Neolithic Orkney 1 – the Ness of Brodgar and Maeshowe

Blognote – In the interest of shorter blog posts to cater to ever-diminishing attention spans (not least of which is my own!), here is the first of several posts about the Neolithic sites on Orkney.

With all the known settlements and stone monuments sprinkled around Orkney and the grand expanse of its mostly undeveloped geography, it should be no surprise that more are still being discovered/uncovered. The Ness of Brodgar, unearthed in 2003, promises to be the largest and quite possibly the oldest Orcadian gem yet (3500 BC) – older than Skara Brae  (3200 BC) and even older than that most iconic of stone heaps, Stonehenge (variously dated between 200 and 3100 BC). A huge sprawl of what may be a temple complex, it sits more or less at the center of a two mile long string of other Neolithic sites between the lochs of Harray and Stenness. The dig is only worked on for a couple of months each year, possibly due to funding issues – the weather ain’t all that bad – or perhaps to minimize disruptive levels of traffic since it’s on private property – and had closed up for 2014 only a few days before my visit, hence this one (slightly blurry) photo from the bus as we lumbered past. A side note – the property where the Ness lies belongs to Ola Gorie, a jewelry designer I’ve admired for more than twenty years. Who knew?

Ness of Brodgar archaeological dig

Ness of Brodgar archaeological dig


Just down the road and around the corner from the Ness is Maeshowe, a grass-covered multi-chambered Neolithic cairn sitting at the center of a banked ditch and dating to around 2800 BC, based on similarities to other datable structures nearby. The interior walls are decorated with a whole raft of (relatively) recent Viking graffiti – 12th century AD. Even more intriguing is the probability that another, much older structure lies beneath these chambered stones. The Viking graffiti – runic writing and a teensy animal called the Maeshowe Dragon – were carved into the rock walls when Vikings broke into the tomb to shelter from a nasty snowstorm. (If you click on the link at the top of this paragraph, make sure you also click on the link there for the translations of the runes – many are on the order of “Kilroy was here” – too funny!)  The entrance to the central chamber is a 30-plus foot long stone-lined passage, about 4 and a half feet high. This is the only way in, the hole in the roof where the Vikings entered having been sealed up, and it’s a looong, slow scuttle to make doubled over, Igor-like. Even if people were much shorter when this tomb was ‘new’, it must have been a (literal) pain inna neck to enter. The main chamber is about 15 ft by 15 with a ceiling of around 12 feet and the runes crawl horizontally and vertically up and around the stones. The sunlight streams through the entry passage to light up the interior especially during the winter; the most direct light comes in at sunset on the winter solstice.

No photography was allowed while we were inside, hence the need for the links. The drawing of the dragon (also called a lion) below is taken from one of the descriptive panels near the entrance.

Maes Howe tomb

Maes Howe tomb


drawing of the Maes Howe dragon

drawing of the Maeshowe dragon

One final thought – I suspect this site is not included in the usual day tour of Orkney from the Scottish mainland because it is really, really tiny and can only be seen at pre-booked times using the site’s own guide, something to consider if you plan to take an escorted tour – make sure you check which sites are included. It would be impossible to cram a busload of tourists into the space in one go and having to split into multiple groups would make it hard to fit Maeshowe into the usually tight schedules of bus tours. It would also likely prevent anyone else from getting in, given that entry to the site is only once per hour.

I’m thankful to Lance, a fellow travel blogger (and a terrific storyteller, btw; you should visit his blog), for alerting me to the value of this spot, else I might’ve missed it. As things turned out, I spent a couple of nights in Orkney on my own and booked a local taxi to take me to Maeshowe and a couple of other sites I still wanted to visit. Yes, that was expensive, but my time was limited, so the cab waited for me a couple of times, only leaving once to take another fare and returning after I called for a pickup.

Look for additional posts with more Orcadian must-see locations coming soon, I hope.

This entry was posted in All Suzanne's travels, Archaeology in Europe, Orkney travel, Scotland, UK and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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