Reading Maeshowe: Recovering the Feminine in a Neolithic Tomb

By Fairlie, Charlotte | Genders, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Reading Maeshowe: Recovering the Feminine in a Neolithic Tomb


Fairlie, Charlotte, Genders


[1] Cuween, a small Neolithic cairn, perches on top of a hill on the Orkney Mainland. A flashlight waits in a bucket by the door, and visitors crawl on hands and knees, one by one, into the pitch-black interior. After savoring a degree of darkness rare in modern life, they direct beams of light up the tapering walls to marvel at the skill of the stonemasons. It is impossible to resist the impulse to clamber into the chambers and crouch where the bones once lay. Green and smooth, Maeshowe, another Orkney cairn, rises enigmatically from the field where it has stood since around 2700 BC. The designation of this monument and the surrounding Neolithic structures as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS) in 1999 significantly increased tourism to the area (Card et al. 429), so while visitors may still enter Cuween unsupervised, access to the much larger Maeshowe now requires a timed ticket, bought in advance. Throughout the year, thousands of visitors, bending uncomfortably low, shuffle through the tunnel-like passage entry, making the physical journey from light to dark and a more psychological journey from present to past. Exploring any of the Neolithic sites in Orkney is to bridge time, to feel kinship with those who built them.

[2] Without doubt, a major reason Maeshowe attracts so many people is its symbiotic relationship with its environment. Most famously, at sundown during the December solstice, the winter sun lines up with the door of the tomb, shines down the passage, and focuses its rays on the stone wall within. Interest in this phenomenon, the moment when the light stabs the darkness, is so high that Historic Scotland provides web-cam coverage, but Maeshowe fascinates others besides tourists and solstice celebrants. Whether they are vacation visitors, archaeologists, anthropologists, or poets, explorers experience the sites differently, applying their own intellectual tools and imagining Neolithic lives from their respective points of view. Leslie Riddoch has written that these are "Stone Age marvels which inspire and astonish," and Simon W. Hall expresses the experiences of many when he refers to "the profound impact of entering a tomb" (160). They imply that to enter a cairn is to become one with it, to undergo a transformation. Maeshowe, which can now be experienced only under the regimented conditions required by the Historic Scotland guides, clearly retains extraordinary power to inspire. Indeed, this ancient mound has attracted a great deal of literary attention from both noted and obscure writers. Considering these cumulative interpretations, rather than relying solely on the work of archaeologists, opens up a more comprehensive, textured, and, indeed, gendered understanding of ancient history and our commonality with Neolithic peoples.

[3] George Mackay Brown, Kathleen Jamie, Myra Schneider, and Dilys Rose are four of the more prominent authors for whom Maeshowe has proven inspirational. They have experienced the tomb through a doubly imaginative process: first by reading it as they would read a poem and then by expressing that interpretation in writing. While Brown was an Orcadian, living most of his life alongside the Neolithic sites, Jamie, Schneider, and Rose, all of whom have Scottish roots, experience Maeshowe as tourists, drawn across the Pentland Firth to enter the passage and travel into the darkness. Significantly, all three of these more contemporary writers are women. Hall, in his valuable survey, The History of Orkney Literature, contrasts the use of the prehistoric by female Scottish writers with that of their male counterparts, stating that it is less political, that women authors take "the opportunity to reestablish the place--and, significantly, the inner lives of women in the prehistoric or early historical northern landscape" (162-163). I would argue, however, that their work also engages the public world to a greater extent and is more ideological than this statement implies. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Reading Maeshowe: Recovering the Feminine in a Neolithic Tomb
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.