The modern aspect of New Grange, as the visitor approaches it from the road, is far less impressive than it was in the time when it was a centre of religious cult. It now presents the appearance of an irregular mound, overgrown with trees which obscure its outline and which have seriously injured its integrity. Its height is 44 feet, but to judge from the accumulation of debris at the bottom, fallen from the top and sides it must have been originally about ten feet higher.
There is reason to believe that, when new, it was a shapely hemispherical mound of stones, the entire surface of which was covered with a layer of broken fragments of quartz. These must have been conveyed from a considerable distance; and the effect which they produced, as they sparkled in bright sunshine, must have been very striking. The mound would by this means be rendered conspicuously visible from a long distance.
Newgrange is the most famous ancient monument in Ireland. Along with the two similarly massive neolithic passage-graves, Knowth and Dowth, the great cairn of Newgrange stands on a low ridge overlooking the River Boyne, about sixteen kilometers inland from the mouth of the river. Newgrange is justly world famous for the engraved neolithic art carved onto the monument, and its alignment to the sunrise on the winter solstice. Recent research by Lara Cassidy and Dan Bradley, has analysed a sample of the neolithic human remains discovered in the right-hand recess during Michael O'Kelly's excavations, opening up a new chapter in Irish Archaeological studies.
The great cairn of Newgrange has long fascinated visitors of all kinds: authors, artists, researchers, mystics, poets, anthropologists and archaeologists. Newgrange first gained public attention after a visit by the eminent antiquarian Edward Lhuyd in December 1699, shortly after the accidental discovery of the Entrance Stone during quarrying. A list of the many famous antiquarians who wrote about the monument is recounted on my history of Research at Newgrange page.
The core of Newgrange is a massive heart-shaped cairn, an artificial hill of water-rolled stones, ninety meters in diameter contained within a ring of ninety-seven kerbstones, which surround and contain the base of the cairn. The mound was originally built in the form of a truncated cone—much like Queen Maeve's Cairn at Knocknarea in County Sligo.
Old illustrations of Dowth, Heapstown cairn and both monuments on Carns Hill in County Sligo, all show the same kind of external form. The cairn material, water-rolled stones and boulders, which were used to build Newgrange would have been sourced and carried up from the flood-plain of the Boyne below the huge cairn. The remains of an earlier monument, perhaps a passage-grave about forty meters in diameter, is believed to account for the bulge in the cairn on the northern side, oppisite the entrance to the monument.
The east face of the cairn, particularly the area around the Entrance, was covered with chunks of glistening white quartz. The quartz, which would have given the monument a spectacular appearance, would have been transported by boat from the Wicklow Mountains, the closest source, eighty kilometers to the south.
The remains of a huge stone circle surrounding Newgrange, and a large timber woodhenge discovered during excavations, date to the Bronze age period, and demonstrates that the site continued to be important long after the neolithic. If the circle was ever complete there may have been up to thirty-six stones in the complete ring.
Twelve huge standing-stones remain today, the four largest arranged in front of the entrance area. During excavations the sockets of missing stones were not discovered, and there is some doubt as to whether the circle was ever complete. At least one of the stones was damaged by fire, damaged during some lost historical incident.
The gentleman of the village 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.
Edward Lhuyd, 1699.
The formidable barrier of the Entrance Stone marks the doorway leading into the interior of Newgrange. This stone, carved with an elaborate composition based around the triple spiral motif, marks the boundary between the World of the Living and the Land of the Dead. A long narrow passageway leads off up the hill and into the darkness. In the neolithic, it highly likely that only certain individuals were allowed to enter the interior. One visitor, believed to be Yound irelander Thomas Davis, described his navigation of the passage in an account published in the Freeman's Journal in 1844:
The passage, fifty feet long, is so choked with stones, that it is only by lying on the back, feeling one’s way with the feet, and pushing one’s self forward with the hands, that it is possible to get forward; and as the whole way runs over sharp-cornered flint stones, the most disagreeable slide that a man can look for in any part of the world. The side walls of the passage are formed of large stones, tolerably flat, with similar stones laid across them to form the top.
The Newgrange passage is nineteen meters long, and lined with a series of orthostats or standing stones many of which bear remarkable neolithic engravings.
Things had improved somewhat by 1897, when this account was published in the Belfast Newsletter:
We were advised to pin up our skirts, and we obeyed; were given candles; told to stop and enter a low tunnel like passage after the conductor, who, to our amazement and horror, dropped on his knees and crawled along a short and still narrower passage; but nothing daunted we did likewise. Just imagine crawling along, holding a lighted candle in one hand! No wonder we had been told to pin our skirts up. It sounds very bad, but is not really so, and the excitement carries one on.
It is believed that the passage was built in two distinct phases, with the inner section leading to the chamber being the original structure, the outer section with the roof-box structure being a later addition. The roof-corbels covering the passage rise with the slope of the hill. Many of the corbels were carved with grooves to allow rainwater to run off, keeping the interior dry.
The passage leads into the inner chamber, a massive man-made cave covered by a corbelled vault, constructed of huge overlapping flags, which has kept the interior dry for over 5,000 years. The chamber which measures six meters in length, width, and heigh, is constructed in a cross-shape formed by eleven huge orthostats.
There are three sub-chambers, or recesses, which open off the body of the chamber, and each recess contains a large carved stone basin. The right-hand recess is much larger that the other two, and contains two basin stones, one within the other. The upper basin is carved from a fine slab of granite from the Mourne Mountains, 100 kilometers to the north. Like the quartz facade the granite would have been transported by boat.
Many of the chamber stones and roof-corbels bear neolithic engravings. The famous triple spiral, one third of the size of the triple spiral on the Entrance stone, is found in the inner recess. An enigmatic design known as the 'fern-leaf' is carved onto the edge of the left recess. This pattern is also found in ancient Mesopotamia, where it represents the Herb of Immortality, a powerful plant which can bestow eternal life. The huge slab roofing the right-hand recess, more than four meters in length, is covered with a fantastic composition, one of the most elaborate examples of neolithic art in the entire complex.
The Winter Solstice
Newgrange is justly world-famous for the alignment of the passage and chamber to the winter solstice sunrise on the shortest day of the year. Each year during midwinter, the rays of the rising sun are trapped within the monument, when the sunrise is captured within a specially designed structure dubbed the roof-box.
The roof-box, located above the mouth of the passage, has a magnificently carved stone lintol, above an opening one meter in width, which was kept closed during the neolithic by a pair of quartz blocks. The blocks showed signs of much use would have been removed annually to admit the sun during the winter solstices, and quite possibly the full moons at midsummer.
Many visitors are unimpressed with the 1970's restoration of the facade at Newgrange, more space-age than stone-age. Specific concerns have been raised over the complete reconstruction of the roox-box, which was dismantled and rebuilt by Michael O'Kelly and the Office of Public Works. There is much debate to be found on the topic in online archaeology forums.
When the sun shines in to Newgrange the whole of Ireland tends to celebrate along with the lucky chosen few who have won tickets to witnesses the event within the monument. I was lucky enough to witness the event in 1997, a wonderful experience.
Satellites Monuments at Newgrange
About a hundred yards distant from this mount are placed two other pyramids, but of much smaller size, not above a fourth part as big, and, like it, both are encompassed with a circle of stones, set at some distance from one another, round their bottoms.
Edward Lhuyd, 1699.
Four smaller satellite mounds, quite likely earlier passage-graves flanked Newgrange, two to the east and two to the west. One is buried today, the chambers of two monuments, Sites K and L can be seen in the field to the west of Newgrange. The scanty remains of Site Z lie just east of the cairn at Newgrange.
The missing kerbstones of Site Z have been replaced with ugly modern concrete pillars. Some of the decorated stones from Site Z were removed to the National Museum in Dublin, where they can be seen in the Passage-grave display. Just to the east of Newgrange, across the hedge from Site Z is the terminating feature of a large late neolithic cursus.
Bob and Ann Hickey
The huge monument at Newgrange attracted many visitors, who often left their names etched into the stones or helped wear away the megalithic art as they squeezed past leaning orthostats. Around 1890 a caretaker, Mr. Bob Hickey, was appointed and a gate was fitted across the entrance. Bob's wife, Mrs. Ann Hickey, became caretaker at Newgrange, a position she held for over sixty years. The Hickey's met visitors, armed them with candles, and conducted them on a symbolic journey to the neolithic Underworld, as narrated in this memoir of a visit in 1914:
We found a woman waiting for us she had heard the rattle of our wheels far down the road, and had hastened from her house near by to earn sixpence by providing us with candles; and she led the way through the entrance into the passage beyond. As at Dowth, it is formed of huge slabs inclined against each other, but here they have given way under the great weight heaped upon them, and the passage grew lower and lower, until the woman in front of us was crawling on her hands and knees. The clergyman, who was behind her, examined the low passage by the light of his candle, and then said he didn't think he'd try it.
"Oh, come along, sir" urged the woman's voice. "Tis only a few yards, and then you can stand again. If you was a heavy man, now, I wouldn't be advisin' it; I've seen more than one who had to be pulled out by his feet; but for a slim man the likes of you sure it is nothing."
Famous visitors to Newgrange over the years included Maud Gonne, William Butler Yeats, AEON, W. Y. Evans-Wentz and Ella Young. Bob and Ann Hickey were aware of the solar alignment, and they told visitors about the sun illuminating the passage of Newgrange at midwinter. A dreamlike, mystical experience of the event was presented by George Russell ( AEON ) in his 1897 poem, A Dream of Angus Og.
In 1909 the British astronomer, Sir Norman Lockyer noted that Newgrange was aligned to the midwinter solstice. The winter solstice alignment was published by W. Y. Evans-Wentz in his Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, published in 1911.
Excavations and Reconstructions
In the early 1960's a decision was made to excavate and restore the monument, and Michael O'Kelly was given the job. The monument was excavated over thirteen seasons between 1962 and 1975, and after digging was complete the monument was renovated to facilitate the increasing numbers of visitors.
The excavations began in 1962 and continued for a four month season every year until the last season in 1975. Excavations began with a major survey of Newgrange and the smaller satellite monuments to the west. The exterior area around the front of the monument was divided into sections two meters square for excavation, and a search was made for the presumed missing sockets in the stone circle. At this stage the Bronze age pit-circle, the remains of a woodhenge, was discovered. O'Kelly dug sections into the cairn and examined the nature of the cairn slip to try and understand how the facade had collapsed.
The passage and chamber floors were excavated down to the old ground level, and fragments of human remains, from a possible five individuals were discovered in the chamber. The roof of the passage and the top of the corbelled chamber were uncovered, and the roofing corbells were lifted so that the passage stones, many of which had leaned inwards over the millenia, could be straightened, allowing easier access to the chamber. Many of the passage and chamber corbels had grooves cut on their upper surfaces to channel off rainwater. The monument was carbon-dated to 3,200 BC, the dates coming from an organic mix of burnt clay and sand which had been used by the neolithic builders to caulk the roof, in another ingenious attempt to keep water out of the monument.
The roox-box structure, long known to antiquarians as the 'false lintol' was discovered by O'Kelly in 1963. The roof-box was completely dismantled in order to straighten the passage stones immediately beneath the huge corbel supporting the structure. The straightening of the orthostats and reconstruction allowed the sun to enter the chamber, and the event was witnessed by Michael O'Kelly in 1969.
‘Another tradition, but a much more modern one or at least one more familiar in modern times, had been mentioned to us by many visitors particularly in the early stages of the excavations when we were working almost totally in the dark as far as factual information was concerned. This was to the effect that a belief existed in the neighbourhood that the rising sun, at some unspecified time, used to light up the three-spiral stone in the end recess. No one could be found who had witnessed this but it continued to be mentioned and we assumed that some confusion existed between Newgrange and the midsummer phenomenon at Stonehenge.
Newgrange: Archaeology, art and legend, M. J. O’Kelly, 1982.
At the conclusion of the excavations, the huge passage-grave was conserved and restored. Outside the entrance to the great mound, a 'setting', discovered during O'Kelly's excavation, and also the remains of what may have been
a hut site, were removed. The Entrance area was altered when two large bays were cut out of the cairn to allow visitor access. The roof-box, passage and chamber were covered in a reinforced concrete structure.
The most contraversial aspect of O'Kelly's reconstruction was the erection of a concrete wall four meters high above the kerbstones. All of the quartz which was discovered scattered around the front of the monument was cemented to this wall, inter-studded with cobbles of granite which were found on the site. A section of the huge timber henge, were marked with concrete stumps, as were the missing orhostats and kerbstones from Site Z.
O'Kelly's fantastic concrete-supported wall of quartz had become the source of a major problem at Newgrange by the 1980's, just ten years after it had been constructed. The renovators had left seep holes in the concrete wall to allow rainwater to flow out from the cairn, but within a few years the holes became blocked and the water had no where to go. As a result, the backed-up water burst the back of the monument, and remedial conservation work had to be undertaken by Ann Lynch. The wall remains contraversial, and many researchers believe it could never have been so high or steep during the neolithic.