One of the greatest architectural achievement of Scotland's Neolithic builders has to be the 5000 year old chambered tomb of Maes Howe in Orkney. The builders of the chambered cairn known as Maes Howe put a lot of effort into its construction.
First a knoll on the edge of their fields was cleared and levelled off. Huge stones weighing up to 30 tons were dragged to the site and carefully constructed into a finely finished tomb of precision masonry without mortar.
Then the whole structure was sealed in clay and stone and covered over by a circular mound of earth over 8m/26ft high and 38m/123ft in diameter. A standing stone was erected next to it and they dug out a ditch 14m/45ft across, with a bank rising next to it to mark it as a sacred space.
These Neolithic farmers probably lived at the nearby settlements of Barnhouse or Skara Brae and worshiped at the Stones of Stenness.
Maes Howe was the house of the dead – the house of the ancestors. To enter, one would have had to open the tomb by pushing aside a huge block which sealed the entrance, and, stooping, clamber down the dark, stone-lined passageway that led to the cool, central chamber – 4.7m/15ft wide and 4.5m/14ft high in the heart of the mound.
Off the central chamber were three recesses that were blocked by boulders. In this space the bones of the ancestors were kept, however, when archaeologists entered the tomb 4, 500 years later, only one small fragment of a human skull was found.
The Neolithic farmers may have brought their dead ancestors out for special ceremonies or decisions: to invoke the authority of their spirits.
The tomb has been specially aligned with the midwinter sunset. Once a year the sun's rays reach down the passageway and strike the back wall of the tomb, perhaps bringing life to the house of the dead, but certainly marking the death of the old year and birth of the new one – a symbolic gesture showing that the turning of the seasons was a mark of the cycles of life and death. Perhaps this was the time of year when Maes Howe was re-opened.
Over the centuries many people have tried to dig into Maes Howe looking for treasure. Oliver Cromwell's troops tried in the 1650's, but failed. However, earlier raiders did get in. They were the Vikings and they carved their runes to prove it. They might have reused the tomb as a burial mound in the ninth century when its outer bank was rebuilt. If they did, they would have cleared out any Neolithic remains they found.
The Icelandic Orkneyinga Saga, written around 1200 AD, tells us that Harald Maddadarson, son of the Earl of Atholl, was caught in a terrible blizzard during an attack on Orkney. He and three companions sheltered in Maes Howe for three long days waiting for the storm to abate, by the end of which two of the Vikings had been driven completely mad.
Later the same year the Viking crusaders returned and carved their boastful runes into the tombs walls: 'These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the Western ocean...with this axe owned by Gauk Trandilsson in the South of Iceland.'