Prehistoric Tombs And Viking Graffiti In Orkney, Scotland


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!”

The Kensington Runestone and other Viking mysteries in America

When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher asked me what I thought was an easy question.

“Who discovered America?”

“The Indians!” I replied.

My teacher frowned at me and asked, “No, what EUROPEAN discovered America?”

“Oh, Leif Erikson. He was a Viking.”

Obviously annoyed, my teacher told me, “No! COLUMBUS discovered America.”

“But the Vikings came here in the year 1000. Columbus didn’t arrive until 1492.”

“COLUMBUS DISCOVERED AMERICA!!!”

I learned two important lessons that day: (1) self-appointed experts are often wrong, and (2) showing you know more than an authority figure is a good way to get into trouble.

Growing up, I was always fascinated with the possibility that ancient civilizations in the “New” and “Old” Worlds had contact with one another. Ocean currents and trade winds make it fairly easy to cross the Atlantic. Surviving the voyage is another matter. Certainly, boats from one side of the ocean would occasionally get blown off course and end up on the other. Their crews would probably be dead by then and their arrival on a foreign shore would have had little effect on the civilizations that discovered their remains.

But what about ancient explorers? There was no shortage of civilizations with ocean-going capability: the Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Chinese, etc. Did they visit America? Did Native Americans visit Asia, Europe, and Africa?Sadly, other than the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, there is no hard proof for Pre-columbian contact. Though, that hasn’t stopped people from looking. A range of researchers, including professional archaeologists, dedicated amateurs and outright quacks, have searched for evidence that other contacts occurred.

The evidence looks a bit thin. There are plenty of supposedly “Old World” artifacts in North and South America. Some are laughably bad fakes. Others are misinterpreted Native American artifacts or even natural objects. One artifact, though, has kept scholars arguing for more than a century.

Kensington Runestone, courtesy George T. FlomThe Kensington Runestone was supposedly discovered in 1898 in Minnesota by Swedish-American farmer Olof Ohman. This rectangular stone slab is covered on two sides by Runic writing, the script of the Vikings. The translation goes:

“Eight Götalanders and 22 Northmen on (this?) acquisition journey from Vinland far to the west. We had a camp by two (shelters?) one day’s journey north from this stone. We were fishing one day. After we came home, found 10 men red from blood and dead. Ave Maria save from evil. There are 10 men by the inland sea to look after our ships fourteen days journey from this peninsula (or island). Year 1362”

Vinland is the Viking name for the area they explored in North America. Götaland is a region of Sweden. It wouldn’t be strange for Vikings to write “Ave Maria” in 1362 because they had converted to Christianity by then. Most supporters of the stone believe the inscription is proof that Vikings ventured inland from their coastal settlements.

Runic experts say it’s a modern fake, pointing out that the language is simply 19th century Swedish written in an ancient script. For example, the text lacks the case endings and plural forms that were common in the Middle Ages but had died out in modern Swedish. Runic alphabets were widely published in the 19th century and it was later reported that Ohman had one in his possession. Archaeologists also point out that the inscription looks too fresh to be more than 600 years old.

There has been much nit-picking back and forth about specific Runic letters, weathering on stone, styles of 14th century Swedish, etc. The vast majority of linguists and archaeologists believe it’s fake, while the locals in the area where it was found support it enough to have opened the Runestone Museum and Kensington Runestone Park. This being an area with a large Scandinavian-American population, the idea that Vikings settled here has obvious appeal.

Another intriguing find is the Maine penny. Minted in Norway between A.D. 1065 and 1080, this small silver coin was discovered at a prehistoric Native American village in Penobscot Bay, Maine. It’s now housed in the Maine State Museum. Whether the Vikings visited this site is debatable. The penny may have made its way down the coast as a trade item.

There are other purported runestones in the United States. Two of them, the AVM Runestone and the Elbow Lake Runestone, were later admitted to be fakes by their creators. The Heavener Runestone, found in Oklahoma, is often purported to be genuine in alternative publications, but is written in an old style of Runic that was no longer used by the time the Vikings were voyaging west to Greenland and North America. Two smaller stones with fragmentary inscriptions were found in the same area. The Poteau Runestone, also from Oklahoma, is written in a mix of two Runic alphabets and is even less convincing. Yet another Oklahoma find, the Shawnee Runestone, has an inscription that looks too fresh to be medieval.

The Heavener Runestone State Park in Oklahoma has a small museum dedicated to these curious objects.

Shawnee Runestone

Did the Vikings explore the interior of North America? Take a road trip to Minnesota and Oklahoma and decide for yourself, basing your conclusion on facts and evidence rather than personal bias. And don’t let your fifth-grade teacher browbeat you into her way of thinking. Columbus did NOT discover America!

Photo of Kensington Runestone courtesy George T. Flom. Photo of Shawnee Runestone courtesy Heironymous Rowe.