Maeshowe research project
Internet broadcast and capturing winter solstice sunset
Authors: Victor Reijs and Charles Tait
Date: April 2, 1998
The goals of project
The goals of the project are taken from the project
Research the alignment of the entrance passage of Maeshowe
Promote Maeshowe and Orkney
experiment with mock-ups of the blocking stone placed at the entrance and
with the effects of lowering of the height of the entrance passage.
get a better understanding of why Maeshowe was built at this location
and with this particular alignment by researching the orientation of the
sun shining down the passage before, during and after the winter solstice.
check and refine the computer model made of the horizon,
passage and chamber of Maeshowe.
prove that the Internet broadcasting technology works and that valid research
results can be achieved
Determine the continuation of the project
let people view the sunset live over The Internet.
make videotapes and still photographs of the sunset for research and promotional
provide educational information about Maeshowe and Neolithic Orkney
encourage people to visit Maeshowe and Orkney in general.
to determine the best position for the cameras
determine the organizational form (incl. PR and copyright).
The history of project
The history of this project concerning the broadcasting of the sunset and
researching the alignments around winter solstice at Maeshowe is straight
forward, and rather unusual:
In December 1996 Lowell McFarland posted a message on the Internet about
a question if somebody was thinking about putting a camera at Newgrange.
His interest is the pagan relation with winter solstice sunsets/sunrises.
Because Victor Reijs's interest
is in archaeoastronomy, he got the idea of putting a web-camera in
Maeshowe for finalizing the modeling of and measurements
on Maeshowe, which he has been doing since beginning of 1996.
Whilst looking at Neolithic sites on the Internet in early 1997, Charles
Tait who is a photographer and publisher from Orkney with a particular
interest in archaeology and local history, found Victor's Maeshowe site.
He has been interested in the Maeshowe alignments for many years, and
was at once interested in Victor's proposals. This resulted
ultimately in the present collaboration, particularly in providing
the necessary local backing on public relations (radio
and television stations, Orkney Tourist Board and Orkney Islands Council)
local customs. Charles Tait has long been interested in Maes
Howe, having first introduced to the winter solstice sunset by his
grandfather, Charles William Tait, as a small boy in the early 1950's.
C.W. Tait actually wrote a magazine article about the alignment before
World War 2. In fact it is something of a family tradition to visit
Maeshowe each winter.
Aerial view of Maeshowe
The project was started by negotiating with Historic
Scotland for permission to place cameras within Maeshowe around
winter solstice 1997. The fact that the research results are now able to
be presented, is due to Historic Scotland's willing provision of permission.
pilot project has been a great success and proved for the first time in
the world that this kind of broadcast from a megalithic building is possible!
More history on the steps from the beginning to the end of this project
can be found on the news page.
The results of the project
Research the alignment of the entrance passage of Maeshowe
Most of the knowledge on the alignments results from videotaping
the sunsets from the period Dec. 9th 1997 until Feb. 3rd,
1998 and still photography when there was a good sunset. This has
provided enough information to validate the model of Maeshowe, which was
made in 1996. The most important information resulting from the videotaping
is the determination of the most northerly and southerly azimuth of the
outside horizon which can be seen from the back wall. By
using the sun as a large theodolite and using pictures of the horizon,
it was possible to determine the azimuths quiet accurately. This information
has been added to the model and in turn provided more accurate information
about the sun light path on the back wall.
The work has shown that the alignment lasts much longer than hitherto
thought. Most people believe that this a winter solstice phenomenon only,
and are thus disappointed when there are too many people or when the sky
is overcast on winter solstice day. In fact very dramatic lighting
effects occur from late November through to mid-January.
But the main conclusion from the work is that the model can correctly
predict the sun's path on the back wall of Maeshowe. The fact that the
of the sun from the right side of Ward Hill (on Hoy) around 20 days before/after
winter solstice on the back wall was predicted
by the model and that it actually was witnessed by the custodians of
Maeshowe on Dec. 2nd, 1997 increases confidence in the model.
More on this is presented in a paper by Victor Reijs
in the magazine 3rd
Stone (Nr 32, 1998).
Animated areal view towards Ward Hill on island Hoy
An animated picture
of the reappearing of the sun on the back wall can be seen here
(simulation of 20 days before or after winter solstice day and 48 to 11
minutes before present day sunset).
Open issues for 1998/1999:
Promote Maeshowe and Orkney
No videotaping of the reappearing sun was possible, due to the fact
that no video recorder was present on Dec. 2nd, 1997 and
the lack of good sunsets afterwards. This needs to be retried in 1998/1999.
Good still photography results were however obtained of these events.
Sun on back wall and floor of chamber on Dec. 2nd, 1997
Light in the passage on Dec. 2nd, 1997
Due to the fact that not much sun was available
at the time, little was done with making a mock-up of the passage blocking
stone. This needs to be taken up in 1998.
One major problem was encountered in sending live pictures over the Internet.
combination of a) the radio link between the mound and the Tormiston Mill,
b) the remote Internet connection at Tormiston Mill, and c) multiple users
on one Internet account; resulted in connectivity problems with the Internet
Service Provider (ISP). All were due to the pilot nature of
the project, and can be resolved if finance can be found from possible
A list of some 200 e-mail addresses has been used to send the
press release of the megalithic cam-page of Maeshowe. This list
included individuals, magazines, newspapers, television and radio stations
in UK, NL, US and BE. Furthermore, several electronic distribution lists
were part of the list (the span of these distribution lists is around 500-700
people). Thus at least some 2,000 people saw the announcement of the pages
through The Internet.
The Internet broadcasts were a great success! Over 8,000 hits were recorded
in the three week period (Dec. 1st, 1997 until Dec. 22nd, 1997 using Nedstat
statistics), with a peak of some 950 hits on Dec. 21st,
Of these 8,000 hits, about 50% came from USA, 20% from UK and 10% from
NL. During the actual sunsets (14:30 - 15:15 GMT) we had some 25% of these
total hits. We know that many people came back several times to the site,
as they found it interesting.
Links on the main page of the broadcasts
were visited through this main page by about 10%
of the total hits, making this megalithic cam-page interesting for
the sponsors. Due to high attention, the page was in the top
10 of Nedstat for two weeks. Also the amount of visitors to The
Stone Circle has increased significantly due to this project.
Charles Tait's Maeshowe and Neolithic
Orkney site continues to receive visits as a result and the main Maes
Howe site has reached the mark of 10,000 hits in Feb. 1998!
We keep developing the Maeshowe sites further to maintain interest
and encourage repeated visits.
Well over 50 individual e-mails were received with positive reactions
(and no negative reactions were received!). In fact favorable comments
both verbal and digital are still coming in, from many individuals.
Besides these Internet broadcasts, we had 5 radio interviews (BBC
Radio Orkney and BBC Scotland), 3 newspaper articles (The Orcadian,
Sunday Post and Daily Express) and two television interviews (ITV and BBC
Scotland). This also increased the number of visitors to the Internet
pages and to Maeshowe itself.
Due to the pilot nature of the project the PR aspect was deliberately
limited. In particular the national broadsheets would be interested in
the project and if repeated next winter: UK, US, FR, DE, NL and Scandinavian
papers and other media will be contacted. We thus expect to generate a
flurry of media interest in Orkney and Maeshowe in late 1998.
On Dec. 21st and 22nd 1997,
a television set, which was kindly lent by Orkney Television Enterprise,
was placed outside Maeshowe, so that people that were not able to get
inside the mound (access by only 12 people at a time) were able to view
the sunset. Some 20 people have used this possibility, which is an aspect
which we feel could be one of the major benefits of the project.
All pictures made between the Dec. 10th, 1997 and Dec. 22nd,
1997 with the PC are copyrighted to Victor Reijs and Charles Tait. All
other pictures/videos are copyrighted by the owners of the equipment. An
example the full sunset on Jan. 2nd, 1998 is available.
Two radio interviews and the sunset on Jan. 2nd, 1998 will be part of
an educational CD-ROM published
by SURFnet bv (the National Research
Network of the Netherlands) for showing the possibilities of streaming
media (like real-time audio and video) over the Internet.
Open issues for 1998/1999:
Determine the continuation of the project
No video tape for real promotional use has been made, due to the
low number of days with good sunshine inside the mound. The weather
was unusually humid, resulting in much cloud.
More financial input has to be found to sponsor
the continuation and development of the project
investigate, through Historic Scotland and Orkney Tourist Board, if this
project increases the amount of visitors for Maeshowe/Orkney in 1998
See section on future steps.
The pilot project was a private initiative by Victor Reijs and Charles
Tait, with some very welcome help from sponsors.
The following costs can be estimated for this project. This list excludes
manpower, but includes 33% of the equipment costs* (a write off of 3 years):
So this project has costed around £ 3750. With the help of the initiators
and the sponsors this has not always been real money (around £ 900
coming from sponsors), but if this project will be based on a continuous
schedule, these costs will have to be met.
Video grabber £ 50
Two S-Video Camera £ 200
video recorder £ 50
PC + modem £ 500
radio modems £ 500
Software £ 100
video tapes £ 25
cables £ 350
repairs £ 150
travel (both for presenting at Edinburgh and in December)
plane £ 600
car + petrol £ 550
B&B £ 150
travel insurance £ 25
telephone £ 425
letters/parcels £ 50
ISP/WWW £ 25
The future steps
From the work in 1997/1998, some ideas have popped
up for the new project to be defined in April 1998.
Some of them are:
Enhancing the present information/model of passage mounds/cairns.
Videotaping (including time stamping) the sunsets in the chamber of Maes
Howe from mid Nov. 1998 until end Jan. 1999, so as to record the reappearing
sun around 20 days before and after winter solstice day.
Making a mock-up of the passage blocking stone and its effects on the sun
beam in the chamber needs to be investigated.
Videotaping and/or photography at other sites with
possible alignments (like Holm of Papa Westray South, Quoyness or some
of the Rousay cairns), if suitable funds are available.
Broadcasting the sunset from Maeshowe chamber
Consider the possibility of installing two separate video channels in Tormiston
Mill (using Video over optical fiber). One camera looking towards the back
wall and one from inside the chamber towards the outside (along the passage).
switching between the cameras could be done in Tormiston Mill. Sending
data to the Internet would also be done at Tormiston Mill.
This setup would also give the possibility of showing live pictures at
Have a better quality video on The Internet (besides the static pictures,
also real time video over the network)
Have a stable and single user Internet account, using a fast (telephone)
A broadcast quality educational and promotional videotape to be made of
the whole sequence. If good enough royalties from this could further
finance the project.
Determine organizational aspects of the project
Investigate, through Historic Scotland and Orkney Tourist Board, if this
project has increased the amount of visitors for Maeshowe and Orkney in
general in 1998.
Determine if any sponsorship can be gained to continue the project for
winter 1998/1999, referable by Scottish or Orcadian firms and public bodies.
More financial input is to be sought from the local
businesses of Orkney, as well as Orkney Enterprise, Orkney Island
Council and Historic Scotland to sponsor a continuation of the project.
Determine the public relations and copyright issues for the continuation
of the project.
Determine the liability and insurance issues for sponsored equipment.
From the above results it is clear that this pilot
project was a success and it is the first time in the world that this has
been achieved from within a megalithic building. Besides the large number
of people visiting the Internet Maeshowe cam-page,
we also had lots of attention from radio/television and newspapers.
The Internet broadcast can be improved, including
the services (like a video screen inside Tormiston Mill) for visitors that
are not able to get into the mound due to limited access to the chamber.
The video tapes of the sunsets made have proven
to be very useful in refining the model of Maes
Howe. It has also now been demonstrated that the Maeshowe chamber
is not only aligned to winter solstice day, but possibly also to about
23 days before/after winter solstice. A 22/23 day period has been
called a megalithic month by various people [e.g. Thom].
This is not the only Neolithic building that
could have a second alignment inside the chamber. Victor Reijs has also
done investigations at Newgrange
and Knowth (both in
Ireland) where possible dual alignments are implemented by the Neolithic
people. In addition surveys of the orientation of entry passages
to many chambered cairns suggests deliberate alignment in many cases.
Due to these results, the initiators of this research,
Victor Reijs and Charles Tait, would like to continue to further develop
it in November 1998. A new project plan
for this continuation will be finalized in April 1998. We hope we
get the same excellent support as experienced
Organizations that helped this project
We would like to thank the following organizations for helping this projects
with their sponsoring support:
Providing the cables
used for the whole path (from camera to telephone line).
Providing the idea for this project, the project
management, the two camera's ,
the video grabber, the software, the video recorder, web space, the travel
to/from Orkney, still photography (stereo and panorama pictures) and manpower.
Providing access inside Maeshowe, a telephone
line and manpower
to support the project
Providing the wireless connection
between Maeshowe mound and the visitor center Tormiston Mill.
Providing the insurance
for the equipment which was provided by Geniet
Orkney Television Enterprise
Providing coax cable and television set
to show outside Maeshowe the sunset from within the chamber of Maeshowe
Providing enthusiastic ideas for progressing
the project, the computer within the mound ,
the ISP account and web space, the telephone modem at Tormiston Mill, professional
still photography and manpower.
J&W Tait Limited
Providing a car
during the stay in Orkney
People that helped this project
The list of people that have worked to reached the above goals has become
quite long, but without them, one way or the other, the results of this
project would have been less. So here are all the participants (between
brackets, the organization they are part of):
Patrick Ashmore (Historic Scotland), Andy Burnham, Pat Connor (Historic
Scotland), Dave Dearborn, Ben Geerlings, Derry Gilmour (Historic Scotland),
Annette Henley (Department of Trade and Industry, Radio communication Agency),
Paulette Hill (Historic Scotland), Sue Hodnett (Historic Scotland), Rene
Hogerheijde (Electric Engineering), Joke Jansman, Alan Jones (Historic
Scotland), Paul Kelly, Lowell McFarland, Euan MacKie, Ann Marwick (Historic
Scotland), Francis McLennan (Orkney Television Enterprise), Hugo Mekers
(Reisburo Nijenhuis), Moira Moncrieff (Historic Scotland), Bart Pen
(Multicap), Denys Pringle (Historic Scotland), Victor Reijs (Geniet), Clive
Ruggles (Leicester University), Douglas Schwartz, Ed Scott, Thomas Simpson
(Historic Scotland), Raymond Stanger (Historic Scotland), Charles Tait
(Charles Tait photographic), Erlend Tait (J&W Tait Limited), Magnus
Tait, Sandra Tait, Cameron Taylor (Orkney Tourist Board) and Lucy Vaughan
Maeshowe, P. Ashmore, HMSO, Historic Scotland, ISBN 1 900168 06 5,
Maeshowe, Childe, V.G., Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries
of Scotland, 88, 1956, page 155-171
Antiquities of Stenness parish, Frazer, J. Proceedings of the Orkney
Antiquarian Society, 4, 1925, page 18-22
The chambered cairns of Orkney, J.L. Davidson, A.S. Henshall, Edinburgh
University Press, ISBN 0 85224 547 5, 1989.
Maeshowe and the winter solstice ceremonial aspects of the Orkney Grooved
Ware culture, E.W. MacKie, Antiquity 71 (1997): 338-59.
Notice of the opening of a tumulus in the parish of Stenness on the
mainland of Orkney, Petrie, G., Archaeological Journal, 18, page 353-358,
Maeshowe's Megalithic Month alignment, Reijs, V.M.M., 3rd Stone, 32,
Notice of excavations in the chambered mound of Maeshowe in Orkney,
Stuart, J., Proceedings of the society of Antiquity of Scotland, 5, page
The Orkney Guide Book, Charles Tait photographic, Kelton, St Ola, Orkney
KW15 1TR, 1997, ISBN 0 9517859 15
Megalithic sites in Britain, Thom A., Clarendon
Press, Oxford, 1967
Last major content related changes: May 14, 1998