Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
A watercolour of Newgrange by Gabriel Beranger, 1775.
A watercolour of Newgrange by Gabriel Beranger dated to 1775.

History of Research at Newgrange

Newgrange has been visited and investigated by many writers, researchers and archaeologists since it was first opened. The modern history of Newgrange begins on August 14th 1699 when Charles Campbell took out a 99 year lease on the lands around Newgrange. Campbell was one of the new landowners who appeared after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Quarrying stone from the giant mound to build roads, his workmen uncovered the decorated Entrance Stone, then found the entrance to the passage and chamber.

Edward Lhuyd

The first to visit and write about Newgrange was Edward Lhuyd or Lhwyd ( 1660 - 1709 ), a pioneering linguist and Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Lhuyd, who toured Ireland in 1699 and 1700, happened to visit Newgrange shortly after the accidental discovery of the entrance to the huge mound of stones by landowner Charles Campbell. Lhuyd was interested in finding out the purpose of megalithic monuments and composed a set of questions to put to native Irish historians during his visit:

Whether it be any where recorded on what purpose or Design the great Cams were made; or the Great Stones pitchd on end in a circular Order; or those other Huge Stones supported by pillars commonly calld Diermat & Grana's Lodging. &c.

He measured and surveyed Newgrange and left the first written description of the monument, while his draftsman William Jones made plans and illustrations. Though Lhuyd's notes from his Irish tour were later lost in a fire in a London bookbinder's, enough survives from correspondance and notes to indicate that he surveyed other monuments close by, such as Site K and Site L.

First plan of Newgrange, from the report from Edward Lhwyd.
First plan of Newgrange, from the report from Edward Lhuyd.

From a letter to his friend Dr.Tancred Robinson dated 15th December 1699:

The most remarkable curiousity we saw by the way, was a stately Mount at a place called New Grange near Drogheda; having a number of huge stones pitch'd on end round about it, and a single one on the top. The gentleman of the village ( one Mr Charles Campbel ) observing that under the green turf this mount was wholly composed of stone, and having occasion for some, employ'd his servants to carry off a considerable parcel of them; till they came at last to a very broad flat stone, rudely carved, and placed edgewise at the bottom of the mount.

This they discover'd to be the door of a cave, which had a long entry leading into it. At the first entering we were forced to creep; but still as we went on, the pillars on each side of us were higher and higher; and coming into the cave, we found it about 20 foot high. In this cave, on each hand of us was a cell or apartment, and an other went on streight forward opposite to the entry. In those on each hand was a very broad shallow bason of stone, situated at the edge. The bason in the right hand apartment stood in another; that on the left was single; and in the apartment straight forward there was none at all.

We observed that water dropt into the right hand bason, tho' it had rained but little in many days; and we suspected that the lower bason was intended to preserve the superfluous liquor of the upper, ( whether this water were sacred, or whether it was for Blood in Sacrifice ) that none might come to the ground. The great pillars round this cave, supporting the mount, were not at all hewn or wrought; but were such rude stones as those of Abury in Wiltshire, and rathermore rude than those of Stonehenge: but those about the basons, and some elsewhere, had such barbarous sculpture ( viz. spiral like a snake, but without distinction of head and tail ) as the fore-mentioned stone at the entry of the cave.

There was no flagging nor floor to this entry nor cave; but any sort of loose stones every where under feet. They found several bones in the cave, and part of a Stags (or else Elks) head, and some other things, which I omit, because the labourers differ'd in their accounts of them. A gold coin of the Emperor Valentinian, being found near the top of this mount, might bespeak it Roman; but that the rude carving at the entry and in the cave seems to denote it a barbarous monument. So, the coin proving it ancienter than any invasion of the Ostmans or Danes; and the carving and rude sculpture, barbarous; it should follow, that it was some place of sacrifice or burial of the ancient Irish ... (Lhuyd 1712, 503).

Lhuyd observed a standing stone, which was not mentioned by later visitors, on the summit of the mound. He believed that Newgrange was the work of the ancient Irish, using one of the Roman coins he found there from the Roman reign of Valentinian I (364-375 CE).

A very old plan of Newgrange, 1727.
Plan of Newgrange from Molyneux dated to 1727.

More information is found in a letter to Thomas Molyneux, written in early 1700:

But to give you some Account of our Journey one of the most Remarkable Occurrences in our way hither from Dublin was a large Tumulus or Barrow at a Village calld new Grange within four Miles of Drogheda. It has on the Top a Stone pitchd on End and others Vastly large, pitchd round about it; at Bottom; within it is a Cave, the Entry whereof is guarded on each side with large rude Stones standing on End, having somtimes a Barbarous Sculpture on ’em not unlike the Ruin Monuments in Wormius’s Monumenta Danica and on the Top of these are other Stones laid acrosse but no Letters at all.

At the first Entry these supporters are so pressd with the Weight of the Hill and the Top Stones are so that they that goe in must Creep but by Degrees ’tis still higher till you goe into the Cave, which may be about 6 or 7 Yards in Height. Having enterd the Cave you have on each Hand a Cell or Apartment and another streight forward. In the right hand Cell there is on the Ground a very large Stone Bason or Cistern and within that another with its Brim odly scituated and some very Clear water within it; dropt from the roof of the Cave, tho but an Artificial Mount of Stones.

On the left hand there is a Single Bason with the same Sort of Brim, but we found no Water in’t. The floor of this Cave is nothing but a smaller loose Stones, amongst which were found great Quantity of Bones, Staggs horns, and as they said a peice of an Elkshorn, peices of Glass and some kinde of Beads. Near the top of this Mount they found a gold Coyn, which Mr Campbell the Proprietor of this Village shew’d me and tis a Coyn of the Emperor Valentinian. However not withstanding this Coyn, I cannot think this Mount a Work of the Romans in regard the Carving of the Stones is plainly Barbarous and the whole Contrivance too rude for so polite a people. I should have been very apt to Conclude it Danish, but the Date of the Coyn is several Centuarys older than their first coming into Ireland, which (as far as the Irish Annalls Informe us) was about the year 800.

Thus being neither Roman or Danish it remains it should be a place for sacrafice us’d by the Old Irish, and Mr Cormuck Oneil told me they had a vulger Legend about some Strange Operation at that Town in the time of Heathenisme which I shall endeavour to get from him more particularly.

We get further description in a letter sent from Sligo to the Rev. Henry Rowlands dated March 12th 1700:

I also met with one monument in this kingdom very singular: it stands at a place called New-Grange near Drogheda; and is a Mount or Barrow of very considerable height encompass’d with vast stones pitch’d on end round the bottom of it; and having another lesser standing on the top. This Mount is all the work of hands, and consists almost wholly of stones, but is cover’d with gravel and greenswerd, and has within it a remarkable cave.

The entry into this cave is at bottom, and before it we found a great flat stone, like a large tomb-stone, placed edgwise, having on the outside certain barbarous carvings, like snakes encircled, but without heads. This entry was guarded all along on each side with such rude stones pitch’d on end, some of them having the same carving, and other vast ones laid a-cross these at top. The out pillars were so close press’d by the weight of the Mount, that they admitted but just creeping in, but by degrees the passage grew wider and higher till we came to the cave, which was about five or six yards height.

The cave consists of three cells or apartments, one on each hand and the third straight forward, and may be about seven yards over each way. In the right hand cell stands a great bason of an irregular oval figure of one entire stone, having its brim odly sinuated or elbow’d in and out; and that bason in another of much the same form. Within this bason was some very clear water which drop’d from the cave above, which made me imagine the use of this bason was for receiving such water, and that the use of the lower was to receive the water of the upper bason when full, for some sacred use, and therefore not to be spill’d.

In the left apartment there was such another bason, but single, neither was there any water in it. In the apartment straight forward there was no bason at all. Many of the pillars about the right hand basons were carvd as the stones above-mentiond; but under feet there were nothing but loose stones of any size in confusion; and amongst them a great many bones of beasts and some pieces of deers horns.

Near the top of this Mount they found a gold coin of the Emperor Valentinian; but notwithstanding this, the rude carving abovemention’d makes me conclude this monument was never Roman, not to mention that we want History to prove that ever the Romans were at all in Ireland.

In May of 1700 Lhuyd send a plan of Newgrange, prepared by his draftsman William Jones, to his friend and fellow antiquarian, Thomas Molyneux. Lhuyd, who published his great work Archaeologia Britannica: an Account of the Languages, Histories and Customs of Great Britain, from Travels through Wales, Cornwall, Bas-Bretagne, Ireland and Scotland, in 1707 died in 1709, ten years after the discovery of Newgrange.

The entrance to Newgrange by Robert Welch.
An early image of Newgrange by the Belfast photographer Robert Welch. A path has been worn to the roof-box stone over the Entrance Stone.

Thomas Molyneux

Thomas Molyneux, an old aquaintance of Lhuyd, was a medical doctor of French ancestry, educated in Trinity College, with a strong interest in antiquarian persuits. He was awarded membership of the Royal Society in 1686. Returning to Ireland after the 1690 Battle of the Boyne he became the first State Physician and the Physician General to the Army in Ireland. He aired his views on Newgrange in A Discourse Concerning the Danish Mounts, Forts and Towers in Ireland, which he published in 1726.

Right-hand recess in Newgrange by Molyneux, 1726.
Right-hand recess in Newgrange, engraving by by Molyneux, 1726.

Molyneux believed that the great mound was built by Danish invaders and he was the first to popularise the story of whole bodies being discovered in the chamber:

When first the cave was opened, the bones of two dead bodies entire, not burnt, were found upon the floor, in likelihood the reliques of a husband and his wife, whose conjugal affection had joyn’d them in their grave…

Thomas Pownall

Thomas Pownall is best known as a colonial governor and administrator for the British Empire, but he had a serious interest in antiquities and archaeology. Pownall visited Newgrange in 1769, shortly after his return from America where he had been governor of several states. Pownall made a thorough survey of the monument and engraved decorations.

He wrote a report of his exploration which was read to the Society of Antiquaries soon after he joined in 1770. Powell's account was published in Volume II of Archaeologia, or, Miscellaneous tracts relating to antiquity, the journal of the Society of Antiquaries of London, later that year, and is available to read online. Dr. Norris, master of the great school in Drogheda was Pownall's guide to Newgrange for the day..

After a long-winded preamble where Pownall sets forth his theories about tribal origins and movements in ancient times, and a critical survey of pervious accounts of Newgrange, he gives a detailed description of the neotlthic monument.

This gallery at the mouth is three feet wide, and two feet high. At thirteen feet from the mouth it is only two feet two inches wide at the bottom, and of an indeterminate width and height. Four of the side stones, beginning from the fifth on the right hand, or eastern side, stand now leaning over to the opposite side; so that here the passage is scarce permeable. We made our way by creeping on our hands and knees till we came to this part. Here we were forced to turn upon our sides, and edge ourselves on with one elbow and one foot. After we had passed this strait, we were enabled to stand; and, by degrees, as we advanced farther, we could walk upright, as the height above us increased from fix to nine feet.

Barrow at Newgrange by Pownall, 1770.
The Great Barrow at Newgrange by Thomas Pownall.

Examining very narrowly, with a candle in my hand, all the parts of this cemetery, I discovered on the flat stone which forms the north side of the left hand niche, what I took to be the traces of letters. Their form is given in the wooden cut annexed. These lines were of a breadth and depth in which I could lay the nail of my little finger; and of different lengths from two to six inches. I tried for some time to assign, if possible, these letters to some known alphabet, by comparing them particularly with that of the Beth-luis-nion ( the ogham alphabet ), or old Irish alphabet; but this produced nothing satisfactory.

Barrow at Newgrange by Pownall.
Sketches of the passage and chamber at Newgrange from the 1770 article by Thomas Pownall, signed J. Gandon.

As I had continued in this cave a much longer time than was prudent, by which I caught a violent illness; and as the tracing these lines with greater accuracy would take up more time than I could then give to it; I gave over the task, referring it to be done at leisure by the surveyor, whom Dr. Norris was so good as to engage.

Pownall had discovered and become obsessed with the so-called "boat carving" on the left side of the chamber, which he took to be symbols from the Phonecian alphabet. He reproduced the design in his article.

Dr. Norris, master of the great school in Drogheda, engaged the land surveyor Samuel Bouie to plan and measure Newgrange for Pownall, and these illustrations were included in the report.

Edward Ledwich

Edward Ledwich , an Irish historiam, vicar, antiquarian and topographer, was born in 1738. In 1790 he published his Antiquities of Ireland which contains a section with illustrations, on Newgrange. However, he has little to add to the story, merely repeating what the earlier explorers had reported. His book became a popular guide book and was reprinted in 1804. Ledwich's theories are not taken seriously by modern researchers, but his book is still prized for the fine engravings by J. Ford.

Illustration of Newgrange from Antiquities of Ireland by Edward Ledwich, published in 1790, showing some of the Roman coins found on the mound.
Illustration of Newgrange from Antiquities of Ireland by Edward Ledwich, published in 1790, showing some of the Roman coins found on the mound.

A copy can be downloaded from the Ask About Ireland website.

An early engraving of the passage and chamber of Newgrange by Charles Vallancey.

Charles Vallancey

The next researcher to tackle Newgrange was the soldier and military engineer General Charles Vallancey, who made a survey of the site in 1786. Vallancey believed the carvings were the remains of an ancient script, which he translated. He claimed that the monument was a 'Cave of the Sun', linking it with Chaldean Mithratic sun worshop. In many ways he was correct and before his time, despite being labelled a 'pyramidiot' at the time. The chamber is indeed a great artificial cave and it is designed to capture the light of the rising sun on the winter solstices.

Vallancey published his theories in his Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicus in 1790.

Druidic inscriptions form Newgrange, illustration from Charles Vallancey's Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicus, 1790.
Druidic inscriptions form Newgrange, illustration from Charles Vallancey's Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicus, 1790.

William Wakeman

The artist and antiquarian William Wakeman was fascinated by the three huge mounds in the Boyne Valley, and left us many engravings from Newgrange and Dowth.

William Wakeman's plan and section of Newgrange, around 1880.
William Wakeman's plan and section of Newgrange, around 1880.

Sir William Wilde

Newgrange, 1837.

Thomas Newenham Deane

George Coffey

Robert Welch

William A. Green

Du Noyer

William Borlase

R. A. S. Macalsiter

Michael Herity

Michael O'Kelly

Claire O'Kelly

Robert Hensey

Robert Hensey is an Irish archaeologist and author of First Light: The Origins of Newgrange (2015) and co-editor of The Archaeology of Darkness (2016). His research is primarily focused on the monuments and societies of the northwest European Neolithic with particular reference to Irish passage tomb chronology, art and ritual. Currently, with partners, he is involved in the Human Population Dynamics at Carrowkeel, Co. Sligo project, a multifaceted project which includes osteological analysis, radiometric dating and isotopic analyses of a significant bone assemblage from the Carrowkeel passage tombs. Other ongoing research includes assisting with The biography of megalithic art at Millin Bay, Northern Ireland project, a collaborative project with the University of Edinburgh, using new photogrammetry- based methods to facilitate an in-depth study of the megalithic art from the highly decorated monument at Millin Bay, Co. Down.

Rediscovering the Winter Solstice Alignment at Newgrange, Ireland: Article.

Newgrange was re-discovered in 1699 when the local landlord, Charles Campbell set his workers removing stones from a convienient mound on his land.

An account of Newgrange from 1820

Gráinseach Nuadh or New Grange in county Meath is situate on the north of the Boyne, a small distance from the river, about mid way between Slane and Drogheda, and about half a mile to the west of the road leading from the Drogheda road to Dowth the ancient family seat of the Lords Neterville now in the possession of Mr Hamill. From this seat the moat of New Grange stands about 3/4 of a mile to the north west. This stupendous specimen of ancient Irish art is an artificial moat or mount standing on an eminence from which [to] the edge of the Boyne at about 1/4 of a mile distance there is a gentle declivity.

The moat is circular formed of loose stones rising to a height of about 50 feet and occupies an area of nearly half an acre of ground. It is surrounded by a circle of stones some of which are several tuns weight. They stand at the distance of about 10 ( 30 crossed out ) paces from the base of the mount & where they remain in their original position are from seven to ten paces asunder. At present there are only 15 of those stones the greater number of which are on the South and west sides of the moat, those on the other sides having been destroyed or removed by the occupiers of the land at different periods.

Mr Kirk, the present occupier has lately blasted with powder some of these stones that stood in the way of his ploughing and in digging to remoye the parts of each that remained in the ground there were found a number of long flags placed on their edges, between every two of which there lay a human skeleton the bones of which, the workmen say, were of a remarkably large size.

The summit of the moat is flat or rather a sort of hollow like a dish, and in most places the stones of which it is formed appear, the soil, if ever they were covered with any, having been washed away by the successive rains of some thousands ( several hundreds above the line ) of ages. Some parts of the moat towards the summit are covered with scrubby ash plants and on the top, about the centre, is a large Gooseberry tree, with several young black-thorn quicks, and two or three young cherry trees growing up through the loose stones. These last were probably produced from cherry-stones dropped there by some of the visitors to this moat, which with the cave embowelled in its centre may justly be reckoned among the wonders of Ireland.

Edward O'Reilly, about 1820.
Source: An Early Nineteenth Century Description of Newgrange, County Meath.

The passage at Newgrange bt W. A. Green.
The passage at Newgrange by W. A. Green shows how the passage-stones or orthostats have leaned inwards over time. Photograph © NMNI.