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Maeshowe bar Maes Howe

The NMRS records HY22SE 30 & 31 are identified as from Queenamoan in Sandwick, but this only apples to that area most recently described. For the original 1869 excavations "The Orcadian" newspaper of the time specifically place in Stenness, with no-one at the time correcting this. Anyone who has read "The Orcadian" at all regularly knows that to wrongly name a place (let alone have the parish wrong) results in a flurry of letters to shame the miscreant. The true site is Quoynamoan behind Tormiston, that is, south of Meas Howe. North of the famous mound the [north of] 'Lochside' cemetery, HY31SW 32, was discovered in 1928. Add in several other records, including descoveries coming under that for the tomb, and it is obvious that where today Maes Howe seemingly sits proud and alone there was once a richer landscape on a roughly north-south alignment. To me the land from Lochside to Quoynamoan looks to form a multi-period unit. To the south there appears to be no significant activity between Quoynamoan and the Bigswell backdrop to Stenness. Up from Lochside the Vola/Quoyer mound as a bell-barrow would appear to terminate a barrow group across the burn into Sandwick parish that goes all the way to the Staney Hill long cairn on the other side the hill (though an alternative is that it marked the end of the Stenness group associated with Upper Bigging).

1928 is the date of the discovery of a cist cemetery in a field centred at HY312127 north of Lochside farm. Prior to the discovery of the 'Lochside' cemetery ("several years ago") Mr.Coghill found there two cists ten yards away from one another. The contents were a piece of skull and some well-preserved bones and a crouched skeleton, though the account does not make clear if these were seperate items or from a single cist. The original account is of the opening of five new graves, three years on six cists are mentioned. It would be nice to think this includes one of the previous items, but is more likely from the promised further excavations. The 'Lochside' cemetery came out of a natural mound fifteen chains north of the farm buildings and the cists did not show externally. Apart from the burnt bones and earth only a couple of stone tools were found. Three of the five were to the west and north-west of the largest and one to the north.
Strangely in 1928 the largest grave is said to be aligned NW/SE in 1931 the direction is confusingly given as "N.E by E. and S.S.W. by W". It lay slightly deeper than the rest, thirty inches as against eighteen to twenty-one. There are further slight discrepancies in the dimensions, so I shall give the 1928 figures in brackets. The main part was "approximately" foor-foot ten (4'.5½") by two-foot three-and-a-half in area and thirty inches deep (2'6½"). An undressed slab [all the cist coverstones were] above this measured "about" sixty-eight inches (5'10") by forty-and-a-half (4'6"). Above this lay another cover (supported by two ~8" thick blocks), slightly larger at six feet by two-foot four (2'3"). Some four feet north of this, aligned NE/SW, cist number two had a roughly hexagonal coverstone forty-two inches by thirty-one. This was twenty-nine inches long and twenty-three deep with disparate ends of eighteen and twenty-one inches. Number three was eight-and-a-half feet from the large cist, N/S aligned and west of the first two. As well as two (!) full-size coverstones there were small slabs above these again. It was only twenty-one inches long, the ends fifteen-and-a-half and eighteen inches repectively and depth roughly eighteen. Approximately five feet west of this and seventeen feet west of the first cist the fourth lay somewhat north-south and had a heap of apparently charred bone at the northern end. Number four was forty-two inches long and two feet deep, and the respective ends twenty-three and twenty-and-a-half inches long. Almost twenty-four feet from the largest cist, and to the north-west of number four, was another cist with two coverstones. Aligned NNE/SSW this was more nearly rectangular with ends of thirteen and thirteen-and-a-half inches. Number five measured twenty-seven inches long and eigheen deep. Five's alignment was shared by a double cist roughly twenty feet from the first. The sixth was not a double-decker, consisting of two adjoining cists of dissimilar size covered by a common slab forty-and-a-half by thirty-three inches. The larger measured about thirty-two by fifteen-and-a-half by twenty-and-a-half deep. The west side jutted out to help form the smaller. The latter was nineteen inches long, eighteen deep, and a mere nine-and-a-half wide - so could it have had a different function like (?) the seperation between the coverstones of the largest cist ?
In connection with the 'Tormiston' site, HY31SW 26, "The Orcadian" notes a discovery at Lochside farm that does not appear on the NMRS presently. From the description given it is seperate from the 'Lochside' cemetery, being on raised ground but surrounded by stone slabs [I hope my paraphrasing is true]. The four foot by two-foot-square cist contained two skeletons. Unfortunately the contents disintegrated on meeting fresh air.

On the south side of the farmtrack leaving the Staneyhill Road for Lochside aerial photography revealed a sub-circular cropmark roughly 70m across, HY31SW 39 at HY31503018, now going under the name of Overbigging. This enclosure runs NNW/SSE along a low ridge by the crest with a possible entrance at the SSE. The only recorded ground trace reported is a 3m wide ditch to the west of the putative gap, slightly curved and having a pronounced lean. From roadside what I see is a big low mound a foot or possibly two high above a big low hillock. Geophysics throwing up no evidence of settlement it could be that this was an animal pound - perhaps the marshy areas were once more extensive and the stock could be kept safe and dry there.

Coming down to the fields about Maes Howe iteslf the 1946 RCAHMS inventory lists eight sites apart from the great mound in this region. These now form part of NMRS record HY31SW 21. Leaving aside those close to the rampart of Maes Howe leaves six possible tumuli to its north-east. These are believed to be lost to cultivation and military land-use during WWII, though the present record acknowledges that they no longer know where the croft mentioned in relation to the last was (and therefore the location of other relevant landmarks). So I shall start with the 'lost' dwelling and work back. At the turn of the nineteenth century Upper Bigging was bigger than Over Bigging, with far more structures. From Overbigging east there is a disused quarry. Between this and the track to Moa the 1:25,000 map show a solitary wee structure in a field. And at HY31811326 this is all that remains today of Upper Bigging. The Inventory records the sixth site as being in a field between Upper Bigging and a lane (the aforementioned track), though without giving a compass direction. This was a disturbed grassy mound thirty-six feet across and two-and-a-half high. Roughly forty yards to the south-east site four was the same height and only a foot less wide, but had been partly destroyed by the erection of fences lining the lane. The fifth site, a mound thirty-one feet in diameter and three feet in height, is recorded near the main road south of the lane (perhaps removed during the enlargement of Overbigging). It had two satellite mounds touching it. Site four was on the order of a hundred-and-fifty yards north of the second and third sites. These contiguous mounds measured twenty-three and eighteen feet across and were in height three and two feet. About fifty yards to their south site one is mentioned as a low mound twenty-one feet across with a depression on top. What has mislead the modern archaeologists has been that the first three sites were described as closest to Maes Howe and at a distance of 80-100m, but this latter actually applies the the area covered by the mounds rather than how far they were from Maes Howe itself. Perhaps after all some trace of some can be found if searched for in the correct area.
As to the sites by the ramparts, now that we have pushed the other sites further north the 'Tormiston' site intervenes. This may have lost its correct position as though the NMRS gives a distance in yards the original measurement is in chains, and this is much more likely to have been the engineer's chain of 100' than the 22 yard rod, pole or perch of our schooldays [there is also a nautical chain of a mere fifteen feet]. Though the 1915 newspaper report tells us the cist was found five chains from Maes Howe it doesn't give a compass bearing - though its mention elsewhere as being on Tormiston farm has been taken to indicate a southerly direction nothing now appears there. A few decades later a gentleman from Mill Cottage said that this site had been at the north end of a [short-term] quarry in the region of HY31911286, though he did not know the precise location himself. In my estimation this allies it to the Upper Bigging group (the newspaper mentions that several short cists had been found previously in the neighborhood on small mounds or rises). Coming up the Staney Hill road that runs east of Maes Howe the indicated position is the field on the other side of the road from that containing the tomb, though if the units were engineer's chains the next field north would be the location. The newspaper account backs up the northerly bearing as the last cist found in the vicinity prior to this is described as coming from Lochside farm. Like the 'Lochside' cemetery the 'Tormiston' cist came from level ground, but covered by more earth with the top being two-and-a-half feet deep. It was five foot by four feet six and two feet nine inches high, and may have had a ring ditch as the newspaper account refers to the grave surface as "begun on a space of about 12 feet in diameter". All bar the cist's upper six inches had been cut into solid rock. Three sides were each formed by a single large slab. On the south however the side is described as a rough building having a twenty-four by eighteen inch doorway (I assume this is not the same as the 'doorway' features noted at the Maes Howe and Bookan tombs). In the bottom of the cist there were dark ashes and a quantity of "moist greasy clay".
Now I come to the remaining Inventory sites under HY31SW 21, those located by the rampart of Maes Howe. To the north-west is the only known survivor in a visible state, the NMRS site A at HY31751282. This heathery mound appears to have been excavated at the centre and there were indications of a laid stone. Originally described as measuring seventy by sixty-two foot and roughly four feet high it is now reduced to 18m across with an ~5m hollow, and is mostly earth with a few protruding stones from what is now a turf covering. Maes Howe has the wonderfully accurate position of HY31821277. In 1928 there were to its south-east two soilmarks twlve to fifteen feet across marking slight rises that have since disappeared but at that time a lot of stone had been removed in the previous two years that led to speculation that these had been burial cairns.
Subsequent to the Inventory the NMRS added several soilmarks north of Maes Howe that are all along the line of a modern fence. The first 'pair', sites B and C, were 0.9m high contiguous rises at HY31881308 & HY31831303 where a few stones showed. One was read as an oval mound 12 by 10m and the other as a circular one 12m across. These were tentatively identified with sites 2 and 3 but I have disproved this above. The remaining two cropmarks, of slighter rises, lie at HY31781299 & HY31771298.

It seems strange that apart from the mill there is nothing recorded for Tormiston. Though "The Orcadian" in 1948 reports the unearthing of two reddish baked clay stones on the farm these appear to have been loomweights and were intended for Stromness Museum. One was 4¾" across, one and five-eighths thick, and had a cental hole. The other measured almost five by two-and-a-quarter by one-and-three-quarter inches, with two holes a couple of inches apart, and looked like a 'swill' used to prevent strands twisting. For Quoynamoan (HY32351233) the only NMRS record is for a small cream flint blade given to the S.A.S. in 1935-6. But the other name for HY31SW 50, used in P.S.A.S. LXX, is Quinni Moan in Stenness. So finally to the 1869 discoveries here. The cist barrow and that without one are down as HY22SE 31 and 30.
These graves were found on a previously uncultivated bit of pasture after a flagstone was hit. This large slab covered a cist with urn inside, large and seen to be full of burnt bones and ashes when the archaeologists arrived a few days later to re-open it. The material is described as mica schist, which in early records usually means steatite. This fracture urn being taken up with the cist bottom revealed neatly fitting sides, the slabs enclosing a twenty-one by sixteen by sixteen inch space that had held this roughly ten-and-a-quarter inch deep soapstone block with a maximum diameter of some fourteen-and-a-half inches. There were still traces of the tumulus into which this had been inserted, and which belonged to a group of nine, ten or more barrows. They also re-opened a short cist, seventeen by seventeen and fifteen inches deep, that the owner found on a previous occasion, but were disappointed to find only tiny bone fragments and ashes. So they had three 'new' barrows opened up. One they found to cover a crude stone cairn over ashes laid on the o.g.s. Last but not least came a trangular cist - features described as such have been found at Barnhouse and, lately, the Ness of Brodgar. This comprised a rough wall of undressed stones enclosing a space nineteeen inches 'long' with base fifteen inches and depth of one foot. Ashes were on the bottom and there was a large flag coverstone. The NMRS record adds that one of the cists had an erect stone at its SSE, completely buried.

wideford Posted by wideford
21st November 2007ce

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