Orkney’s upside down ‘house for the dead’ built to help passage to afterlife
A 5,000-year-old tomb in Orkney contains side chambers that were styled so that they would allow the dead to enter the afterlife, new research has found.
The study, led by Jay van der Reijden, a masters student at the University of Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, made the breakthrough at the communally-built drystone tombs at Maeshowe.
The tombs, referred to as “houses for the dead”, showed similar layouts to that of domestic houses.
Msv and er Reijden’ sh as found the side chambers showed inverted architectural designs to give the effect that the chamber is within the underworld.
She said: “I’m delighted that my research, studying the order by which stones have been placed during construction, has been able to reveal novel results and that it is therefore able to make a real contribution to the field of archaeology.
“Visualise the wall-stones are like wallpapers, and when you repeatedly hang them upside down in distinct locations, patterns become discernible. The swaps include the reversal of multiple architectural features normally placed on the right-hand side being on the left only inside the side chambers.
“The interpretation is that the side chambers are built to be within the netherworld, by the main chamber walls acting as membranes, separating this life and the next, and that the internal walling material is conceived to physically represent the underworld.”
Maeshowe, which is visible for miles around, dates from 2,700 BC and is one of the fascinating ancient monuments that makes up the Hear t of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.
The tomb is accessed by a long, narrow passage way which leads into a large central chamber, with three side chambers, where the dead were laid to rest. The chambered tomb is aligned perfectly with the setting sun during the time around the winter solstice, when it shines deep into the passageway and illuminates the rear wall of the main chamber.
The latest research will be published Cambridge University’s Archaeological Review.
Nick Card, excavation director of the Ness of Brodgar, said, “Despite being a focus of attention since its first modern day entry over 150 years ago, the iconic Maeshowe continues to reveal its secrets through careful and considered study. This study offers new ways of approaching and understanding the construction and use of not only this monument but has wider implications for the study of Neolithic stone-built monuments and the society that constructed them.”