Region : Orkney Home
Island : Mainland Map
Town or village : Stenness List
Grid Reference : HY 318 127 Glossary
Period : 2700 BC-AD 1153 Bibliography
Maes Howe

Maes Howe image

This is one of the greatest architectural achievements of the Neolithic people of Scotland. The Maes Howe tomb consists of a large mound covering a stone-built passage and a burial chamber with side-cells. The mound, surrounded by a low bank and a ditch, is 35m in diameter and over 7m high.
The entrance passage, on the south-west side of the mound, is partly built with monumental side-slabs: one of them is 5.6m in length. The 9m long passage leads to a wide main chamber, with three cells in the walls. The chamber measures 4.6m x 4.6m and is 4m in height. At each corner is a buttress flanked by a huge vertical slab supporting the corbelled roof. The entrances to the side-cells are above floor level: the stones on the floor are those used to seal them.
The passage points to the midwinter sunset, and in December the sun shines down the passage and into the chamber. In that day, the tall monolith known as Barnhouse Stone, 700m to the south-west, is perfectly aligned to the sun and the entrance of the tomb.
On various stones there are 24 runic inscriptions and on a corner pillar (the left one in the photo) three engraved figures (a dragon or lion, a walrus or otter with a fish in its mouth and a knotted serpent). They were carved by Norsemen in 1153-4. Among them: "These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean", "Ingigerth is the most beautiful of women" and five runes referring to a treasure. Probably the tomb was re-used for the burial of a Viking chief and his treasure in the 9th century, and then robbed by his descendants three centuries later.
Nothing is known of the original content of the tomb: only a fragment of human skull was found. Recent excavations outside the mound have found evidence of a natural platform upon which the tomb was built, of a 2m high wall around the mound and of the socket for a large standing stone at the rear of the tomb.
In care of Historic Scotland