Mysterious Maes Howe in Orkney

The Neolithic chambered cairn known as Maes Howe is situated on Orkney’s Mainland Island in Scotland. Rising up in a conspicuous mound in the middle of a field, Maes Howe, which is one of the largest tombs in Orkney, is not similar in any way to any other chambered design discovered thus far, either in Orkney or elsewhere – and its purpose remains a mystery.

Built in 2800 BC, Maes Howe is set upon a 38 meter diameter circular platform on a slight rise surrounded by heathland which had been cleared and leveled. The tomb, its side chambers and entrance passage were built above ground on the circular platform. Evidence suggests that many of the slabs of rock used in the construction of Maes Howe may have been dragged over a considerable distance to the building site – no small accomplishment when you consider that they are estimated to weigh up to 30 tons each. As the tomb started taking shape it was buried in an artificial mound containing retaining walls and other structures to ensure stability. The 2 meter deep, 14 meter wide ditch surrounding Maes Howe suggests that this is where the material to create the mound came from.

Visitors to Maes Howe enter through a low passage which is 9 meters in length leading up a slight incline to the square main chamber. The walls of the main chamber consist of precisely fitted flat blocks of stone with enormous buttresses in each corner. There are side chambers on three sides of the tomb and each of the side chambers has a large single slab of stone as its roof. In an excellent example of skilled workmanship, each side chamber roof forms part of the main chamber wall. Covering all of this is a stone cap which is painted white and was put in place following excavations at Maes Howe in 1861.

Maes Howe was most likely used as a repository for the bones of the surrounding community’s dead, however only traces of bone were discovered during the 1861 excavation. Researchers agree that the precise alignment of Maes Howe is evidence that it was used as a calendar. It has been discovered that at sunset on mid-winter’s day, or winter solstice, the sun shines all the way down the length of the entrance passage illuminating a spot on the main chamber’s rear wall. It is not hard to understand that people living as far north as this would be eager to know when the days would start getting longer heralding the coming of spring.

It would seem that towards 2000 BC Maes Howe was abandoned. This is in line with evidence that, due mainly to a deterioration of the climate most of the population in the area migrated south. Viking-style graffiti in the form of carved runes is evidence that Maes Howe was used for shelter by Harald Maddadarson and his men when they attempted to take control of the islands while Orkney’s Earl Rognvald was on a crusade to the Holy Land in the mid 1100s. The Viking invasion of Maes Howe weakened the roof, which collapsed and was replaced with the current protective roof during the 1861 excavations.

Whatever the purpose of Maes Howe may have been when it was first constructed, it is a fascinating tourist attraction which every visitor to the Orkney Islands of Scotland should make a point of seeing.