Location

5 miles North-West of Brinian, Rousay, Orkney, Scotland.

 

Overview

Midhowe, believed to have been constructed around 3,500 BC, is situated in the west of Rousay, along a stretch of the B9064 which is teeming with ancient monuments, including the neighbouring Broch of Midhowe, and the cairns of Blackhammer, the Knowe of Yarso, and Taversoe Tuick. There is a car park on the side of the road which affords fine views of the north-western tip of Mainland and the Atlantic Ocean, while a mile off shore is the small island of Eynhallow surrounded by its notoriously treacherous waters. The monument is about 20 yards from the shore and can be accessed via a short but initially very steep walk of about mile through fields of sheep. Unlike its neighbours, Midhowe is not covered by a protective concrete dome but has had an impressive barn-like building constructed around it, largely because of its considerable size as it is the world's largest known example of a stalled cairn. It also serves to protect it from the elements, as it has suffered very badly over the millennia and is now in so delicate a condition that the public are not allowed to walk on or inside it. Happily several walkways have been set overhead, and these provide an excellent view of the exposed chamber.

 

Preliminary excavation of the site began in 1932 with the bulk of the work being completed during the following year. At this time it appeared little more than a rectangular grassy mound measuring 100 x 30 x 9 feet and arranged on a NNW to SSE axis, with a row of stones protruding through the surface being the only clue that it was not a natural feature. Once this had been removed it was found that the full extent of Midhowe was 106 x 42 feet and that the corners of its rectangular shape had been curved. The southern aspect was in a very poor condition, but on the northern and eastern sides it can clearly be seen that it was constructed on a double-layered plinth of flat stones, each about 4-5" high with the lower sometimes flush with the upper or protruding about 3" beyond it, and this arrangement probably continues around the remaining circumference of the cairn. Above these is an elaborate outer wall which in places stands up 2 feet high, and to the right of the entrance passage its stones slope downwards from top left to bottom right until they reach the north-eastern corner, where the pattern is reversed and likely continues around to the opposite side of the passage. The inner wall is between 4 to 8 feet inside of the outer and stands between 4 and 6 feet tall with its stones laid flat.

 

The entrance passage is located in the centre of the south-eastern face and is 3 feet wide, was possibly the same high, and originally was 13 feet long but now is just a little over 8 feet. The burial chamber beyond was completely filled with stones as the roof had collapsed at some stage, but once this was cleared it was found to be a colossal 76 feet in length, making it the second longest yet uncovered. Pairs of flanking uprights divide it into 12 compartments, though the western-most of these is further sub-divided by three small slabs. The chamber is of a very broadly barreled shape; the centre compartments are about 7 feet high and this tapers towards both ends, while the same are about 8 feet wide with the western and eastern comparments shrinking to 7 and 6 feet respectively. In compartments 5 to 11, low shelves were built against the north-eastern face. No roof survives for Midhowe, but slabs were probably arranged over it with a great pile of loose stones placed on top. There is also speculation that there could even have been an upper storey constructed on top of the six western-most compartments, accessible by a suspected entrance passage on the northern face.

 

The remains of 25 people were found in Midhowe, including 17 adults, 6 in their mid to late teens, and 2 children. By and large these were deposited on, or in a few cases under the shelving in compartments 5-10, usually with their backs to the north-eastern wall so as to be facing the centre of the chamber, and one at least appeared to have been arranged in a sitting position. Four each were found in Nos.5 and 6, three in 7, 8 and 9, two in 10, and two skulls in 12. No contemporary remains were found in compartments 1-4 but two skeletons were deposited in No.4 at some later time after the chamber roof had collapsed. Also in the chamber were a number of animal remains, including an ox rib, a red deer antler, a bird skull and egg, a fish vertebra, a considerable number of Orkney voles, and a large heap of limpet shells. A 2" long flint knife was found, but pottery fragments were scarce as pieces from just 7 small urns were discovered, largely in compartment 7, and three were of the Unstan ware type. There were also some later deposits of a pestle, hammer-stones and club-like stones.

 

Plans

Midhowe_plan.GIF (18862 bytes)

 

Photographs

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Links

Archaeology Data Service - Excavation Report