Why Were This Ancient Scottish Tomb’s Chambers Built Upside Down?

New research suggests the inverted designs seen at Maeshowe were designed to ensure passage into the underworld

A large grassy mound with an entrance cut into the side, underneath a blue sky
The exterior of Maeshowe, a chambered tomb in Scotland's Orkney Islands, pictured in September 2019 Jay van der Reijden / University of the Highlands and Islands

Thousands of years ago, the Neolithic residents of Scotland’s Orkney Islands came together to build a complex series of burial mounds in which they laid the deceased (including pet dogs) to rest. The largest of these cavernous, chambered tombs—a cairn called Maeshowe—is particularly impressive. Per Historic Environment Scotland, the ancients designed the structure to align with the sun, allowing light to stream into its passageways in the weeks surrounding the winter solstice.

Now, new research by Jay van der Reijden of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute suggests Maeshowe’s architects may have planned its layout with an additional goal in mind: namely, ensuring the dead’s entry into the afterlife. As detailed in the University of Cambridge’s Archaeological Review, the tomb’s three side chambers appear to be structured as direct inverses of its main section. In other words, writes Mike Merritt for the Scottish Herald, these compartments are “stylistically upside-down.”

Neolithic humans constructed Maeshowe using dry stone, a building method in which stones are placed together without binding mortar.

As van der Reijden explains in a statement, “[T]he wall-stones are like wallpapers, and when you repeatedly hang them upside down in distinct locations patterns become discernible.”

She adds, “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.”

Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, Orkney | 3D Scanning

Van der Reijden hypothesizes that the tomb’s ancient builders constructed the side chambers in an inverted fashion to act as a passageway to the underworld.

“The interpretation is that the side chambers are built to be within the netherworld,” she explains, adding that “the main chamber walls [act] as membranes, separating this life and the next.”

As Alison Campsie notes for the Scotsman, Maeshowe is part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a Unesco World Heritage Site that predates both Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. Archaeologists estimate that the collection of religious and ceremonial settlements was built almost 5,000 years ago, during the Stone Age. According to scans conducted by Historic Environment Scotland, Maeshowe’s earthen mound stretches nearly 115 feet across and around 23 feet tall.

In addition to its millennia-old roots, Maeshowe is known for its significant collection of ancient graffiti. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Norse Vikings carved at least 33 runes into the tomb’s stone walls, making the site one of the best collections of Viking graffiti in the world.

“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,” says Nick Card, director of excavations at the nearby Ness of Brodgar archaeological site, in the statement. “This study offers new ways of approaching and understanding the construction and use of … this monument [and] has wider implications for the study of Neolithic stone-built monuments and the society that constructed them.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.