By Mike Merritt

THEY are known as “houses of the dead”. But new discoveries at one of Orkney’s most important prehistoric sites have literally turned past understanding on its head.

Archaeological research at Maeshowe – a Stone Age tomb located within the Orkney Unesco World Heritage Site – has found that its side chambers are stylistically upside-down in relation to the main structure.

Now experts believe they may have been built as inverted netherworlds specifically so that the dead could enter the afterlife.

The investigation was led by Jay van der Reijden, a Masters by Research student at the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Archaeology Institute.

She studied the communallybuilt, dry-stone tombs, often referred to as “houses for the dead” because of their layout, which is similar to that of domestic homes.

Her work shows that the side chambers of Maeshowe were literally constructed for those who had passed away by inverting their architectural designs, as though the chamber was within the underworld.

The findings are due to be published today in the Archaeological Review from Cambridge.

They are based on inspecting the physical aspects of the stones, such as their shape and orientation, to reveal the existence of unique design oppositions between the main and side chambers.

Ms van der Reijden 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.”

Nick Card, Excavation Director of the Ness of Brodgar, said of the research: “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”.

Built some 5,000 years ago, the entrance passage to Maeshowe is aligned with the setting of the midwinter sun, so that the light illuminates the tomb’s interior.

Norse crusaders broke into Maeshowe in the mid-1100s, long after it had fallen from use.

They too left their mark on the site, this time as graffiti carved in runes all over the main chamber’s walls.

Maeshowe is a significant example of Neolithic craftsmanship and is, in the words of the archaeologist Stuart Piggott, “a superlative monument that by its originality of execution is lifted out of its class into a unique position”.

It is part of the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney”, an internationally significant group of sites which includes Skara Brae. They were added to Unesco’s World Heritage list in 1999.