Maeshowe Neolithic chamber

Tunnels, Treasure and Tombs in Orkney

2,500-Mile Hike, Neolithic, Orkney

It was pitch black as I outstretched my hands, feeling the damp floor. A dank, earthy smell reverberated from the stone walls and my knees felt wet through my trousers. I crawled through the tunnel not daring to lift my head above my shoulders, the thick, stone ceiling just inches above my hair. I reached the end of it and lifted the dim torch upwards. I had entered a tall chamber where I could make out the diamond-shaped roof. I was standing completely alone in a tomb.

“Let’s go back in time. A time before the Incas. A time before the Pyramids. A time before Stonehenge existed.”

There was a second tunnel, going further underground and as low as the first one. I looked back at the entrance, where daylight tried to claw its way inside, beckoning me to it, and I considered not going any further. However, my life long companion, Curiosity, took me by the hand and catapulted me through the darkness. In the few short seconds that I was in the passageway, I imagined what it must have been like for archaeologists excavating, and if they would have felt the unease that I did or a hunger for what lay beyond.

I was in Cuween Hill chambered cairn in the Orkney Islands, Scotland, a Neolithic burial tomb dating back around 5,000 years. Several human bones had been found, alongside the remains of 24 dogs. No ones knows exactly what role the animals played in Neolithic life, perhaps they were used in rituals. Maybe they were there to watch over the deceased.

Barnhouse standing stone
Barnhouse standing stone

My life long companion, Curiosity, took me by the hand and catapulted me through the darkness.

“Let’s go back in time. A time before the Incas. A time before the Pyramids. A time before Stonehenge existed. Let’s go back to 2,700BC.” I had walked two miles from the empty tomb at Cuween Hill to Maeshowe, Orkney’s grandest chambered cairn, and was now inside the main chamber, crammed in with 34 other tourists.

The amiable Historic Scotland guide continued: “Well folks, that’s how old Maeshowe is. Nearly 5,000 years.” He smiled jubilantly. It was an impressive site, though smaller than I had initially imagined. There were three smaller chambers, branching off from the main one, and several standing stones built into its structure.

Its grandeur has not been matched in Britain, with some stones weighing an arm-shattering 30 tonnes. When excavated, Neolithic human bones were not to be found as the Vikings had broken into the sealed tomb centuries after the Neolithic people abandoned it, presumably removing any bones that lay there.

Beyond the hobbit-sized door stood an army of standing stones; the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. And one stray monolith, the Barnhouse stone. For a couple of weeks a year, the sun shines directly over this and magically illuminates the back wall of the chamber in Maeshowe.

“That’s providing we get some sun!” the guide laughed. “We don’t know why the Neolithic people did this, but I like to think that it was to give them hope. Summer had come and gone, they had only a few hours of daylight by mid-December. It would have been cold and miserable. This ray of light might have symbolised hope. The fact that they’d got through the worst and the days were only going to get longer. It symbolises life. And it seems that the Neolithic people were very keen on separating life and death.”

Skara Brae Neolithic village, Orkney
Skara Brae Neolithic village, Orkney

Orkney holds so many Neolithic treasures, including the Stone Age settlement of Skara Brae and the oldest houses in Northern Europe, that it’s almost like you’re falling over them, as well as the coachloads of visitors.

I scurried out of the way as a bus of impatient sightseers rounded on the Ring of Brodgar, the third largest stone circle in Britain located a mile from Maeshowe. When the group disappeared, I gazed at the stones, wondering what tales they could tell. Some had graffiti from the 1800s, people’s names carved in them, now part of history.

The landscape the stones lay in, an isthmus of fresh water on one side and sea water on the other, had been purposely selected. It commanded views across to the distant hills and back towards Maeshowe. The nearby Neolithic settlement of the Ness of Brodgar stirred under polythene sheets and car tyres, waiting for the excavation to begin again. It now lay deserted, just as it had done thousands of years ago, when the incredible Orcadian villages and farms were abandoned.

And yet again, no one really knows why.

Jane Batchelor is currently Walking the Timeline of Britain, looking at British history from the Neolithic to present day, hiking 2,500 miles to discover it. Her blog posts offer a small insight into her journey, and she is aiming to write a book once the walk is finished.

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