Maeshowe and the Winter Solstice: Ceremonial Aspects of the Orkney Grooved Ware Culture

By MacKie, Euan W. | Antiquity, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Maeshowe and the Winter Solstice: Ceremonial Aspects of the Orkney Grooved Ware Culture


MacKie, Euan W., Antiquity


A generation ago, enquiries into the astronomical and mathematical knowledge of the standing stone-erectors of prehistoric Britain dealt largely with statistical patterns. Since then, the great passage grave at Newgrange, eastern Ireland, has proved to be engineered to address the midwinter sunrise. It is time once more to look at another great chambertomb, Maeshowe in northernmost Scotland, with these concerns in mind.

Introduction

Archaeological background

In the later part of the Neolithic period in Britain, when the distinctive flat-based pottery known as Grooved Ware came into use, the Orkney islands witnessed the emergence of a culture in which unusually spectacular ceremonial buildings were of prime importance. This was tentatively recognized 40 years ago when the only important Grooved Ware sites known in the north were the stone villages of Skara Brae and Rinyo (Piggott 1954: 324ff); it was already clear that in the British Isles Grooved Ware is concentrated in two widely separated areas, in the far north and northwest of Scotland on the one hand and in southern England and East Anglia on the other (Wainwright & Longworth 1971; Longworth et al. 1986: figure 20). Further excavations and many radiocarbon measurements have confirmed the picture (Renfrew 1979: chapter XII; Clarke & Sharples 1990: 56-7).

In Orkney a distinct change is now apparent with the preceding period when round-based Unstan bowls were in use and when stalled cairns -- chambered tombs of a different and more modest design -- were built. It is now apparent that the passage tombs and their local derivatives form a quite distinct tradition associated with Grooved Ware; moreover it is to the later part of the Grooved Ware phase (which itself seems to overlap with that of the Unstan ware tombs: Renfrew 1979: figure 55) that the three unusually large Orcadian monuments belong which required an investment of labour several orders of magnitude greater than in earlier times. These are the ditched stone circles of Ring of Brodgar and Stenness and the chambered tomb of Maeshowe, all close by in a relatively small area at the south end of the Loch of Harray. The Stenness circle is estimated to have taken some 50,000 man-hours to build and the Ring of Brodgar perhaps 80,000 (Ralston 1976).

Renfrew has argued persuasively that the later part of the Orcadian Neolithic period saw the emergence of that more centralized political authority which could organize the construction of such large-scale works. The very end of this period saw the construction of the final stone village at Skara Brae; its several [.sup.14]C dates, when calibrated, indicate an age of about 2500-2400 BC (Renfrew & Buteux 1990) for this latest phase of a settlement with a long history. Several monuments of a slightly earlier phase have produced high quality pots of the `Clacton' style which does look like a national form of Grooved Ware -- a small vessel shaped like a squat flowerpot decorated with geometrical designs in broad, shallow grooved lines: they include the Stenness circle (Ritchie 1976: figure 6, no. 16) and the Quanterness chambered cairn in Orkney (Renfrew 1979; figure 33, no. 2), the Unival chambered tomb in North Uist (Outer Hebrides) (Scott 1948: plate VII; Henshall 1972: 309, no. 14) and various sites in Wiltshire and other parts of southern England and East Anglia (Piggott 1954: figure 57).

All the Neolithic Orcadian tombs are built of freshly quarried sandstone slabs carefully and skilfully fitted together and the two stone circles mentioned are formed of similar fresh slabs with pointed tops; the huge upright slabs inside Maeshowe are very similar (Richards 1990: 310; 1992: 447). An ancient quarry, with levered-off slabs lying near by, has been identifed on Vestra Fjold about 3 km north of Skara Brae (RCAHMS 1946 (2): no. 727 & figure 397). A socially less centralized earlier stage is implied by our modem radiocarbon-based understanding of the development of the Orcadian chambered cairns which shows the simplest monuments to be the earliest (Renfrew 1979: figure 55). …

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