Skip to comments.Maeshowe Winter Solstice As Viewed By Neolithic Man (Scotland)
Posted on 12/17/2005 11:52:34 AM PST by blam
Maeshowe winter solstice as viewed by Neolithic man
Maeshowe winter solstice as viewed by Neolithic man
Maeshowe is managed by Historic Scotland. Picture: Charles Tait Photographic
THE GREAT mound of Maeshowe has dominated the skyline of Orkney for almost 5,000 years. It is a spectacular sight and a visit to the chambered tomb provides one of the highlights for visitors to the Orkney islands. Today, as we stoop to enter and walk down the low 11 metre passage to the chamber with its massive stonework, we are reminded of the ingenuity of those original builders.
Its apparent uniformity masks a long and complex history of change. The story of Maeshowe began at midwinter around 3,000 BC and even today it is the winter solstice that really brings the monument to life.
It was, no doubt, used throughout the year, but the most important time was the midwinter solstice on 21 December. Around this time the setting sun hangs low in the sky and shines directly along the passage to strike across the main chamber into the rear cell. A shaft of light pierces the monument. The angle of the passage is designed to allow a leeway for several days either side of the solstice. So even if midwinter is cloudy, there are likely to be clear days that allow the passage of the sun. The phenomenon attracts people from across the world to this place of ancient worship.
The stone interior of Maeshowe has had many uses over the centuries. Picture: Charles Tait Photographic
Maeshowe is one of the largest burial mounds of Neolithic Europe. It was built by the Stone Age farmers of Neolithic Orkney as a place of ceremony and ritual. We do not know precisely what went on here, but comparison with other sites suggests that it was designed to be visited repeatedly by a select group of the community. It is likely that the rituals involved the dead and that the bones of some were laid to rest here. By the time Maeshowe was re-discovered by archaeologist James Farrer in 1861, the original contents of the chamber had long since disappeared, so piecing together the picture of this great site has been slow.
The earliest remains at Maeshowe comprise a structure, perhaps a small ceremonial centre, about 5,000 years old, which was subsequently levelled and covered with clay to create a circular platform, surrounded by a ditch and bank, and known today as a henge. A setting of tall standing stones was erected next, four of which formed the heart of the great chamber that lay at the centre of the mound that was subsequently built on the platform. The setting of the stones was crucial for they allowed the mound builders to align the passage and chamber with the midwinter sun as it sets to the southwest.
The chamber is impressive, originally standing some five metres high, with three side rooms each roofed with a single flagstone. Where the entrance passage meets the outside world a carefully dressed and pivoted block can act to seal the chamber from the inside. Entry, it seems, was controlled. Architecturally Maeshowe is a masterpiece that must have involved complex engineering just to get the stones into place, but this was not all the mound was carefully designed with layers of turf and clay to prevent damp from penetrating.
Maeshowe lies at the heart of a number of ceremonial settings, all built and used in Neolithic Orkney. This was a focus for the wider prehistoric population of the islands, but the importance of Maeshowe has not decreased with the passing of time. For many centuries the site acted as a focus for burial and the area was once dotted with smaller Bonze Age burial mounds. With the coming of the Vikings, Maeshowe really came into its own again.
Orkney was a thriving part of the Norse world, governed by local Earls who owed allegiance to the king in Norway. In the 12th century, Maeshowe was broken into on more than one occasion. One group of Norsemen, apparently returning from the crusades, sheltered in the tomb during a thunderstorm; others entered for other reasons. Inside the chamber they left their mark: the stone walls are covered by graffiti in the form of runic messages which vary in content from the boastful to the pornographic.
You can view this year's winter solstice over the web at Charles Tait's Maeshowe site. Picture: Charles Tait Photographic
One passage suggests that treasure was removed, which is puzzling because metal was unknown to the original Neolithic users of the monument. It may be that the tomb was used for the burial of a Viking noble. Whatever their motive, Maeshowe caught the imagination of the Norse inhabitants of the islands and the runes here comprise the largest collection outside Scandinavia.
Today, Maeshowe is still important and recognised as a World Heritage Site. There are so many visitors that Historic Scotland, who manages the property, has had to introduce a timed ticketing system. Do not worry if you wish to witness the winter solstice but can't make the journey. Cameras inside the tomb and relayed over the internet mean that anyone can now watch the sun as it enters the chamber, so carefully planned 5,000 years ago and still as fascinating today.
Caroline Wickham-Jones is an archaeologist who lives and works in Orkney.
Maeshowe may show winter solstice?
Excellent artical, thanks.
At Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland there is a similar structure. The difference is that the inner chamber is fully illuminated at sunrise on the winter solstice. It is estimated to have been built around 3200 B.C.
Standing inside cannot help but impress you with the skill and technology of these primitive people. Not only moving and assembling the huge stones, but aligning them perfectly for the desired effect.
This is quite interesting, thanks for the post.
From the articls: "The angle of the passage is designed to allow a leeway for several days either side of the solstice. So even if midwinter is cloudy, there are likely to be clear days that allow the passage of the sun."
Sounds like passive solar to me! Don't have to "worship Gods" to be farmers back then storing food stuffs for the winter. From the article: "It was built by the Stone Age farmers ".
From the article: " We do not know precisely what went on here"
I can't believe that this would be attached to pagan ritual, etc. (WEll yes I can). Ugh.
This is obviously meant to be a FOOD storage facility. Either for the locals or used for military purposes and most likely both.
I concur with your opinion. I've traveled to many place in the world and Orkney is one of the best places I've visited.
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"The angle of the passage is designed to allow a leeway for several days either side of the solstice. So even if midwinter is cloudy, there are likely to be clear days that allow the passage of the sun.IOW, the hole just happens to line up with the week the Solstice takes place (today, not when it was built).
I was trying to find an online source for this, but here goes (from a long ago memory):
On Napoleon's birthday, the sunrise can be seen right in the opening of the L'Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Sounds like great planning, must be intentional, eh? The sunrise does the same thing for 18 days. :')
For those interested in Newgrange, here is some very detailed and interesting info:
.....Maeshowe is one of the largest burial mounds of Neolithic Europe......
I do not think this is a burial mound. There apparently is no evidence today of very ancient burials. There mave been burials there at a later date but I don't think that was the primary purpose.
The purpose of the structure and the enormous labor expense is far more important than a burial. The structure is a solar clock. It is a time telling device. It may or may not be religious but it is likely that the ceremonies associated with the structure were administered by the religious rather than the political leadership.
The presence of similar solar time pieces everywhere in the world is evidence of technology transferred over time all across the human presence on earth.
Really interesting, looks like a great part of history to visit.
Winter solstice bump.
Native Americans here (N. CA) conduct a "world renewal" ceremony each year. It would seem that winter would be the time of extreme hardship to Neolithic people. They would be anxious for long sunny days to return. Solstice marks that turning point. It would seem natural to me that they would have some sort of participatory or symbolic ceremony to entice or ensure the return of sunny days and speed the turn of the season.
Modern society is so removed from total dependence upon the seasons, that it's hard to imagine ancient times when winter meant life or death, depending on whether your fired stayed lit, whether you'd managed to garner enough food for the winter, whether you fell thru an ice crevice while hunting like Otzi....
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