There’s something about death.
Graveyards, war memorials, mummified monks, Purgatory Museums … if there’s dead people involved, I’m there. That’s why my 6-year-old son found himself crawling through prehistoric tombs with his dad on remote Scottish islands for his summer vacation.
He loved it, of course. He still has that wonderful sense of adventure children should keep into adulthood. Plus he wasn’t scared in the least. It’s hard to fear death when you assume it doesn’t apply to you. My wife is a bit claustrophobic and so is less into this sort of thing. She prefers stone circles, although she gamely explored the tombs with her crazy husband and son.
What appealed to him, and me, was the spooky, silent darkness of these prehistoric tombs and the strange texture of the stones. That’s why I love this photo by Paddy Patterson. It shows the Tomb of the Eagles on the Orkney island of South Ronaldsay just off the north coast of Scotland. This image highlights the almost fleshy texture of the rock and the dank, dark interior.
Orkney is full of Neolithic tombs. As I mentioned in my previous post in this series, Orkney was home to a flourishing Stone Age culture 5,000 years ago. These people buried their dead in large subterranean tombs with several side chambers that were reused over several generations. The Tomb of the Eagles was one of the biggest and gets its name from the many eagle bones found inside.
Our visit started at the museum nearby, where a docent passed around artifacts found at the site and showed us the skulls of the people buried there. Life was hard back then and those who survived childhood rarely made it past their 30s. One woman’s skull showed an abscess the size of marble. Strangely, it never got infected. Her teeth showed signs of wear consistent with chewing on leather, a crude but effective way of softening it up for use. Since the traditional method of curing leather required soaking it in urine, and urine is a natural disinfectant, perhaps her abscess never got infected because she was chewing on urine-soaked leather all day. The good old days? I think not.
%Gallery-161068%While the museum was great, I must admit I was a bit disappointed by the tomb itself. It was unprofessionally excavated by a local farmer who tore off the entire roof to get inside. Now it’s been covered with a concrete cap that reduces the whole effect. Hopefully someone will provide the funds to restore the roof someday.
A much smaller but almost perfectly preserved tomb is Cuween Hill on Orkney Mainland. Overlooking the road between Kirkwall and Finstown, it has a central chamber and four side chambers. My son and I had to crawl inside through a tiny entrance passage. When we got there, we found someone had lit candles at the entrances to each of the side chambers.
“Why did they do that?” my son asked.
“Because they’re respecting the ancestors,” I replied. “Leave them alone. We’re going to respect their respect.”
“OK,” he replied. “Just don’t burn yourself when you crawl over them.”
My son knows me well enough to know that a little bit of fire won’t stop me from exploring an ancient tomb.
What struck me about this tomb was how well it was made. There was no mortar; it was simply made from rectangular slabs of rock cleverly stacked atop one another to form arches, doorways and passages. A lot of care went into their final resting place.
Besides human remains, archaeologists discovered 24 dog skulls in Cuween Hill, prompting witty locals to call it the “Tomb of the Beagles.” Another tomb had otter bones. Perhaps each group had their own communal tomb and totem animal.
Orkney’s most famous Neolithic tomb is Maeshowe. Built around 2700 B.C. within sight of two stone circles and at least two major settlements, it appeared as a massive artificial hill 30 meters (100 feet) around and 11 meters (36 feet) high. It was surrounded by a ditch and earthen embankment, something also found around many stone circles.
Entering through a long, low passageway, we soon were able to stand and admire a central chamber fashioned much the same way as Cuween Hill but on a much grander scale. The passageway was acted as more than an entrance. For a few days around the midwinter solstice, the setting sun shines through the passage and onto the back wall. If you don’t want to brave the Orkney winter, you can watch it on a webcam.
Maeshowe’s walls are covered in Viking graffiti. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, on Christmas Day 1153, a group of Vikings were making their way to a nearby port in order to sail off to the Crusades. A sudden storm blew up and the Vikings broke into the tomb to find shelter. To pass the time, they wrote runes on the walls. Most of these are prosaic, like “Tryggr carved these runes.” One fellow showed off by writing in two rare styles of Runic. Those who could read it were rewarded with the boast, “These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean.”
Another hints at a buried treasure: “Crusaders broke into Maeshowe. Lif the earl’s cook carved these runes. To the north-west is a great treasure hidden. It was long ago that a great treasure was hidden here. Happy is he that might find that great treasure. Hakon alone bore treasure from this mound,” signed “Simon Sirith.”
For a complete listing of the graffiti, check this link.
Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”
Coming up next: “Shapinsay: Visiting A Wee Scottish Island!”