State-of-the-art technology was brought in by Historic Scotland scientists concerned for the future of Maeshowe and Skara Brae. Interim results for Maeshowe have suggested that visitor numbers are not a problem, Steve Watt, district architect with Historic Scotland explained.
“The interesting thing for Maeshowe is that the environmental concerns in the tomb are more or less the same as in other tombs, with regard to the humidity and dampness.”
He continued: “Visitor numbers would not seem to be causing a problem initially, which is a little surprising, but this is only the first half of the survey.
“It is such a massive tomb, its fabric can maybe take more of the effect of visitors and temperature fluctuations.”
Maeshowe, which appears as a large, grassy mound beside the main Kirkwall to Stromness road in Stenness, was built about 2,700 BC from huge Orkney flagstones – some of which weigh up to 30 tonnes – and clay.
The main chamber is about 4.5 metres square with buttresses in each corner.
Although a burial chamber, when the tomb was excavated, the side chambers were found to contain only a fragment of a human skull and some horse bones.
Perhaps one of Maeshowe’s most famous attributes is one it shares with the prehistoric chambered tomb of Newgrange in Ireland – a midwinter alignment.
As the dying light of the sun slips below the horizon at the winter solstice, the last rays of the light shine directly through the tomb’s entrance passage to strike the rear wall of the central chamber.
Small recording devices are being used to record information on temperature and relative humidity and take a reading once every minute. Photogrammetry – a process of measurement by photography – is being used to tell whether the stones are moving or decreasing and if cracks are appearing.
The results of investigations at the Stone Age village of Skara Brae have still to be analysed, Mr Watt said.
“We will keep on monitoring and are going to complete in the first half of 2004, that will allow us to look at all the data,” he added
The village overlooks the Atlantic ocean at the Bay of Skaill on Orkney’s West Mainland and, as such, is exposed to the elements, including salt water.