A hearth in Maeshowe?

Antiquarian sketch suggests there might be more to 5,000-year-old chamber than we see today


The 19th century sketch showing the interior of Maeshowe after it was cleared of ‘rubbish’ in 1861. The stone feature that could represent a prehistoric hearth is clearly visible in the centre of the chamber. (Picture courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive)

A nineteenth century sketch has a local archaeologist pondering whether there was once a hearth inside Maeshowe.

The undated, anonymous sketch is held at the Orkney Library and Archive and was spotted by Nick Card, of the UHI Archaeology Institute, after being posted on the archive’s blog.

The pencil drawing shows the interior of Maeshowe “after excavation”, with three gentlemen, flanked by two ladies, standing on top of the 5,000-year-old chamber looking in.

But it is what appears to be on the floor of the Neolithic structure that has aroused interest.
Directly opposite the entrance passage are what look like three long slabs forming three sides of a square.

To anyone who has visited Skara Brae, or even the Stones of Stenness, this arrangement will be very familiar. So, did Maeshowe once have a hearth?

Mr Card said: “Although we don’t know the date of the sketch, it is likely that it shows the interior of Maeshowe soon after its ‘excavation’ by James Farrer in 1861.

“Because the entrance was blocked, the excavators entered the prehistoric cairn by breaking through the roof.

“The sketch must have been made at the point when the bulk of the rubble and infill had been removed, apart from the blocking stones for the side chambers, two of which are clearly visible.

“But it is the feature that appears to be a hearth that is particularly interesting. Although it is possible that the three slabs could just be remnants of the collapsed roof, they bear a remarkable resemblance to the hearths typical of the Neolithic in Orkney.”

He added: “Although appearing askew to the major alignment of the chamber and passage, this could just be a matter of artistic perspective.

“If it is a hearth, could it relate to the original use of Maeshowe? Alternatively, it could be part of an earlier structure under Maeshowe, just as Professor Colin Richards considered in light of his excavations outside the chambered cairn in 1991.”

Back then, Professor Richards revealed the remains of a stone-paved pathway — which covered a stone drain — directly outside the present entrance to the Maeshowe. This, together with the evidence of occupation also found, led to the conclusion that these were the remnants of a house that pre-dated the construction of Maeshowe.

Mr Card added: “Whatever the explanation, it is an intriguing mystery — which may still survive just below the gravel presently covering the floor of the chamber.”

James Farrer “excavated” Maeshowe in July 1861.

Work began on Saturday, July 6, and initially focused on the entrance passage. It soon became clear, however, that the excavation team was not going to gain access this way.

Farrer wrote: “This passage was covered over with large flagstones, one of which, having been with some difficulty upraised, we effected an entrance, but found a considerable accumulation of earth and stones, which was removed on the following day, and Mr Wilson, after careful examination, in which his engineering experience was of the highest importance, agreed to my suggestion that the excavation should be proceeded with from the centre of the hillock.”

So they went in through the top.

And once they had gained access, they didn’t hang about.

According to Farrer’s brief excavation report, it took a “few days’ labour” to clear out the “rubbish” filling the chamber.

But although he did make the connection between the chamber’s side chambers and their blocking stones, he makes no mention of a hearth.

But that may be for the simple reason that the excavators had other things on their minds — “ . . . long ere [the rubble removal] was accomplished, the keen eye of Mr Joseph Robertson discovered the first of the runic inscriptions,” wrote Farrer.

In their obvious rush to clear “the mass of ruins filling up the interior”, it would not be at all surprising if any evidence of a hearth was hastily cleared away with the rest of the stone slabs — particularly, if, as the sketch suggests, the hearth was skewed and didn’t seem to relate obviously to the internal architecture of the chamber.

While it might seem strange to include a fireplace inside a tomb, the hearth had a major role in the life of our Stone Age ancestors.

The hearth inside one of the houses at Skara Brae.

The hearth inside one of the houses at Skara Brae.

Fire provided warmth and illumination and, not surprisingly, the hearth was the centre of domestic and social life.

Its importance for the maintenance of life seems to have led to the hearth acquiring symbolic significance.

For example, while excavating the Barnhouse Settlement in the 1980s, Professor Richards discovered that the houses’ hearths were arranged on the same alignment — to the midsummer sunrise and sunset and midwinter sunrise and sunset — and that they were often reused when a new structure was constructed.

It is this symbolic function that may account for examples of hearth settings found in decidedly non-domestic locations.

The best-known example of this is at the centre of the Stones of Stenness. But at Barnhouse’s Structure Eight, a short distance away, a hearth was incorporated into the narrow entrance passage, but had been paved over.

The hearth in the middle of the Stones of Stenness was, according to Professor Richards, carefully transplanted from the outskirts of the Barnhouse village to the centre of the ring.
This, he suggested, was to create a tangible link to the people who had gone before — the ancestors.

The massive hearth at the centre of the Standing Stones of Stenness.

The massive hearth at the centre of the Standing Stones of Stenness.

Looking again at the 1973/74 excavation report, Professor Richards also suggested that “the remains of an almost square structure” to the north of the surviving hearth was probably the site of a second, which had been dismantled in prehistory.

Around this second hearth was a distinct spread of stone slabs, which he also suggested was the remains of an outer wall of a large building similar to Barnhouse’s Structure Eight.

Geophysics scans of the ring’s interior, in 2003, were inconclusive, so the possibility remains that a building once stood on the site.

Back over at Maeshowe, Professor Richards has no doubt that the choice of site was “clearly influenced” by the earlier Neolithic building that had once stood there.

It is also possible that this site was then home to a stone circle, which would account for the megaliths that were deliberately incorporated into the fabric of Maeshowe.

The four massive stones at each corner of Maeshowe’s central chamber have no practical purpose and were not required in its construction.

Instead, the structure was carefully built to encase the four megaliths. In addition, the slabs used to line the entrance chamber may also have once been standing stones.

An excavation outside the chamber, in 1996, again by Professor Richards, saw the discovery of a socket-hole on a platform to the rear of the mound.

The depth of this hole suggested that the standing stone it once held was of a “far greater size and height” than those at the Stones of Stenness and Brodgar.

Although we just don’t know if there were more than this stone — if a stone circle existed before Maeshowe, the other socket holes will be masked by the clay platform created to build the chambered cairn on — if there were, it is not inconceivable that the stone circle also contained a central hearth, a hearth that was later, like the stone giants, incorporated into the new building.

But there’s a fly in the ointment.

Professor Richards is clear that the hearth — “a potent symbol that embodied the warmth of life” — was “not appropriate within the context of death.”

So if the sketch does show a hearth in Maeshowe, what does that mean?

Perhaps it’s time to scrap the label “tomb” and look at Maeshowe as something more — a structure whose role was much more than a mere repository for the dead.

While Professor Richards felt that a hearth had no place in a tomb, in light of the discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar, should we now be looking at Maeshowe as more than just a burial chamber?

Not only were no remains — other than a few fragments of skull — found in the chamber,

Maeshowe stands apart from other tombs in the county. It is, for example, the only example we have which was specifically built to encase a set of four standing stones.

The term “house of the dead” has been used for some time because of the architectural similarities between chambered cairns and domestic houses.

Perhaps Maeshowe took this concept to its pinnacle and was created as a monumental dwelling for the ancestors — a house that included a hearth.

While the hearths burned brightly elsewhere, including at the centre of the Stones of Stenness, did the hearth at Maeshowe lie cold, empty and dead? A memory of those who had gone before?

When we consider that the hearths in the houses of the living were aligned to the solstices, was the inclusion of a hearth in Maeshowe — a structure that had been carefully and expertly aligned to the midwinter solstice — an extension of that?

If the chamber did once contain a hearth, it is tempting, although probably fanciful, to ponder whether the fireplace lay cold and empty until the last rays of the dying winter sun illuminated the chamber.

Then, and only then, in the darkest depths of an Orkney winter, were the flames rekindled?

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