The intriguing Viking history of a Neolithic burial mound
Maes Howe chambered tomb sits at the heart of the stunning Neolithic landscape of Mainland, Orkney, in close proximity to the stone circles of Brodgar, and Stenness, and the recently discovered temple complex on the Ness of Brodgar. The mound is also home to a collection of 30 runic inscriptions, said to date from the 12th century.
But who made these inscriptions, and what do they say? The Orkneyinga Saga sheds a little light on this, and more recently, scholars[i] have translated the carvings, giving us some answers. However, this leaves us with more questions than we started with. The inscriptions in the tomb talk about buried treasure, they refer to the mound as Orkahaugr – Orc Mound, not Maes Howe, and the earth mound itself seems to have been bolstered in the 9th century[ii].
Were there piles of gold under the earth? Where is it now? Were orcs marauding across the land? The runes and sagas don’t tell us everything, some of the stories may be fabricated, and much is left undocumented.
So let’s start at the beginning. Maes Howe is around 4,800 years old. There is no evidence to suggest that burial chambers of this period had gold and silver placed in them. If it had been opened for the first time today, then we would expect to find nothing but bones. Archaeological excavations at the site have shown that the mound was re-enforced in the 9th century, with more earth added to the mound. The end of the 9th century corresponds with the start of the Orkneyinga Saga, and the arrival of the Earls of Orkney.
King Harald Fine-Hair of Norway ruled from 879-930A.D. The Saga tells us that he gave the land to Earl Rognvald after the Earl’s son, Ivar died fighting for the King in/around Ireland and the Isle of Man. Rognvald hands the land to his brother, Sigurd, who becomes the first Earl of Orkney. After Sigurd, the title passes to his son, Guthrum, then to Hallard, Sigurd’s nephew. Hallard couldn’t keep raiders at bay, so skulked back to Norway with his tail between his legs. Two Danes, Thorir Tree-Beard, and Kalf Scurvy decide to take the islands, so Earl Rognvald sent his youngest son, Einar to remove the Danes. There was much turmoil in the late 9th, and early 10th century in Orkney, but the Norse were certainly there.
There is more than one theory to explain why Vikings re-enforced the mound in the early years of the Earls. One[iii] is that it was stripped of the old bones, and turned into a burial mound by the vikings. Another, put forward by Dr Alexandra Sanmark[iv] is that it is was a thing site – a Viking parliament, and that Maes Howe was not actually called Orkahaugr by the Vikings, because Mesow (as written in the 1845 New Statistical Account) could be old norse for Meadow Mound.
Orkahaugr is only referenced twice in history – once in the Orkneyinga Saga – it remains in the English translation of the late 1800’s[v], but was swapped out for Maes Howe in a later edition[vi], and in the actual chamber itself in one of the rune carvings. Despite how fun it sounds, there is little evidence to suggest that the Vikings thought Orkney a mystical land filled with boggarts, fey creatures, and orcs, and Orkahaugr may simply mean ‘that big mound in Ork’ instead of a mound filled with Orcs. The Irish referred to the lands as Insi Orc, the land of the wild boars. We simply don’t know why it was referred to as Orkahaugr instead of Maes Howe, though it should be noted that the Saga was written in Iceland, and the man carving the runes may not have been native to the Orkneys.
And the treasure that these Vikings speak of? The inscriptions say it was hidden to the north-west of the mound, that is was removed by Hakon, and that it was taken away 3 nights before they opened the mound. Is any of this true? We will never know, but it could be said that if the theory about the 9th century Vikings burying someone in the tomb was correct, then there could well have been gold and silver among the grave goods. Or it could simply have been a story or myth told in Viking times to explain these huge monuments in the landscape. The Orkneyinga Saga makes no reference to the contents of the mound.
Do we actually know for sure who carved the runes in Maes Howe? The Orkneyinga Saga says that Earl Harald was travelling from Hamna Voe to Firth 13 days after Christmas, with 100 men, and they sheltered from a snow storm in the Howe. Two men went mad during the night. It is suggested that it was these men that wrote some of the runic inscriptions. This could be true, though you may struggle to fit 100 men in Maes Howe for the night, as it’s not that big internally. Also mentioned in the saga are the men of Earl Rognvald Kali, who went on crusade in 1153. This looks to be around the same time as the incident with Earl Harald, however there is no mention of Maes Howe in the Saga in relation to Earl Rognvald Kali. However, the date ties with the style of runes they are using, the fact that they use the word crusader in one inscription, and the addition of a cross carved into one of the stones, so it could have been these men.
Beyond the date of the original tomb, the earth works done in the 9th century, and the runes dated to the 12th century, it looks like we can theorise until Ragnarok about what really happened inside that mound. What we can certainly take away from the carvings inside Maes Howe, is that runes do have immense power. At some point, men called Hegli, Erlinger, Thorir, Tryggar, Ofram, Thorfir, Ottarfila, and Haermund Hardaxe stood in that small, dark space and left their mark, so that we may sit here nearly 1000 years later, and still know their names.
[i] John Mitchell. Mesehow: Illustrations of the Runic Literature of Scandinavia, Translations in Danish and English of the Inscriptions in Mesehowe, Visits of the Northern Sovereigns to Orkney, Notes, Vocabularies, etc. Edinburgh: 1863.
[iii] Sigurd Towrie. http://www.orkneyjar.com/
[iv] Dr Alexandra Sandmark. Althing and lawthing in Orkney. The Orcadian 2012
[v] Joeseph Anderson. Orkneyinga Saga 1873
[vi] Palsson Hermann, and Paul Edwards. Orkneyinga saga : the history of the Earls of Orkney. Penguin Classics, 1981