University study uncovers ‘upside down houses for the dead’

Image: Jay van der Reijden

AN archaeological study by the University of the Highlands and Islands has found that a Stone Age tomb in Orkney contains side chambers that were stylistically built for the dead to enter the afterlife.

The study, led by Jay van der Reijden, a masters by research student at the university’s archaeology institute, looked into the communally-built dry-stone tombs at Maeshow in Orkney.

The tombs, referred to as ‘houses for the dead’, showed similar layouts to that of domestic houses. The university said that Ms van der Reijden’s work shows that the side chambers were ‘literally’ built for the dead by inverting their architectural designs to give the effect that the chamber is within the underworld.

Ms van der Reijden’s findings are due to be published in the annual Archaeological Review from Cambridge University.

She commented, “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.”

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.”