to its back wall. One should examine carefully the interesting side and back cells off of the main chamber, especially the lintel work. Finally be sure to analyze how the blocking stone (still present) would have been moved to seal the main passage.
We turned up at Maeshowe visitor centre at Tormiston Mill at 5.10pm hoping to book a time to visit with as few other people as possible. How lucky we got! The last tour was due to go five minutes later and only had two other - rather disinterested - Chermans on it. We paid our £3 each fee and toddled off down the path towards the mound.
The henge was the first thing that surprised me, being so crisp and well defined. As Julian says in the big papery TMA the whole construction really is like a great grassy sombrero! Our guide, a young archaelogy student, met us at the door and showed us down the long passageway, beautifully square, made of single long slabs of sandstone. It felt very like crawling into an Egyptian tomb but without the multicoloured wall paintings. And then the chamber opens up in front of you! Wow-wheeee!
It was wonderful not to have to share the interior space with too many people. You really wouldn't want to be in there with a coach party of 20 garlic-breathed Americans.
Apart from the painstakingly neat, tight corbelling, the sheer height of the pyramid roof and interior proportions of the chamber the thing I found most notable was that the tall corner stones seemed to be the same shape, size and have the same 'angle of slice' on the top as the stones at Brodgar.
The guide gave a very thorough talk, only snippets of which I caught as immediately I sat down on the dry gravel floor and got out my sketchbook. Photography in the chamber is not allowed, but they couldn't stop me drawing. From the bits I heard she seemed to dwell at length about the Vikings ('bloody Vikings') and not enough about construction techniques for my liking. Rather than whinge I just kept scribbling.
Once the Cherman visitors had seen enough to be able to 'tick it off' their list, they departed leaving just the three of us. Suddenly it felt very big in there! And very, VERY tall, as I was still sitting cross legged on the floor. The guide seemed happy to have someone to talk about it to that took her away from her usual spiel. Moth discussed the chronology of the tomb with the guide who didn't know enough about other British sites to be able to accurately place it against West Kennett, for example.
It may cost £3 and you may have to share it, but it IS worth it.
Pretty impressive engineering! Big stones, especially the one in the entrance passage. Each of the side chamber blocking stones in isolation are a bit hefty, can't see that they were shifted in and out very often.
Having said that, the presence of a tombful of other tourists sort of reduced the atmosphere a bit. It had more gravitas the previous evening in the dark, even though the entrance was locked.
Maes Howe, Orkney Mainland
We got up early this morning for a day of exploring megaliths. First stop however was the stores in Finstown called Binkies to stock up on their rather excellent butteries! Next stop- Maes Howe. After landing on Orkney and on our way to the van we're staying in we passed Maes Howe and many other megalithic sites and I got very excited at the prospect of seeing them all at long last. Parked next to the exhibition house/gift shoppie type place, paid our money and waited to be escorted over the road and on to the tomb. It was like being back at a school trip! The tomb has a fantastic entrance chamber and once inside it's most impressive- there's some huge slabs of stone went into the building of that place. Okay- so you get herded about by the (very good) guide and not much time to sit and ponder, but this really pales into insignificance in such a powerful place. Imagine being in there watching the sun set at the Winter SolsticeÉ.
Maeshowe, or the maiden's mound, as it has been translated, was formerly known to the Orcadians by the euphonius name of "the abode of the Hog-boy." Hog-boy, however, is simply a perversion of the Norse Haug-bui or mound dweller.
From p150 of
Orkneys and Shetland
Chas. Sprague Smith
Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York, Vol. 23. (1891), pp. 131-155.
In 1888 Geo.Marwick recalls when a boy being told by an old gentleman that after sunset on a full moon the able-bodied married women would take a 'caisy' of ashes and earth, which being dumped on the top or sides of "Mae-howe" would stengthen the mound to keep the bad folk in. And to show their contempt they would also leave their excrement there !
Latest findings are that it could have been built where a house used to be and possibly by/incorporating a stone circle. The passage includes four stones. Four standing stones form the chamber and the corbelled roof had to start above their level. As with the Howe tomb the socket for a standing stone has been found at the back of the mound, and it is suggested that these came afterwards.
To visit Maeshowe you now have to buy a ticket and book your time. Tours leave Tormiston Mill at: 0945, 1030, 1115, 1200, 1245, 1330, 1415, 1500, 1545, 1630, 1715.
In winter last tour leaves at 1545.
(Maximum of 20 persons on one tour, but you REALLY want to avoid this many!)
A couple of weeks before I visited Maes Howe a film crew had just finsihed making a documentary involving the tomb (according to the guide). So watch out for it. Although the last time Maes Howe was filmed it didn't reach the TV for 2 years aparently.
Here is some information about the 12th century Viking inscriptions at Maeshowe:
There are some pictures - a dragon, a walrus and a serpent, but also also quite a lot of graffiti, in runes. I say graffiti because most of it recalls the type of thing you find written on modern bus shelters: 'Thorfinn wrote these runes.'; 'Thorni fucked. Helgi carved'; 'Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women'; 'These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes on the Western Ocean with the axe that killed Gaukr Trandkill's son in the South of Iceland.' Though there is some that sounds a bit more exciting: "A long time ago was a great treasure hidden here. Lucky will be he who can find the great fortune. Hákon single-handed bore treasure from this howe."
Maeshowe is also mentioned in one of the Viking sagas from the same period - the Orkneyinga Saga (this version in penguin translated by Hermann Palsson and Paul Edward):
"Earl Harald set out for Orkney at Christmas with four ships and a hundred men. He lay for two days off Graemsay, then put in at Hamna Voe on Mainland (Stromness), and on the thirteenth day of Christmas they travelled on foot over to Firth. During a snow storm they took shelter in Maeshowe and there two of them went insane, which slowed them down badly, so that by the time they reached Firth it was night-time."
Perhaps it's best not to spend too long in there, eh.
Once you've scrolled past a lot of horrible sponsored listings, this page has some good background information about Maeshowe, and (best of all) an interesting engraving of the tomb with no 'lid' on it as seen in 1861.