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  Orkney's Chambered Cairns

The development of the chambered cairn

Maeshowe in Snow: Illustration by Sigurd Towrie

As mentioned in the introduction to this section, the designs of Orkney’s chambered cairns changed over the centuries.

From the earliest stalled cairns, there was a shift in style that saw the scale and layout of the structures became more complex.

With the transition from the stalled structures to the round, Maeshowe-style cairns, we can perhaps see a change in ideas and beliefs, and in particular an element of "religious" or secular control being forced on the community.

One theory is that the linear design of the stalled cairns was specifically to allow those gathered outside a clear view to the interior of the structure, and presumably the ceremonies being carried out there. This communal approach, where all had access to the ritual ceremonies, seems to match the remains found within the cairns, which indicate that the community took precedence.

Inside the chamber, the stalled division may have represented a progression, or journey, into the “otherworld”. Did each set of stone dividers representing a doorway that "led" the visitor deeper into the chamber and into specifically symbolic areas? The backslab in the end compartment, for example, has been likened to the final doorway - a gateway to immortality, or the spirit world, that is impassable to the living.

By the late Neolithic, and the time of the Maeshowe-type cairns, the emphasis seems to have shifted. Then, the individual, or at least a smaller group, seems to have taken precedence over the community. The cairn’s central chamber was separated from the outside world by a long, low entrance passage, and therefore less accessible to those outside - both physically and visually.

The progression from the "everyday world" into the Otherworld also appears to have become more pronounced - both symbolically and physically.

Those entering the chamber were practically forced onto their knees as they passed into semi-darkness via the entrance tunnel. At the end, perhaps not just co-incidentally reminiscent of a rebirth, the person emerges into the relative expanse of the main central chamber. There, in the chill, enclosed semi-darkness they have removed themselves from their familiar everyday world and entered the world of their ancestors.

The Maeshowe-type cairns were the pinnacle of tomb development in Orkney and represented the last phase of chambered cairn use. Dating from around 2500BC, Maeshowe was constructed at a time where, in Scotland, the burial of the individual had become more common.

Section Contents
Orkney's Chambered
Building the Cairns
How were they used?
Unstan Ware and Grooved Ware
Were the Cairns Designed for Sound?

Isbister - The Tomb of the Eagles
Cuween Cairn
Quoyness, Sanday
Wideford Hill
Unstan Cairn
Crantit Cairn
Midhowe, Rousay
Taversoe Tuick
Blackhammer Cairn
The Dwarfie Stane

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