controversy at newgrange
The burial mound of Newgrange is a feat of ancient engineering accredited to the Neolithic farming community of the Brú na Bóinne. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993, Newgrange and its neighbouring sites, Knowth and Dowth, form the major part of the Boyne Valley complex, and attract well over 200,000 visitors annually. More than just a repository for the bones of the dead, the burial mounds are thought to represent for the peoples who built them, a ritual space, perhaps a liminal place where mortals could interact with the spirits of their dead ancestors, who might mediate for them with the Gods. As Gabriel Cooney and Eoin Grogan claim:
Burial and its associated ritual offers not only the chance to pay respect to the deceased, but in doing so, to reaffirm and/ or reposition social bonds within the community, and the present community’s links with their ancestors and the landscape (1994, 52).
Further, the construction of these enormous, grand monuments was a visible statement of the community’s power, wealth, and standing with the Gods, which other tribes could not fail to be aware of. Today, Newgrange, as the focus of the complex has become, with its striking white quartz wall, as much an icon of Irish heritage and Irish nationality as the Hill of Tara in earlier times.
This is not a monument to be admired from afar, like Stonehenge in England, for example; every visitor is invited into the heart of the mound to touch the stones, trace the art, and experience a simulation of the winter solstice dawn light, just as its ancient builders would have. As a heritage site, that makes it really special in my view. When I visited with a group of young Erasmus students a couple of years ago, I was touched by their emotional response to the solstice simulation; I didn't expect it from a generation so au-fait with technology, computer graphics and game-play. That was a very special and rewarding moment for me.
However, since its re–emergence into the national consciousness, Newgrange has been plagued with controversy, which most visitors are probably unaware of. Debate has raged over the accuracy of O’Kelly’s re-constructional interventions, the presence of the quartz wall, the discovery of the roof box, and the single-period mound/ multi–period mound theories. This essay aims to examine Newgrange in light of these controversies.
Between 1962–1975, Professor Michael O’Kelly began the archaeological investigation and restoration of Newgrange. It was a huge undertaking. He came to the conclusion that the monument consisted of a single-period mound, and that the layer of white quartz and rolled granite stones which lay outside the kerbstones were the remains of a great wall which had collapsed (Erikson 2008, 250). Palle Erikson disagrees; he cites O’Kelly’s own stratification studies, which reveal four layers of infill stones within the mound, separated by three layers of turf (Erikson 2008, 250–51).
O’Kelly claimed these turf layers were man–made, laid over the stones to prevent slippage and hold the infill in place. However, as Erikson explains, where turves were used to cover burial mounds, the turf was typically laid with the vegetation layer face down. At Newgrange, the vegetation layer of the turf is uppermost, suggesting natural formation over a period of time. This indicates that each layer of stones represents an enlargement of the mound, with the following layer of turf representing the period in between enlargement works. In other words, Newgrange is a multi-period mound, which was extended over time by the community which built it.
This makes sense; it is logical that as a community prospers, it grows, and it seems natural that their burial grounds and ritual spaces would be developed accordingly to accommodate the increased population, and that it would be made larger and more impressive in order to indicate their fecundity and success.
One of the most striking features of Newgrange is its towering white quartz wall. O’Kelly was convinced that the white quartz and rolled granite stones which lay scattered beyond the mound’s kerbstones were the remains of a collapsed wall designed to hold the tons of infill in place. However, the original techniques used by the mound’s ancient builders were beyond the understanding of modern construction; the restoration of the glittering façade we see today disguises a ‘reinforced concrete wall inside the kerb… using mortar and metal pins to affix quartz and granite to the face of the concrete’ (Cooney 2006, 697). In fact, Cooney argued that such a wall, if it had originally existed at all, would have soon been dislodged by the settlement of mound infill, estimated today to weigh in the region of 200,000 tons.
At the same time as the concrete wall was installed, the entrance to the mound was adapted to account for increasing numbers of visitors: ‘considerably more space […] be provided at each side of the tomb entrance than would be available had the archaeologically correct design been adopted’ (O’Kelly 1982, 110). This suggests that from the start, the restoration of Newgrange was a commercial venture, and that those involved were prepared to sacrifice archaeology for revenue.
Cooney believes, along with Erikson, that the white quartz and rolled granite stones exist in situ where they were originally laid, as a ritual platform space. Again, this seems a logical and practical arrangement for a community which is growing. Clearly, few members of the community could fit within the chamber at any one time, therefore it is quite likely that as the community expanded, the main bulk of ritual ceremony would be held outside, where the vast majority could take part, with only a small elite venturing inside to commune with the ancestors on the community’s behalf.
In his book, The First Light: Origins of Newgrange, Robert Hensey claims the quartz was not laid down in the Neolithic period, but after 2500BC (2015, 156), suggesting that the community may have grown quite rapidly immediately preceding this development. He claims that the ground had been deliberately stripped of vegetation in preparation for the installation of the platform. O’Kelly himself discovered this:
Outside the kerb [lies] a subsoil surface from which the turf and humus had been cut off […] lying directly in contact with [it] and spreading for a distance of 6–7m outward from the kerb is a layer composed entirely of angular pieces of white quartz (1982, 68).
O’Kelly seems to have based his decision on the fact that there was no quartz beneath some fallen kerbstones, citing KS96 as an example (1982, 68). However, if the platform was not laid until the Chalcolithic period, it is possible that the kerbstones may have already fallen and been left in situ by the platform builders.
What, then, is the significance of white quartz? It looks attractive, but there must have been more to it than aesthetics. The builders certainly went to a great deal of trouble to obtain it, digging it out of the Wicklow mountains, most likely transporting it in boats down the coast and up to Newgrange via the River Boyne (Stout 2002, 30–31).
In her study on existing ‘primitive’ tribes around the world, Ffion Reynolds has found that many use quartz in shamanic ceremonies to communicate with Otherworld beings, and that they consider quartz not as an inanimate rock, but as a living entity (2009, 156–66). She describes how, when two quartz stones are rubbed together, they produce a flash of light called triboluminescence (2009, 156).
The presence of so much white quartz at Newgrange may indicate that this ‘magical’ quality of the quartz may have been a part of ritual ceremonies. If the quartz stones rubbed together producing triboluminescence as the community stood or walked upon the quartz platform, it may have been seen as a powerful invocation upon the ancestors and the Gods by the whole community. However, it should be noted that the quartz had not been smoothed or shaped to produce a flat or even surface comfortable enough for walking upon; furthermore, whilst the community that used the monument may have worn some form of footcoverings, many may also have been barefoot.
At Loughcrew, OPW guides inform visitors that the mounds there were once covered with a blanket of white quartz, before the stone was robbed for road building. This made them highly visible by day, as they sparkled in the sunshine, and also at night, where they glowed in the light of the moon. This may have been a deliberate attempt to mark them out as special, ethereal monuments to the Otherworld of ancestors and Gods, and if true, may well have occurred at other burial mound sites too. It is certainly the most feasible option, and indeed, O’Kelly himself was aware of this, for he quotes an early guide book on Newgrange which states that ‘the entire surface [of the mound …] was covered with a layer of broken fragmented quartz’ (1982, 73).
It is interesting to note that two large blocks of white quartz, now lost, were used to seal a feature of Newgrange known as the ‘roofbox’ (Reynolds 2009, 158). This aperture is located above the entrance to the main eastern tomb, and admits the rising sun of the winter solstice, allowing it to penetrate the inner central chamber. The winter solstice falls on the 21st December, and is significant because it marks the shortest day of the year, an important turning point for a community dependant on agriculture. This was not an accidental occurrence, but involved years of observations, planning, and engineering expertise. Such solar alignments are not unusual amongst Ireland’s burial mounds, however, many passage tombs are instead aligned with other objects, such as other monuments, or prominent landscape features, or clustered around a central space, as at Knowth (Hensey 2015, 43).
Popular belief describes the penetration of the tomb by the sun’s light as symbolic of fertility, or that the passage tombs, laden with the bones of the dead, were instead observatories to the stars. Hensey argues that the solar orientation was less an attempt at calendrically measuring space and time – for they would hardly need a structure so large or complex as the burial mound of Newgrange to do so – but was part of a phenomenon, or ritual, in which people were able to ‘engage with and examine a small piece of the sun’ (2015, 75).
Between 3600–3000BC, the Irish climate had gradually become colder and wetter, disastrous circumstances for a community that depended on farming for its survival, yet at the same time, passage tombs were becoming larger and more complex (Hensey 2015, 29). This may have been due to an increased concern with, and a need to study, or connect with the sun. As with Reynold’s evaluation of the ‘living’ properties of quartz, it is possible that the ancient people may have viewed sunlight as a living entity, since it moves, has warmth, and changes often throughout its existence (Hensey 2015, 76), much like humans, in fact.
However, in 2016, archaeologist, former OPW worker, and former student of O’Kelly, Michael Gibbons, stated in an interview with the Irish Times newspaper that ‘the roofbox which was central to capturing the winter light has “not a shred of authenticity”, and was “fabricated” during reconstruction in the 1960s’ (www.irishtimes.com 2016), although his journal article, published in Emania (2016, 67–78) makes no such claim. Nevertheless, his allegations caused a sensation among scholars and the general public alike. The OPW responded by publishing photographs taken prior to the reconstruction which clearly show the roofbox in 1935, and later in 1954 (www.thejournal.ie 2016).
It could be argued that, had O’Kelly restored the ‘original natural sloping face of the mound’ as the 1961 committee had requested (1987, 72), Newgrange may not have achieved its high status in terms of its archaeology and popularity as a tourist attraction. The mask the mound wears, its white quartz façade, has become fixed in the mind of popular culture, regardless of its authenticity.
Nowadays, conservation methods would not be so heavy–handed, and modern construction materials would not be utilised, unless safety required it. Advances in archaeological technology and techniques mean that new discoveries are often being made, challenging traditional, accepted beliefs.
Today, scholars are in agreement that Newgrange represents a multi–period mound, which was regularly extended by successive generations, as required. The white quartz wall is no longer thought plausible, particularly as no evidence of any such walls have been found at any other mounds. It has been proven that the entrance to Newgrange aligns with the rising sun of the winter solstice, and that the function of the roofbox is to admit a beam of sunlight into the furthest reaches of the inner central chamber. As yet, however, the reasoning behind these phenomena remains speculation.
This post is based on an essay I wrote for my Irish Cultural Heritage studies. Have you visited Newgrange? Were you aware of these controversies? Does it matter that the reconstruction may not be historically and archaeologically accurate, that the popular public perception of the site is based on that inaccuracy? What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
Cooney, Gabriel. 2006 Newgrange – A View from the Platform, Antiquity, Volume 80, Issue 309 1, 697-708.
Cooney, Gabriel and Grogan, Eoin. 1994 Irish Prehistory; A Social Perspective. Wordwell, Dublin.
Erikson, Palle. 2008 The Great Mound of Newgrange, Acta Archaeologica vol. 79, 250-273.
Gibbons, Michael and Gibbons, Myles. 2016 The Brú: A Hiberno-Roman Cult Site at Newgrange?, Emania, 23, 67–78.
Hensey, Robert. 2015 First Light: The Origins of Newgrange, Oxbow Books, Oxford.
Irish Times – Newgrange sun trap may be only 50 years old, says archaeologist. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/newgrange-sun-trap-may-be-only-50-years-old-says-archaeologist-1.2913483, (Last Accessed 3 Dec 2017).
The Journal – Newgrange's winter solstice is only 50 years old? No way, says OPW. http://www.thejournal.ie/neolithic-showdown-3155424-Dec2016/, (Last Accessed 3 Dec 2017).
O’Kelly, Michael, J. 1982 Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend, Thames and Hudson, London.
Prendergast, F. and Ray, T. 2002 Ancient Astronomical Alignments: Fact or Fiction?, Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 16, No. 2, 32-35.
Stout, Geraldine. 2002 Newgrange and the Bend of the Boyne, Cork University Press, Cork.
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