Our latest Curiosity of the Week comes in the ancient and unique form of Maeshowe Chambered Cairn.
Thought to be the best example of a Neolithic building in north-west Europe, the chambered tomb is around 5,000 years old. Maeshowe is situated in one of the richest Neolithic landscapes in Europe and is part of the Heart of Orkney World Heritage Site.
The Heart of Orkney includes stone circles, villages and burial monuments, where people lived, worshipped and honoured their dead. Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and the village of Skara Brae are all part of this historic landscape.
Maeshowe would have been made without the use of metal tools or machinery and shows a clear feat of design and construction. From the outside Maeshowe looks like a large grassy mound, indeed the word ‘howe’ derives from the Old Norse for hill. But once you step inside through the small single portal and creep along the long stone passage into the central, stone-built chamber you get an idea of the magnificence of the tomb.
Inside the atmospheric chamber is quite small, measuring just 4.7m across. Each wall of the 10m long passage into the tomb is made by a single, gigantic sandstone slab, weighing anything up to three tonnes. Each corner of the central chamber has an upright standing stone and off the central chamber are three side cells, the floors, back walls and ceiling of which are made from single stone slabs.
Midwinter was a particularly special time of the year for the people who used Maeshowe. The gently sloping passage is carefully aligned so that at sunset during the three weeks before and after the shortest day of the year (21st December) the light of the setting sun shines straight down the passage and illuminates the back of the central chamber. The sun’s rays align with a standing stone, the Barnhouse Stone which is situated 800m from Maeshowe.
After several hundred years of use as a burial tomb, Maeshowe was closed up. Another 3,000 years passed before Norsemen (descendants of the Vikings) broke into the mound, no doubt curious as to what lay within. The Norsemen left behind a fascinating legacy of light-hearted runic graffiti carved all over the walls of the tomb. This graffiti is the largest collection of runic inscription to survive outside Scandinavia, a potent reminder that Orkney was under Norwegian rule until 1468.
From late November until early January is the perfect time to view the light from the winter sunset shining into the ancient tomb. Mawshowe Chambered Tomb is open daily from 9.30am to 4pm until the end of March, then from April to the end of September it will open from 9.30am til 5pm. Admission costs £5.50 for adults, £3.30 for children and £4.40 for concessions. Booking in advance is required, phone 01856 761 606 to take a tour of the tomb.
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