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Treasure in the howe?

Maeshowe Painting: Sigurd Towrie

After lying undisturbed for over a millennium, in the middle of the 12th century AD, a group of Norsemen broke into Maeshowe.

These tomb-breakers carved runic inscriptions across the walls of the central chamber. Of these, a number refer to a great treasure the tomb was said to contain.

Maeshowe’s fabled treasure has proved to be something of an enigma. It is certain that a Stone Age burial chamber would not contain the gold and silver these Norsemen would have regarded as "treasure", so what was it?

For years, the runic references to treasure were explained away as a mere tale - a boast dreamt up by the Norsemen.

However, an interesting and plausible hypothesis is that the tomb may have been used as a burial place for a Viking chieftain during the early days of the Norse settlement in Orkney.

If this were the case it would neatly explain the graffiti referring to the treasure being removed from Maeshowe. This treasure, if it existed, was not the property of the Neolithic builders but could have been Viking grave goods.

The idea that Maeshowe was reused is strengthened by the fact that archaeological evidence has confirmed that the outer bank of the tomb was rebuilt in sometime during the 9th century.

The reuse of Maeshowe would also explain the lack of human remains found in the cairn during the 1861 excavation. Had the early Norse settlers decided to take over the howe to bury one of their elders, it seems obvious that they would first clear out any old remains first.

The adoption of Maeshowe by a family of Norse settlers also ties in with the folklore surrounding the site, particularly in relation to the tales of its powerful Hogboon.

Among the runic inscriptions that refer to the elusive treasure are:

"To the north-west is a great treasure hidden." "Happy is he who might find the great treasure."

"It is long ago that a great treasure lay hidden here."

"Hakon alone bore the treasure out of this mound."

"It is certain and true as I say, that the treasure has been moved from here. The treasure was taken away three nights before they {opened the mound}."

"Is to me said that treasure is here hidden very well."