Thursday, 1 March 2012

Midhowe – a contemplation of death




There are two main types of Neolithic tomb in Orkney: MaesHowe type and stalled cairns.  MaesHowe is the largest known of the MaesHowe type (and hence why this type site is so named), whilst Midhowe (HY 372 304), on the island of Rousay, is the largest known of the stalled cairn type. There are plenty of other stalled cairns in Orkney and also hybrid tombs, which are stalled cairns with MaesHowe type side-chambers off the main corridor.  The Unstan Cairn is a good example of one of these, as is the Tomb of the Eagles.

Rousay is worth  a visit for many reasons but possibly foremost for seeing Midhowe.  Ferries to Rousay are regular and reasonably priced – although it is much cheaper to take bicycles than a car, it is the car which is expensive to take over and which you need to book in advance for – reasonably fit people could probably walk to Midhowe and back in a day and there is a pub on the way!

Stalled cairns belong to a group of tombs known as Orkney-Cromarty tombs which are found across the north and west of Scotland.   Stalled cairns are circular or rounded-rectangular cairns (cairn = mound of stones), the internal chambers are usually entered at one narrow end (some hybrid tombs enter into the middle), and are subdivided into individual compartments by pairs of upright slabs of stone.  The appearance internally is of animal stalls – hence their name.  As with all Neolithic sites that are labelled today as “tombs”, when originally in use, it may have been that acting as a depository for the dead was only one of Midhowe’s many functions.  Archaeologists have drawn similarities between the two types of Neolithic tomb in Orkney and the two types of Neolithic houses, likening MaesHowe with the round Skara Brae type houses, and Midhowe with the longer Knap O’Howar type houses.  It is possible therefore that we are seeing two different religions, or two different peoples, or some other division in Neolithic society, being manifested through their material culture.

Midhowe was originally constructed in the third millennium BCE and was excavated in the 1930s.  Remains from 25 individuals were recovered during excavation, some intact as crouched burials, the rest were gathered together in piles in the centre of some of the stalled compartments.   In some of the stalled compartments there is evidence for low stone “benches” on, or under which, skeletons were recovered – most were found crouched, against the north-east walls of the chambers which are furthest away from the entrance.  Sherds of pottery and a flint knife were also found which may have been “grave-goods”.

Although the humans remains thus far described were found at excavation and appear to show some “ordering” rather than random deposition, we need to remember that their position may only be a final stage in the funerary process.  The rituals as a whole may have involved rearranging and rearranging the bones over and over.  We don’t know – it is prehistory, until someone builds a time machine, we can only make intelligent guesses!

The central chamber at Midhowe is about 23 metres long and subdivided into 12 stalled compartments.  The entrance passage is still blocked – many of these communal tombs were deliberately blocked as one of the last acts before they went out of use.  The act of blocking often included a final burial deposit; at Midhowe two later crouched burials were excavated from this filling.  This ritual sealing may represent a change in belief or the end of an ancestral lineage and is usually seen as intentional and symbolic.

The chamber walls at Midhowe still stand to an impressive 2½ ms high.  The outer cairn was built with a foundation course of flat horizontal slabs, topped by slabs set at a 45 degree angle, and then further topped by slabs set at an opposite 45 degrees angle.  The effect was to produce an attractive herring-bone pattern.  This pattern may be analogous to the decoration that is found on Unstan Ware pottery.


After excavation, the entire site was covered over by a vast hangar-type shed, with internal walkways over the cairn.  Although this means that it is not possible to go inside the tomb, the site is well protected by the structure and the aerial view does allow all the details to be seen from a rather unique perspective.  So, although the walkways over the tomb hinder the experience of the tomb in one sense (you cannot go in), in another sense they provide an interesting perspective and one not usually experienced but which may have been shared with the Neolithic constructors of the cairn, or at least with their “religious specialists” because anthropology informs us that shamens often report being able to see scenes from above, as if flying, whilst in a trance or an altered state of consciousness.  Popular archaeology is open to the idea that Neolithic peoples practiced shamanistic belief systems, so, when the Pagan pilgrim views Midhowe from the elevated walkways, it is possible that you are sharing the experience of Midhowe from the perspective of a trancing Neolithic shaman!


From above, the entirety of the tomb can be seen and, what is striking to me, stuck as I am in a linear mind-set, is the feeling that the tomb is something designed to be moved through and to make some sort of progression along.  In general, people tend to demarcate space that is either linear or circular.  Circular space contains, whereas linear space controls movement from one place to another.  Midhowe is a linear space, albeit one that is then constrained.  At Midhowe there is a definite sense that one’s experience may be intended or manipulated to be different in the compartments that are near the entrance, to one’s experiences in the compartments that are further in and deeper.  There is possibly then a real sense of progressing into deeper layered experiences as one progresses into the tomb.  Certainly the compartments nearer the entrance would have been lighter, possibly the air here had more movement, the air at the back may well have been staler and might have smelt differently.  There is a feeling of trial, of ordeal, of initiation, of moving further and further away from the world of the living outside and into the world of the dead.


The analogy I am searching for is almost of a series of ordeals through which to proceed, each more testing that the last.  Possibly akin to a maze.  This can be symbolised by the end compartment which is additionally difficult to get into: there is a threshold to step over.  To enter the end compartment, it would have been necessary to step over a slab, possibly acting as some sort of special “threshold” into this “final” space.  This “final” compartment may have had a shelf set about a metre above the floor and the compartment is subdivided by flat slab stones.  At the back of the end compartment another flat slab stone is set into the wall, possibly acting as a “false portal”. 

If there is a progression to be made, then could it be the dead who are making it?  Was their progression facilitated by ritual specialists or mourners or descendants who moved the dead along as they progressed through stages of the afterlife?

It is an interesting perspective to think of death as a process rather than an event.  That we do not die, stop, event, but rather that we live, go through a process of dying, and then stages of death, to what?   Was the “final” process for the people of Midhowe that very end slab?  The one at the end of the tomb corridor, the one that “goes nowhere”, the false portal that leads only to the solid wall of the cairn?  And what else could pass through that portal except the dead that had processed to the stage of being so insubstantial, so totally pure spirit, that they were able to pass through the solid stone slab to move to the next stage in the dying / death process, to perhaps the next life?

I do hope death is a process and not some infinite static and unchanging state.  Recently, I have been marvelling at the wonderful natural scenery of the place where we live and thinking how, if I were on holiday here, I would want it to never end - as I did when I used to holiday in Orkney.  I have come to realise that before, whilst on holiday here, my time to enjoy it had already been marked as finite, there was only an allotted set amount of time, it would come to an end.  And, knowing that there was in inevitable and fast approaching end, that there would have to be a change at a fixed future point, acted to render the present transient.  Now, having moved here and being offered the option of "forever", Orkney has, at times, become like a prison, a trap, from which there is no obvious escape.

So, be careful what you wish for!  All states, even the most perfect, have the potential to become drudgery if permanent.  It is in the nature of humanity to seek security: "this is nice, let's keep it just like this", whereas our lives should be dynamic and we should acknowledge and welcome change - whether it be judged "beneficial" or "detrimental" - for all change adds motion, balance and vibrancy to life.  It helps us to appreciate what we have, whilst we have it, without becoming bored.

So we have given ourselves a five year target.  We will no longer view our lives as staying forever in Orkney, but rather we will give ourselves five years and then review if we will stay longer or not.  And in doing so, we recreate the potential for future change and I notice an immediate internal shift in myself: the boredom and sense of entrapment is alleviated.

When I reflect further about my search for security, I remember that I have always been terrified of making “big” life decisions, for making a choice will bring change.  So, I avoid making decisions and procrastinate terribly.  Like most people, I hate change, I prefer to be safe and always opt for the “devil I know”.  I am aware that I have missed lots of opportunities and experiences as a result, I have regrets about this.

About 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to leave a job I absolutely hated and move into teaching archaeology.  It meant a lot of work for me with very little in the way of remuneration and no guarantee about my future.  I had managed to save some money so it was a risk I could comfortably afford to take, but it was still a risk.

At the time I was living in Hampshire and I used to like to visit Glastonbury.  Now I live 900 miles north and I still like to visit Glastonbury and try to get there at least once a year!  Glastonbury is a very special place, was of the most special places is Chalice Well Gardens at the foot of the Tor, into which both the red and the white springs flow.  At full moon, mainly in the summer months, the grounds are opened at night; a little entertainment may be provided but as the sun sets, the garden is lit by hundreds of candles and becomes quite a magickal place.  This is a most exquisite experience and one which I thoroughly recommend, especially on a warm summer’s evening, and I happened to find myself there about 10 years ago when I needed to wrestle with my “big decision”.

By about eleven o’clock at night, the gardens had quietened to a state of thoughtful anticipation.  The “hardcore” mystics had the dark of the chalice well itself in which to scry, but I made my way to the upper gardens where I found one of the wooden swing seats and was able to watch the moon rise over the hill.  The gardens were settling down and stilling, I had a magnificent view of the burgeoning moon as she rose.  And in those moments, the moon light is always for me like a benediction in which I can bathe.  I breathe in the light, I absorb it through my pores, it suffuses me entirely and I become moon myself.

And then I can commune with the Moon Goddess and I can ask Her what I should do, what would happen to me if I left my secure job and took a chance on something with no guarantees but which I had dreamed of doing?

And at that time She said: “You’re going to die.”

Well that was a bit of a shock, after all I only wanted a bit of guidance, but the Deities I hang out with are not exactly the type to provide comfort and solace – we have more of an adult-to-adult relationship (although this may well only be my skewed perception and not how They view it – They may not be aware that we have any “relationship” at all ...).  So I waited for more because, through experience, I know She likes to shock first and then explain – usually to a background of cosmic laughter at my discomfort.

“Oh I don’t mean now, I don’t even mean soon,” (phew) “Although I’m not going to tell you when, but you will die and no matter what you do between now and then, the outcome will be exactly the same: you will die.  So, all you have to do is decide how you will spend the time in between now and then.”

I understood; nothing mattered, it didn’t matter if I passed or failed, succeeded or lost, won riches, frittered everything away, it would all come to the same inevitable place: death.

I made up my mind that night to leave the job I hated and to pursue something which I really wanted to do: teach archaeology.  And I did so for 10 years or so.  It was terribly hard work and it took several years to even be reasonable at it (so that more of my students were passing their exams than failing! – well, that is the way in which teachers are judged!).  The money was awful – because I was only ever part-time – and my contract was renewed annually.  I was made redundant from one college after only two years but managed to find another job elsewhere for which I needed a car to get to – which cost me the equivalent of everything I earned in one year!  I stuck that career path for about 10 years and on the whole it was the most professionally rewarding work of my life (to date but that is a situation that is rapidly changing!).  I don’t regret the decision I made back in Chalice Well Gardens and, when I had the change to make another big decision in my life (moving to Orkney), I remembered and was guided by the words of the Full Moon Goddess: “You’re going to die.”

Whether I die rich or poor, famous or unknown, loved or hated, I will die.  It is inevitable.  No one knows when they will die.  And the only element which we have any “control” over is what we do with the bit in between, the space between now and then. 

It is too easy in our modern lives, sanitised as they are from the reality of death, to trick ourselves into believing that we will either live forever or at least for many more decades to come.  And when we do, we become complacent, putting off and procrastinating and not fully living.  At those times I remind myself: “You’re going to die.”  It helps me, I think, to live better and to concentrate on what is important and to not have, hopefully, quite so many regrets.

And, I sincerely hope that the afterlife, if there is one, is not some timeless eternity stretching out in a limitless way, but rather, I hope there is the prospect of continuing change after death.