Many visitors to Newgrange today are unaware that the mounds facade is a modern reworking, and hardly looked as it does now when it was built in 3,200 BC. The site was excavated over a number of seasons by Michael O'Kelly, and restored using modern building materials. Knowth underwent a similar but much longer excavation and restoration.
The first modern dig at Newgrange took place in 1699, just after the Battle of the Boyne, when the landowner Charles Campbell ordered laberours to quarry stone from the mound. As luck would have it, they began digging at the entrance and uncovered the roofbox and the Entrance stone.
Edward Lhwyd was the first antiquarians to visit and describe the mound, during his tour of Ireland in 1699. He was lucky enough to pass by just after the entrance had been discovered. During the next 200 years the site had many visitors, as can be seen from the quantity of graffiti they left behind them. The site came into state care in 1882, and some restoration work, including the addition of the iron gate and the cleaning of the entrance area, was carried out in 1890.
R. A. F. Macalister did some excavations at Knowth in 1940 and Newgrange in 1943. He began digging at the Entrance stone, and working clockwise exposed 54 kerbstones that had been buried under cairn-slip. I have added a page with his 'Penny Guide to Newgrange', to read it click here.
Right, Martin Brennan's drawing of the roofbox construction; from The Stones of Time.
Professor M. J. O'Kelly began work at Newgrange in 1962 and excavated every summer for a season of 4 months until 1975, and his work gave us the Newgrange we have today. The scrub and bush was removed from the mound, and a series of detailed plans and drawings were made. They began by making cuttings into the body of the mound, and found that it had been built in carefully built up in layers composed of turves, clay, water-rolled boulders and snailshells.
Over thirteen years of excavation and restoration, four main areas were examined: the cairn-slip, the cairn, the passage and chamber, and the circle of standing stones. The results are published in O'Kelly's book, Newgrange Archaeology, art and legend, a very good read. The mound was dated to about 3,200 BC from charcoal in the caulking of sand and burnt clay used to seal the roof corbels against damp.
Plan from the excavation from the book Newgrange by Michael O'Kelly.
As the excavations progressed, they began to repair and restore the mound. O'Kelly examined the way the cairn had slipped, and after a series of experiments decided to restore the mound with a verticle wall (see picture below). However, it is unlikely that such a verticle wall could have stood for long in the neolithic without the reinforcing concrete and steel. Indeed, recent research has suggested that O'Kelly's ideas about the collapsing wall suggest that the mound should have been restored to a shape similar to Queen Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea in County Sligo.
The entrance at Newgrange was remodelled during the reconstruction to allow easier access for visitors. The grey cut limestone was used to differenciate the old from the modern.
The passage was uncovered and the orthostats which were leaning were uprighted. The passage and chamber were covered with a layer of concrete (see top of page). The site was opened to the public in 1975, and is now one of the largest tourist attractions in Ireland.
The wall of quartz at Newgrange. In reality, the site could hardly have looked like this, as the builders didn't use concrete! Michael O'Kelly was said to be unhappy with the finished look and commented that the cairn looked like a huge current bun!