Maeshowe research project
1997/1998 results

Internet broadcast and capturing winter solstice sunset

Authors: Victor Reijs and Charles Tait
Version: 1.0
Status: Final
Date: April 2, 1998


The goals of project

The goals of the project are taken from the project plan:
  1. Research the alignment of the entrance passage of Maeshowe
  2. Promote Maeshowe and Orkney
  3. Determine the continuation of the project

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) and 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. This 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

  1. Research the alignment of the entrance passage of Maeshowe

  2. 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 reappearance 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:

  3. Promote Maeshowe and Orkney

  4. 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, 1997.
    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:

  5. Determine the continuation of the project

  6. 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.

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:


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 earlier!


Organizations that helped this project

We would like to thank the following organizations for helping this projects with their sponsoring support:

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 (Historic Scotland).


Maeshowe, P. Ashmore, HMSO, Historic Scotland, ISBN 1 900168 06 5, 1995, Edinburgh
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, 1861
Maeshowe's Megalithic Month alignment, Reijs, V.M.M., 3rd Stone, 32, page18-20, 1998.
Notice of excavations in the chambered mound of Maeshowe in Orkney, Stuart, J., Proceedings of the society of Antiquity of Scotland, 5, page 248-278, 1965
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