Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
Aerial image of the Boyne Valley.
Aerial image of the Boyne Valley or Bend of the Boyne and it's local landscape, 2.6 km up in Google earth. The three great mounds of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth are surrounded by up to 40 smaller mounds, half of which are found at Knowth.

Bru na Boinne, the Bend of the Boyne

The neolithic monuments in the Boyne Valley are Ireland's largest and most complex megalithic buildings. Though between three and five hundred chambered cairns exist in Ireland, the sites in the Boyne Valley are the climax of the cultural and spiritual wave which extended across the island from Sligo during the neolithic period. The mounds of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth are the largest, finest and most decorated megalithic temples in the country and indeed have few rivals in Western Europe. The three great mounds are surrounded by the remains of up to forty smaller satellite monuments, half of which are found at Knowth.

Knowth kerbstone.
A decorated kerbstone, carved about 3,200 BC at Knowth may be a diagram of Newgrange.

The Google earth image, top, shows the immediate landscape around the Boyne Valley. The small river, the Mattock, is not shown, but it runs along to the north of the sites and enters the Boyne just east of Dowth, enclosing the monumental landscape by water on three sides. This layout is similar to the Coolrea peninsula in County Sligo.

As at the other great megalithic complexes of Carrowmore in Coolrea, Carrowkeel and Loughcrew, the monuments in the Boyne Valley are completely interlinked and interconnected. Indeed Michael Poynder, in his book Pi in the Sky, suggests that the Boyne Valley is connected to the other Irish sites by a great leyline crossing the country. The monuments comprise an extensive sacred ritual and astronomicaly oriented complex; there are many wonderful myths and stories about the mounds, said to be the mansions of notable members of the Tuatha De Danann Dagda, Aengus Og and Lugh.

The Knowth basin
The Dagda's Cauldron, the Great Basin of Knowth, right recess, east chamber. This beautiful piece of granite was carved in position; it is much too large to have been moved in after the chamber was built. Picture © Padraig Conway.

For example, standing on Site B, the unopened mound within a henge below Newgrange, a viewer can watch the midsummer sunsets and the midwinter lunar standstills setting between Sites K and L and Newgrange. The large timber circle built later in the neolithic may have been used in the same way to view lunar settings.

The three large mounds are intervisible, and indeed the buried north chamber at Dowth is aligned to Newgrange, and the Samhain/Imbolc sunsets set directly over the great mound. Each of the three cairns are around 90 meters in diameter and up to 12 meters high, and each contains some 300,000 tons of mound material All three had flat, circular platforms on their summits, ideal for viewing the horizons, and would have looked like Queen Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea in County Sligo in 3,200 BC. Newgrange was 'restored' in the 1970's and probably looked quite different when built.

An old engraving of Dowth from before it was quarried. Lord Netterville's tea house sits on the summit.

The Boyne Valley is considered to be some of the finest farming land in modern Ireland. Archaeologists are puzzled as to how so much turf was stripped from the surrounding landscape to build the mounds, as this process would have destroyed good farming land. Whatever, it is likely that the area around the sites was deforested well before the large mounds were built.

The river would have provided abundant food and travel was easy, as the Boyne opens into the Irish sea 8 kilometers to the east. Water was the main way of transport in Neolithic times when the landscape was densely forested. It has been demonstrated that the Boyne Valley had links with many other sites in Europe. An example is the fine mace head which was found at Knowth - the extremely hard flint came from Orkney. The Boyne is also nagivable for a long way upstream, and travellers could have reached near enough to the Loughcrew Mountains by boat. It is thought that the tides came as far as Newgrange in the neolithic.

Some of the building materials for the mounds were transported by boat - the nearest source for the quartz so strikingly used to face Newgrange is the Wicklow Mountains, 50 km to the south. Granite cobbles were collected from beaches 30 km to the north of the Boyne's mouth near the Cooley peninsula. The greywackie kerbstones and orthostats - several hunderds of them - are thought to have come from 8 km to the northeast of the Boyne Valley.

        O'Gibne with one of his river currachs.
Cliadhbh O'Gibne with one of his river currachs.

Local woodcarver and boatbuilder Cliadhbh O'Gibne builds river currachs - boats constructed from cow hides and hazel rods. I had the pleasure of a voyage down the River Boyne with Cliadhbh in the currach above. He has built an 8 meter currach which can be taken out to sea and along the coast, and this beautiful vessel can sometimes be seen at his workshop 1 km to the east before the entrance to the Boyne Valley visitor center.

    north-east across the River Boyne towards Newgrange.
Looking north-east across the River Boyne towards Newgrange.

Construction of megalithic monuments in Boyne Valley probably began around 3,500 B.C. The area was undoubtedly sacred during the mesolithic, when people would have been drawn to the Boyne for its abundant salmon. The smaller mounds, or satellites are thought to be the earliest sites. A considerable length of time must have been spent surveying the area before anything was built. It is likely that the monuments were developed gradually in stages, Site K being a good example as the mound was enlarged and the passage extended. There is some evidence that each of the three huge mounds are built on smaller pre-existing sites: the bent passage at Knowth west, the annex at Dowth and the bulge at the back of Newgrange all hint at earlier structures. Also, Newgrange and Knowth seem to have stones that were reused from earlier buildings.

Knowth moonmap
The end recess of the east chamber at Knowth; the photo is looking west. Canadian researcher Philip Stooke has suggested that the engravings are the oldest known diagram of the moon.

The large monuments were constructed around 3,200 BC, and may have taken several generations to complete, Each covers an acre of ground and contains upwards of 300,000 tons of material. A large labour force needed to be fed, housed and equipped: boats, baskets, bags, lots and lots of rope, timber scaffolds and log rollers, chisels - a massive undertaking. The amount of timber alone need to move the stones and construct the corbelled chambers was enormous. It all points to a prosperous and confident society. I am always inspired by the neolithic sense of vision: who had the idea, and then convinced the people to do it?

Dowth is thought to be the oldest monument, and the parallels in engraved symbols and technique between Dowth and Loughcrew would tend to support this. Dowth was plundered for stone in the 1830s and has a huge crater in the summit. There are two passages and some early Christian souterrains. St Bernard's well is close to the cairn, as is Dowth church, Nettweville castle and house, and the memorial to John Boyle O'Rielly.

Standing stone near Newgrange.
Looking to Newgrange from a large standing stone near the Boyne.

Knowth, the largest of the three monuments, was probably constructed next, and it is likely that the great stone basin in the east chamber was one of the first stones set in place, and played an important part in the setting out of the other sites. Knowth is by far the most complex of the three sites, the main mound being surrounded by 18 smaller monuments. Knowth appears to dedicated to the study of the moon's movements, as several of the satellites appear to be oriented to standstill positions, and the moon's cycle takes 18.6 years to complete.

Newgrange, the most famous of the three mounds was probably last to be built and was the first to be re-discovered. A group of workmen quarrying for stone discovered the entrance in 1699. It quickly became popular with antiquarians and other visitors, as can be seen by the quantity of graffiti in the chamber.

Visitors to Newgrange, around 1900.
Early visitors to Newgrange. From the book Megalithomania by John Michell.

No major habitation sites have been found yet, apart from some neolithic houses under the main mound at Knowth. Obviously the area supported a large number of people, and the most likely location for a village is to the east of Dowth, where the Mattock joins the Boyne, and an enormous henge monument is located.

The River Boyne is dedicated to the Goddess Boann who is associated with cattle. There are several mythological tales associated with the great mounds. The Dagda, a chieftain of the Tuatha De Dannan, lived in Newgrange. He had a child, Aongus Og, with Boann, and he caused the sun to stand still in the sky for nine months, so the child could be born on the day it was conceived, and her husband not find out. The Ulster hero, Cuchullain was also conceived at Newgrange.

A goddess called Bui, a consort of Lugh is associated with Knowth, which was known as Cnogba, which comes from Cnoc Bui. Dowth has slightly sinister mythology - the druid Breasil rapes his sister there, and the place is cursed. The Boyne has always been a famous salmon river, and is where Fionn mac Cumhal ate of the Salmon of Knowledge in later mythology.

The sites continued to be used long after the stone age: there are four late neolithic henges in the Boyne Valley, one encircling Site B. The timber circle beside Newgrange, probably dating from the transition between the neolithic and Bronze ages, is 100 meters in diameter. Another smaller henge was discovered nearby and a similar timber circle was built on the east side of Knowth; it has been reconstructed, and is quite impressive. There is a massive circular henge, one of the largest in the country 1 km northeast of Dowth.

Seventh century graffiti in Knowth.
Seventh century graffiti: an ogham inscrition in the east chamber of Knowth.

Knowth was in continual use up until medieval times. From about the early fifth century, the kings of Breaga had their residence on top of Knowth, and probably used Newgrange for their inauguration site. This would account for the mysterious standing stone, reported to have been mounted on the summit of Newgrange. Similar inaugrations took place at a standing stone on the summit of Heapstown cairn by Lough Arrow in County Sligo, a site that has much in common with Newgrange. The Normans took Knowth from the Gaelic chiefs and fortified the top of the mound.

The late neolithic timber henge at Knowth.
The late neolithic timber henge and some of the smaller satellite mounds that surround the Great Mound at Knowth.