Maeshowe :

Maeshowe (Orkney)

The Viking Treasure:

Other runes explain the Viking’s purpose:

  • “Crusaders broke into Maeshowe. Lif the earl’s cook carved these runes. To the north-west is a great treasure hidden. It was long ago that a great treasure was hidden here. Happy is he that might find that great treasure. Hakon alone bore treasure from this mound” signed “Simon Sirith”
  • “It is surely true what I say than treasure was taken away. Treasure was carried off in three nights before those.” “Is to me said that treasure is here hidden very well. Say few as Oddr”
  • “He is a viking…come here under the barrow”

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Maeshowe Entrance

Maeshowe (or Maes Howe) (Norse: Orkhaug) is a Neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave situated on MainlandOrkneyScotland. The monuments around Maeshowe, including Skara Brae, were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. It gives its name to the Maeshowe type of chambered cairn, which is limited to Orkney[1]. Maeshowe is very similar to the famous Newgrange tomb in Ireland, suggesting a linkage between the two cultures[2]. Maeshowe is a magnificent example of Neolithic craftsmanship and is, in the words of the distinguished archaeologist Stuart Piggott, “a superlative monument that by its originality of execution is lifted out of its class into a unique position.”[3]

Maeshowe appears as a grassy mound rising from a flat plain near the south-east end of the Loch of Harray. Maeshowe is one of the largest tombs in Orkney; the mound encasing the tomb is 115 feet (35 m) in diameter and rises to a height of 24 feet (7.3 m)[4]. Surrounding the mound, at a distance of 50 feet (15 m) to 70 feet (21 m) is a ditch up to 45 feet (14 m) wide. The grass mound hides a complex of passages and chambers built of carefully crafted slabs of flagstone weighing up to 30 tons.[5] It is aligned so that the rear wall of its central chamber held up by a bracketed wall,[6] is illuminated on the winter solstice[7]. A similar display occurs in Newgrange. This entrance passage is 36 feet (11 m) long and leads to the central chamber measuring 15 square feet (1.4 m2)[8]. The current height of the chamber is 12.5 feet (3.8 m), this reflects the height to which the original stonework is preserved and capped by a modern corbelled roof. The original roof may have risen to a height of 15 feet (4.6 m) or more[9].

The entrance passage is only about 3 feet (0.91 m) high, requiring visitors to stoop or crawl into the central chamber. That chamber is constructed largely of flat slabs of stone, many of which traverse nearly the entire length of the walls. In each corner lie huge angled buttresses that rise to the vaulting. At a height of about 3 feet (0.91 m), the walls construction changes from the use of flat to overlapping slabs creating a beehive-shaped vault[10].

The “modern” opening of the tomb was by James Farrer, an antiquarian and the Member of Parliament for Durham, in July 1861[11]. Farrer, like many antiquarians of the day, was not noted for his careful excavation of sites. John Hedges describes him as possessing “a rapacious appetite for excavation matched only by his crude techniques, lack of inspiration, and general inability to publish.”[12] Farrer and his workmen broke through the roof of the entrance passage and found it filled with debris. He then turned his attention to the top of the mound, broke through and, over a period of a few days, emptied the main chamber of material that had filled it completely. He and his workmen discovered the famous runic inscriptions carved on the walls, proof that Norsemen had broken into the tomb at least six centuries earlier[13]. As described in the Orkneyinga Saga, Maeshowe was looted by the famous Vikings Earl Harald Maddadarson and Ragnvald, Earl of Møre[14] in about the 12th century. The more than thirty runic inscriptions on the walls of the chamber represent the largest single collection of such carvings in the world.

Maeshowe soon after opening in 1861

Estimates of the amount of effort required to build Maeshowe vary; a commonly suggested number is 39,000 man-hours[15][16], although Colin Renfrew calculated that at least 100,000 hours would be required[17]. Dating of the construction of Maeshowe is difficult but dates derived from burials in similar tombs cluster around 3000 BC. Since Maeshowe is the largest and most sophisticated example of the Maeshowe “type” of tomb, archaeologists have suggested that it’s the last of its class- built around 2800 BC[18]. The people who built Maeshowe were users of grooved ware[19], a distinctive type of pottery that spread throughout the British Isles from about 3000 BC. The land around Maeshowe at its construction probably looked much as it does today- treeless with grasses representative of Pollen Assemblage Zone MNH-I reflecting “mixed agricultural practices, probably with a pastoral bias- there is a substantial amount of ribwort pollen, but also that of cereals.”[20].

A Neolithic “low road” connects Maeshowe with the magnificently preserved village of Skara Brae, passing near the Standing Stones of Stennessand the Ring of Brodgar[21]. Low roads connect Neolithic ceremonial sites throughout Britain. Some archeologists believe that Maeshowe was originally surrounded by a large stone circle.[22] The complex including Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, Skara Brae, as well as other tombs and standing stones represents a concentration of Neolithic sites that is rivalled in Britain only by the complexes associated with Stonehenge and Avebury[23].

Chambered tombs of the Maeshowe “type” are characterized by a long, low entrance passageway leading to a square or rectangular chamber from which there is access to a number of side cells. Although there are disagreements as to the attribution of tombs to tomb types, there are only seven definitely known Maeshowe type tombs[24]. On Mainland, there are, in addition to Maeshowe; the tombs of Cuween, Wideford Hill, and Quanterness. The tomb of Quoyness is found on Sanday, while Vinquoy Hill is located on Eday. Finally, there is an unnamed tomb on the Holm of Papa Westray. Anna Ritchie reports that there are three more Maeshowe type tombs in Orkney but she doesn’t name or locate them[25].




The origin of the name Maeshowe is uncertain. While the second element is certainly from the Old Norse haugr usually meaning a mound, there have been several different theories postulated for the first element, maes.

Cross Sections of Maeshowe

These include:

  • Celtic origins. The Welsh word ‘Maes’ meaning ‘field’ or ‘area of activity’; it is typical for ‘maes’ to be followed by an adjective, such as ‘fair field’, ‘Maes teg’. ‘Maeshowe’ might then mean ‘the burial mound field’, or ‘the area around the cairn’. Due to the rarity of surviving pre-Norse elements in Orcadian placenames, this theory does not enjoy much support.
  • A personal name. ‘Maeshowe’ could simply be a corruption of ‘Tormis’ Howe’, meaning it was the burial mound of someone called Tormis. Some other cairns in the area do seem to be named after individuals, and ‘Tormiston’ is immediately adjacent to the tomb.
  • Old Norse for ‘The Maiden’s Tomb’? This would be meyjarhaugr or maerhaugr.
  • Old Norse for ‘The Great Tomb’? This would be mestrhaugr. Interestingly, Maeshowe is called Orkahaugr in the Orkneyinga Saga. The first element of that name, orka, signifies power or greatness.

[edit]World Heritage status

Heart of Neolithic Orkney*
UNESCO World Heritage Site
State Party United Kingdom
Type Cultural
Criteria i, ii, iii, iv
Reference 514
Region** Europe and North America
Inscription history
Inscription 1999  (23rd Session)
Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.

‘The Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ was inscribed as a World Heritage site in December 1999. In addition to Maeshowe, the site includes Skara Brae, the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and other nearby sites. It is managed by Historic Scotland, whose ‘Statement of Significance’ for the site begins:

The monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae proclaim the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places. They were approximately contemporary with the mastabas of the archaic period of Egypt (first and second dynasties), the brick temples of Sumeria, and the first cities of the Harappa culture in India, and a century or two earlier than the Golden Age of China. Unusually fine for their early date, and with a remarkably rich survival of evidence, these sites stand as a visible symbol of the achievements of early peoples away from the traditional centres of civilisation…Maes Howe is a masterpiece of Neolithic peoples. It is an exceptionally early architectural accomplishment. With its almost classical strength and simplicity it is a unique survival from 5000 years ago. It is an expression of genius within a group of people whose other tombs were claustrophobic chambers in smaller mounds.[26]

[edit]See also


12th century Viking Runes in Maeshowe

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

Ingibiorg runic inscriptionFew memorial stones have been found in Orkney, possibly because of the nature of the stone. 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. The Vikings left much runic graffiti, but none have so far been as rich and interesting as in Orkahaugr – the Norse name for Maeshowe. These runes were carved in the 12th century and are a development of the characters used by the earlier Vikings.
Maeshowe dragon Crusader's cross
Runes developed as a simple 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 probably developed in Scandinavia.

At Maeshowe there are about 30 inscriptions, many of which are of the style “Thorfinn wrote these runes“. Some gave their father’s name, or a nickname, some are by women and one intriguing inscription says “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” This rune carver may have been Thorhallr Asgrimssom, Captain of Earl Rognvald Kali’s ship when they returned in 1153 from the Crusades.

Maeshowe runesClearly 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”. Women were also discussed, as in “Ingigerd is the most beautiful of women” and “Ingibiorg the fair Widow”, or “Many a woman has come stooping in here no matter how pompous a person she was“.

Some of the runes are cryptic tree runes which are easily deciphered by a numeric code based on thefuthark – the runic alphabet. Little could the Viking graffiti writers of 1153 have realised how interesting their runes would be today! In the magnificent setting of the 5,000 year-old tomb, the Viking visitors seem not so distant.


“[Maeshowe is] one of the greatest architectural achievements of the prehistoric peoples of Scotland”.

Picture Sigurd Towrie

Picture Sigurd Towrie

Maeshowe 1862
A section of James Farrer’s illustration of Maeshowe as it appeared in 1862. The Standing Stones o’ Stenness and the Ring o’ Brodgar are in the middle distance.

The parish of Stenness, in Orkney’s West Mainland, is home to some of the county’s best-known monuments. Among these is the prehistoric chambered cairn, Maeshowe.

Thought to date from around 2700BC, Maeshowe is one of the monuments that make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.

Approximately 500 metres from the south-eastern shore of the Harray loch, Maeshowe is, by far, the largest and most impressive of Orkney’s chambered cairns.

Appearing as a large grassy mound, it is clearly visible for miles around, including the nearby Standing Stones o’ Stenness, the Barnhouse Settlement and the Watchstone.

Archaeologist James Farrer first excavated the cairn in 1861, prior to which the mound had a distinctly different shape than it does today. As can be seen in the illustration (right), Maeshowe was conical, with a deep depression in the top. It had a diameter of around 30m (100 ft) and stood 11m (36 ft) high.

The cairn was taken into state care in 1910, at which time a concrete roof was added to the structure. At the same time, the outer mound was sculpted to give it is present “rounded” dimensions of 7.3m high and a 37m diameter.

A Neolithic elite?

Picture Sigurd TowrieMaeshowe was built in the Neolithic period. Constructed on a platform of levelled ground, like the nearby stone circles of Brodgar andStenness, the monument is surrounded by a ditch and raised bank.

Archaeological work in recent years hints that the cairn was built on top of an earlier structure – perhaps an early Neolithic house.

It has been suggested that this house was replaced by a stone circle – four of the stones of which were incorporated into Maeshowe. An excavation outside the chamber in 1996 led to the discovery of a socket-hole on a platform to the rear of the mound. This added weight to the theory that the site had one housed a stone circle. The massive stone slabs used to line the entrance chamber may also have once been part of this stone ring.

At the same time, it was suggested that the chamber’s encircling ditch was originally intended to be filled with water. This would have had the effect of further isolating the world of the living from that of the dead.

Maeshowe itself is made up of a large central chamber, with three side chambers built into the walls. It is accessed by a low, long entrance passage (see illustration below).

Plan view of Maeshowe

The complexity of the chamber’s architecture and the grandness of its scale has led to the idea that Maeshowe was built to demonstrate the power of a “social elite” within the prehistoric tribal systems of the time.

Estimates for the labour required to build Maeshowe have been placed at 100,000 man-hours, compared to 10,000 hours required for its lesser contemporaries. This, suggests some, shows a society where the emphasis had shifted from the community as a whole, to one elevated class or individual.

The midwinter connection

Perhaps one of Maeshowe’s most famous attributes is its midwinter alignment – a phenomenon it shares with the chambered tomb of Newgrange in Ireland.

As the midwinter sun slips below the horizon, its last rays shine directly through Maeshowe’s entrance passage to illuminate the rear wall of the central chamber.

For more on this work of Neolithic engineering, click here.

Stone ring links?

At the nearby Standing Stones o’ Stenness, stand two angular slabs, standing side by side, with a large prone stone beside them.

Maeshowe Connection?It is intriguing, although perhaps mere coincidence, that when viewed from the centre of the stone circle, Maeshowe (see photograph) is aligned to the gap between the two “dolmen stones”.

This could indicate that the stones formed some sort of symbolic link, or connecting “portal”, between the chambered cairn and the stone circle.

Viking invaders

During the initial excavation in 1861, Maeshowe’s entrance passage was inaccessible, so an access shaft was driven down through the top of the mound.

Once inside, however, the archaeologists discovered that they were not the first to break into the tomb.

Runic “graffiti” found on the inner walls confirmed the Orkneyinga Saga account that several groups of Norsemen had entered the tomb – known to them as “Orkahaugr” – in the middle of the 12th century and recorded their presence on the ancient stone.

For more on these Viking invaders, and the Maeshowe runes, click here.


Maeshowe’s runes – Viking graffiti

Maeshowe Runes
Some of Maeshowe’s many runes

When Maeshowe was first excavated, in 1861, the chamber’s original entrance passage was inaccessible.

So, to allow access, the excavators drove a shaft down through the top of the mound. Once inside, however, they found proof that that they were not the first to have broken into the tomb. The walls of the Stone Age chamber were covered in with runic graffiti.

The 30 inscriptions found in Maeshowe, make it one of the largest, and most famous, collections of runes known in Europe.

According to Orkneyinga saga, over 800 years previously, in the darkness of an Orkney winter, a group of viking warriors had sought shelter from a terrible snowstorm.

Leading the men was Earl Harald, who, at Christmas, 1153, was making his way from Stromness to the parish of Firth.

The Earl’s party took refuge in an already ancient structure – the mound they knew asOrkahaugr. Inside, while waiting for the storm to abate, they carved graffiti into the stone walls. What drew these Norsemen to the tomb? Was it the legends of a great treasure that lay within?

“On the thirteenth day of Christmas they travelled on foot over to Firth. During a snowstorm they took shelter in Maeshowe and two of them (his men) went insane which slowed them down badly so that by the time they reached Firth it was night time.”
Orkneyinga saga – Chapter 93

Another episode in the tomb is thought to have involved Earl Rognvald and his men.

Either heading to the Holy Land on a crusade, or having just returned from one, the Crusaders also spent their time in Orkahaugr, and they also left their mark on the walls.

The crusaders’ graffiti, however, claims that they were the first to have broken into the chamber. With this in mind, it is likely that they must have entered the chamber prior to their crusade.

Maeshowe runes. Picture Sigurd Towrie

The translations I have for Maeshowe’s runic inscriptions are:

  • “Ingebjork the fair widow – many a woman has walked stooping in here a very showy person” signed by “Erlingr”
  • “Thorni f*cked. Helgi carved” (the official guidebooks usually tone this inscription down)
  • “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women” (carved beside a rough drawing of a slavering dog)
  • “This mound was raised before Ragnarr Lothbrocks her sons were brave smooth-hide men though they were”

A number of the other inscriptions are simply ancient graffiti:

  • “Ofram the son of Sigurd carved these runes”
  • “Haermund Hardaxe carved these runes”
  • “These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean”
  • “Tholfir Kolbeinsson carved these runes high up”
  • “This howe Vermundr carved”
  • “Ottarfila carved these runes”
  • “Benedikt made this cross”
  • “Arnfithr Matr carved these runes with this axe owned by Gauk Trandilsson in the South land”
  • “Tryggr carved these runes”
  • “Arnfithr the son of Stein carved these runes”
  • “Thorir”
  • “Orkis’ son says in the runes he carves”
  • “futhorkhnias trmly”

Other runes explain the Viking’s purpose:

  • “Crusaders broke into Maeshowe. Lif the earl’s cook carved these runes. To the north-west is a great treasure hidden. It was long ago that a great treasure was hidden here. Happy is he that might find that great treasure. Hakon alone bore treasure from this mound” signed “Simon Sirith”
  • “It is surely true what I say than treasure was taken away. Treasure was carried off in three nights before those.” “Is to me said that treasure is here hidden very well. Say few as Oddr”
  • “He is a viking…come here under the barrow”

Maeshowe Runes

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