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!”

Petra: Beyond The Treasury

Without a doubt the most famous destination in the entire country of Jordan is Petra. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, Petra is well known for its impressively detailed structures that are carved directly into the sandstone rock faces that are so prevalent throughout the area. The most famous of those structures is a building known as the Treasury, which has become very well known to travelers across the globe. Photos of the Treasury have become so iconic in fact that many people now mistakenly believe that it is Petra. But in reality the site is a vast complex of tombs, temples and other structures that make up an ancient city, of which the Treasury simply marks the entrance.

The origins of Petra can be traced back to the 6th century B.C., when a formerly nomadic tribe known as the Nabataeans decided to occupy the site and make it their capital. The narrow canyons that lead into the place made it easy to defend and its relatively central location was important to their plans of establishing a trade-empire. Several large and important caravan routes passed through the region and over the centuries the Nabataeans managed to leverage their geographical position into becoming major players in the silk and spice trade. As their wealth grew, so too did Petra.

Visitors to the site today must still navigate a long and twisting canyon, known as the Siq, just to arrive at the entrance to Petra. Walking that narrow gorge offers few clues to what awaits ahead, although several basic structures can still be spotted carved into the rock. Perhaps most noticeable are the two stone channels that run along portions of the canyon walls. Those channels were originally used to collect fresh water and deliver it to the city, helping to provide a steady supply for its citizens.Running about a kilometer in length, the Siq unexpectedly ends in dramatic fashion. The narrow gorge suddenly gives way to a much larger canyon with the Treasury prominently on display in the middle. Visitors are immediately struck by that structure’s impressive features, which include a massive open doorway, multiple columns and intricate stonework. Those carvings reveal the influence of a number of cultures, including the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians, each of which were important trading partners of the Nabataeans.

As you can imagine, this is indeed an amazing and humbling sight that seldom fails to leave visitors in awe of what the Nabataeans have built. If those visitors were to linger in that spot for a time and then simply turn around and hike back through the Siq, I have no doubt that they would leave Petra completely satisfied with their visit. If they were to do that, however, they would also miss out on dozens of other wonders that are contained within the city, most of which are unknown to travelers before they arrive.

Just to the right of the Treasury lies another passage that turns downward into a widening valley below. Broader than the Siq, this canyon was a more prominent road that was once used by the citizens of Petra as they went about their daily lives. Walking that road gradually reveals the true breadth of the place, with dozens of tombs, residences, a Roman temple and amphitheater and numerous other structures being revealed. Those buildings are all carved out of sandstone and vary widely in their condition. None are nearly as well preserved as the Treasury, but most have the added benefit of allowing visitors to actually enter the buildings and explore the interiors as well.

Surprisingly enough, most of Petra is open for visitors to walk through, with ancient staircases providing access to structures that were carved out of rock on some of the higher plateaus. On busy days you’ll find that those areas are teeming with visitors who meander in and out of the buildings as they admire the architecture and engineering that has allowed most of them to stand for more than 2000 years. For history buffs in particular, it is a real treat to be able to get so close to these monuments.

Exploring those places is definitely interesting and can absorb the better part of your day, but the two most impressive locations are not found amongst those ruins and require a bit more effort to reach. The first of these sites is known as the High Place of Sacrifice and as the name implies, you’ll have to do a bit of climbing (not to mention sacrificing!) just to get to it. Accessing the sacred place requires a hike up the more than 700 steps but those who make the effort are rewarded with a fantastic view of the entire city. From the High Place of Sacrifice visitors will get a true sense of the size and scope of Petra and gain an even deeper appreciation of what the Nabataeans accomplished there.

Even more impressive, however, is the Monastery, a building that more than rivals the Treasury in size and grandeur. Built upon a high plateau, visitors to this wonder must first negotiate a climb of more than 900 steps. Those that survive the hike will be treated not only to an amazingly large and well-preserved structure, but some of the most spectacular views in all of Jordan. There are several scenic overlooks near the Monastery itself and they are worth the effort alone. The fact that Petra has saved its most impressive secret for last is simply icing on the cake.

Petra is one of those destinations that many people feel they know long before they ever arrive. It has served as the backdrop for countless films, television shows and books, and has even been named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. But even knowing all of that I was unprepared for what I found when I visited the place. It was far larger, and grander, than I had ever imagined and it is one of those rare places that exceeds expectations.

If you plan to visit Jordan, then without question Petra has to be on your itinerary. If you have the time and flexibility in your schedule, then I would recommend purchasing the two-day pass. It costs just $5 more and allows you to explore at a more leisurely pace. I’d also recommend that you plan on arriving to the site as soon as it opens at 6 a.m. The solitude that it provides makes for an even more magical experience.

Exploring the must-see sites of Tohoku, Japan

In the twentieth century, tourism was a major industry in Tohoku, Japan, due to its array of unique cultural offerings and beautiful landscape. However, on March 11, 2011, the region suffered much damage due to a devastating earthquake and tsunami. Now, a year later, the area is recovering nicely, and travelers will have no problem visiting the museums, parks, mountains, hot springs, and heritage sites of Tohoku.

So what exactly does Tohoku have to offer? For starters, it is an excellent place to learn about an untouched side of Japan. In fact, in the late 1800s, writer and naturalist Isabella Bird was so moved by the region’s natural beauty, she nicknamed it “Japan’s Garden of Eden.” Additionally, there is something for everyone. Adventure travelers will love trekking the Kitayamazaki Cliffs, exploring Rikuchu Kaigan National Park and spelunking in the Ryusendo Caves. If you’re looking for comfort, relax in one of the natural and curative hot springs. History buff? Museums, castles, sacred temples, and excavation sites abound.

To get a better idea of the beauty, culture, and history that Tohoku has to offer, check out the gallery below.


10 things you probably didn’t know about Holland

While Holland is well known for its bright flowers, the canals of Amsterdam, and wooden shoes, there are still many surprises to discover about this region. To help expand your knowledge, here are some things you probably didn’t know about Holland.

1. Rotterdam is the only Dutch city with a true skyline. In fact, it is so impressive the area is known as “Manhattan on the Meuse.” In terms of architecture, Rotterdam has a superb reputation, making it no wonder that the Netherlands Architecture Institute was also founded here.

2. Holland is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Schokland, the D.F. Wouda Steam Pumping Station, Wadden Sea, the Defense Line of Amsterdam, the Beemster Polder, the Rietveld Schröder House, the Mills of Kinderdijk, and the canals of Amsterdam.

3. In the late 16th century, gin was invented under the name jenever in the Netherlands and was sold as medicine.

4. Dutch people are the tallest in the world with the men averaging 6 feet 1 inch and women 5 feet 6 and one half inches tall.

5. The Dutch love cheese. Annually, they consume about 32 pounds of it.

6. Holland has more museums than any other region in the world. In fact, Amsterdam alone is home to over 50 of them.

7. In Holland, it is common for families to hang a Dutch flag and school bag outside their homes when children pass their exams.

8. Almost every person, regardless of class or status in Holland, owns a bike and there is double the amount of bikes as cars.

9. While Holland is known for its tulips, they were originally brought from Turkey in the 16th century.

10. Once every ten years, one of the largest horticultural events in the world takes place in Holland, Floriade. Luckily, the event will be taking place this year from April 5 to October 7 in Venlo.

For a more visual idea of Holland’s unique culture, check out the gallery below.


A photo tour of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Brazil

Brazil, a diversely landscaped and picturesque country in South America, is the home to many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. While beauty isn’t necessarily a requirement for being added to the list, you will see in the gallery below that many times these sites are absolutely breathtaking.

While not every UNESCO World Heritage Site in Brazil is on the list, you will be able to explore:

  • Brasilia– This capital city was created in 1956 and was planned in such a way that every element of the city is constructed in a harmonious design.
  • Brazilian Atlantic Island: Fernando de Noronha– This island features more tropical seabirds than anywhere else in the Western Atlantic and its waters are an important breeding place for various marine mammals, tuna, sharks, and turtles.
  • Central Amazon Conservation Complex 1– This is one of the most bountiful places on Earth in terms of biodiversity and is also the biggest protected area in the Amazon Basin.
  • Cerrado Protected Area: Chapada dos Veadeiros– This site plays an important role in preserving the biodiversity of one of the oldest and most unique topical ecosystems, the Cerrado.
  • Historic Centre of Salvador de Bahia-This was actually the original capital of Brazil from 1549 to 1763 and was also the first slave market in the New World.
  • Historic Centre of the Town of Diamantina– This colonial village sits in the midst of rocky mountains and blends into its untamed landscape. Another reason for addition into the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, according to the official website, is because “explorers of the Brazilian territory, diamond prospectors, and representatives of the Crown were able to adapt European models to an American context in the 18th century, thus creating a culture that was faithful to its roots yet completely original”.
  • Historic Town of Ouro Preto– This town was founded in the 17th century and was a major focus during the gold rush and 18th century golden age. Today, much of the cities past still remains through its architecture.
  • Iguaçu National Park– Here you will find one of the most picturesque and astonishing waterfalls in the world. The area also features many “rare and endangered species of flora and fauna”.
  • Pantanal Conservation Area– This site features four protected areas, myriad wild animals and diverse flora, and one of the biggest freshwater wetland ecosystems on Earth.