Maeshowe (HY315128), considered to be one of the finest architectural achievements of prehistoric Europe, is across the road from Tormiston Mill (HY319126). The mound, 35m in diameter and 7m high, consists mostly of packed stones and clay, with an inner layer of stones around the chamber itself. This chambered cairn was constructed with great care, the large dressed slabs being carefully set together and finished. The chamber is 4.5m square and about the same in height. A tapered orthostat faces each corner buttress giving an impression of space and strength. The whole impression is of majesty and the idea of a "Neolithic cathedral" comes to mind.
There are three cells within the walls which were sealed with stone blocks now on the floor, while the entrance passage, 14.5m long and 1.4m high, is lined with huge slabs, the largest weighing over 3 tonnes. When opened in 1861, it was empty bar a piece of human skull. Whether it was ever used for permanent burial is thus unknown. The fact that the blocking stone at the entry to the passage seems to be designed to be shut from the inside perhaps suggests that activities took place within the chamber, possibly at midwinter.
Maeshowe is the most spectacular and biggest of the Maeshowe-type chambered cairns. The quality of the construction, and size of the sandstone blocks used, together with the precision in quarrying and stone-cutting would tax the best builders today. Note how the orthostats at each corner appear to be free-standing and how much they resemble the monoliths at the Ring of Brodgar.
Maeshowe was built on a levelled area of ground with a surrounding bank and ditch, peat from the bottom of which has been dated at 2750 BC, which makes it contemporary with the Ring of Brodgar, The Standing Stones of Stenness and Skara Brae. Since no artefacts were found when this impressive tomb was opened in 1861, little can be deduced about its usage. The fact that the surrounding bank may have been rebuilt in Norse times gives a tantalizing suggestion of reuse in the 9th century. The Vikings entered the mound during the 12th century and have left one of the largest collections of runes anywhere, as well as carvings of a dragon, a serpent and a walrus.
Several other sites have associations with the winter solstice and in this case the setting sun shines directly down the passage of Maeshowe, illuminating the back wall and passage in a dramatic fashion for a few minutes. The sun sets directly over the Barnhouse Stone (HY313122) on the shortest day. The discovery of a socket for a standing stone between the mound and the ditch suggests that what we see today is only a part of what was originally there, further adding to the enigma of purpose and use.
Tormiston Mill now belongs to Historic Scotland, and apart from tickets for Maeshowe visits, it has interpretation information on the tomb and a shop selling local crafts, books and cards. There is a restaurant upstairs.