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Maeshowe (or Maes Howe) (Norse: Orkhaug) is a Neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave situated on Mainland, Orkney, Scotland. 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 almost square chamber measuring about 15 feet on each side}[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.

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