Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
The concrete facade at Newgrange.
Many visitors to Newgrange today are unaware that the quartz facade is a modern creation supported by a massive reinforced concrete wall. The neolithic monument could never have looked as it does now when it was built in 3,200 BC. The site was excavated over thirteen seasons by Michael O'Kelly, and restored using modern building materials. Knowth underwent a similar but much longer excavation and restoration.

Restorations at Newgrange

It is often remarked that with great power comes great responsibility: it is equally true that with great power comes great temptation. The Act of 1882 placed a great responsibility on the shoulders of the Commissioners and their successors, and for the most part they have lived up to that responsibility. But the temptation to rebuild—restore is the preferred euphemism—rather than maintain or preserve has often proved too strong to resist. There is a thin line between vandalism and restoration. One wonders whether the original builders of Stonehenge or Newgrange would even recognize their handiwork in the tourist traps that now stand on Salisbury Plain and the banks of the Boyne.

Newgrange Is Taken into Care, Brendan Ward. Source.

While Newgrange is the most famous ancient monument in Ireland, it is also the most heavily restored, having been subjected to a prolonged programme of excavations followed by a series of interventions and restorations to make the monument more accessible to the public. While Newgrange is justly renowned for the precise astronomical alignment to the winter solstice sunrise, the cairn itself seems to have been poorly constructed, and must have collapsed quite disasterously at some time in prehistory - though exactly when is still a matter of debate. Early images and descriptions show Newgrange to have appeared as a huge truncated cone or frustrum, having much the same form as Queen Maeve's cairn, Carns Hill east and west and Heapstown cairn, all in County Sligo.

Pre-excavation: Newgrange in the 1930's.
The pre-excavation appearance of the huge passage-grave at Newgrange in 1950. The monument was overgrown with trees, the cairn had collapsed, and many of the passage stones had fallen inwards meaning access to the chamber was only possible by crawling through the passage.

When the Board of Works took over management of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth in 1882, steps were taken to tidy up the entrance area in front of Newgrange. A series of operations was conducted under the supervision Sir Thomas Newenham Deane, the first Inspector of National Monuments, who had assisted Lady Louisa Tennison with her excavations at Moytura in County Sligo. Deane had the loose stone collected from the passage and chamber; this material was buried in a pit in front of the Entrance stone. The closing door slab was found lying with its top resting on the Entrance stone. This large slab was turned through 90° and laid flat as a paving slab behind the Entrance Stone. Deane also cleared the area around Kerbstone 52 and Kerbstone 67. At some stage in the 1880's a landowner had dug a trench along the kerbstones and erected a drystone wall above them. In 1890 a gate was fitted, blocking access to the interior of the monument, which helped to limit the graffiti damage.

Aerial photo of Newgrange taken during excavations. Image by Leo Swan.
Aerial photo of Newgrange taken during excavations, shows the position of the huge monument on the gravel ridge. Image by Leo Swan.

Modern Restorations

Further improvements began in 1961 when Bord Fáilte Éireann (the Irish Tourist Board) purchased six acres of land surrounding the monument and presented it to the state. At the same time, M.J. O’Kelly was commissioned via the National Monuments Advisory Council to carry out excavations, the main objective being to enable the National Monuments Service of the Office of Public Works to improve the appearance of the site and make it accessible for tourist purposes.

Facing the cairn at Newgrange, Co. Meath.
Elizabeth Shee Twohig and Robert Hensey, 2017

Professor Michael J. O'Kelly began work at Newgrange in 1962 and excavated every summer for a season of four months until 1975; in many ways, O'Kelly has become synonymous with the monument, his work, ideas and conceptions have led to the creation of the Newgrange we see today. There has been plenty of controversy and debate about O'Kelly's work, in particular about both the reconstruction of the roof-box and the creation of an almost vertical white facade of quartz on the front of the monument. It is extremely unlikely that in the neolithic Newgrange could ever have looked remotely as it currently appears.

Michael J. O'Kelly at Newgrange.
Michael J. O'Kelly at Newgrange.

Michael O'Kelly had been selected in 1961 by a committee to excavate and restore Newgrange. O'Kelly had the monument cleared of trees and shrubs before beginning to excavate the front of the passage-grave. There was a large disturbed area in the summit of the monument, visible in early aerial excavation photographs, one of many interesting topics which are not explained in O'Kelly's book, Newgrange - Archaeology, Art and Legend. When O'Kelly began to excavate the cairn-slip at the front of the monument, his original plan was to hoist the fallen cairn material up four stories of scaffolding and to fill in the crater in the top of the monument. However, the amount of spoil or cairn-slip found at the front of the monument caused O'Kelly to change his plans within a few seasons.

The Interpretations of the Cairn-slip

Reading the published material on Newgrange entails quite a lot of detective work, and O'Kelly's writings usually raise more questions than they answer. During excavations at the front of the monument, it was discovered that the neolithic farmers had stripped vast amounts of turf from the front of Newgrange, for use as filling and stabilizing material in the construction of the cairn. O'Kelly suggests that the soil in front of Newgrange was never allowed to re-grow, but was continually stripped and re-stripped. At the lowest layer, substansial quantities of white quartz were found on the stripped surface, in a layer that stretched out for up to 7.5 meters from the kerbstones.

Lying directly in contact with the subsoil surface and spreading for a distance of 6 - 7 meters outwards from the kerb is a layer composed entirely of angular pieces of white quartz and water or glacially-rolled grey granite boulders, the quartz being very much the predominant material. The layer is wedge-shaped in section, thickest at the kerb and trails off to nothing further out.

Newgrange - Archaeology, Art and Legend by Michael J. O'Kelly.

Granite cobbles were also found, though not in the same quantities as the quartz. This quartz layer was covered with material which had fallen from the monument when the cairn collapsed. The top layer of the cairn slip consisted of material which had been cleared from a trench dug around the kerbstones in the 1880's and again in the 1930's. Given the volume of material which had fallen from the cairn, O'Kelly began to formulate his ideas that the layer of quartz he had discovered was infact the remains of a collapsed quartz wall. He may have been inspired by the earlier revetment wall constructed by an earlier landowner in the 1880's, which was constructed above the kerbstones in places, and needed constant maintainance by the Office of Public Works. O'Kelly also visited France during the early years of his Newgrange excavations, and he was inspired and motivated by monuments at Gavrinis and Barnanez which both feature neolithic drystone revetted facades.

Excavation outside the kerb at Newgrange.
Excavation outside the kerbstones at Newgrange showing the trench and dry-stone walling from the 1880's.

O'Kelly decided that a revetment must have stood at Newgrange, as he believed there was too much material on the ground to have come from a frustrum. He conceived something like the facades he had seen in France, although there was no evidence of internal walls or foundations at Newgrange. Indeed, when O'Kelly described the cairn-slip, it did not sound like the kind of high-quality building material that might be expected if it were a wall which had supported 200,000 tons of loose stone.

Having taken into account the amount of material and its nature - mainly cobbles and loose gravels forming a cohesionless mass with a natural angle of repose of approximately 40 degrees, he (Mr. W. J. Fogarty) calculated that the revetment must originally have been in the order of 3 meters in height with a lay back of about 30 centimeters in that height. Since the original revetment was of dry stone it had given away in time, and it was obvious that if the process was not to be repeated the edge of the mound must be stabilised in some more permanent manner.

Newgrange - Archaeology, Art and Legend by Michael J. O'Kelly.

An aerial image of Newgrange during excavations. Photograph by Leo Swan.
Michael O'Kelly discovered a line of boulders, which he chose to interpret as the foundations of a vertical revetment, within the kerbstones at the back of Newgrange.

Excavations at the Back of Newgrange

Because the highly decorated Kerbstone 52, located at the opposite side of the cairn to the Entrance Stone, contained a vertical line whiich was believed to mark another passage and chamber, O'Kelly opened up a trench to investigate. On this side of the monument there was a similar volume of cairn-slip, but no quartz or granite cobbles. Kerbstones 48, 49 and 50, had all fallen outwards when the cairn collapsed, and while excavating behind them O'Kelly discovered a line of boulders which he decided must represent the foundation of a neolithic revetment wall.

Excavations at Kerbstone 52.
Excavations behind Kerbstone 52 were undertaken by Michael J.O'Kelly to see if a second passage or chamber might be present in the back of the cairn. Photograph from the Newgrange Archive with colours added.

The basal layers of cairn stones were retained by lines of boulders and it was clear that, in the neighbourhood of the passage at least, a definite plan had been followed. It can be safely inferred that the same forethought was observed in the remainder of the cairn. It was clear also that the outer edge of the part of the cairn above the kerb had been retained by means of a built wall. During the 1970 season we were fortunate to find in the north cutting the bottom course of what must have been the original revetment wall, still in situ in a position which which would have corresponded to the top line of kerbstones 48, 49 and 50 before they had tilted outwards. The course of stones consisted of the same type of boulders as those found lying outside the kerb. Interference with the cairn edge in this area had been inconsiderable and it is no doubt due to this that the bottom course of the revetment has survived in place.

Newgrange - Archaeology, Art and Legend by Michael J. O'Kelly.

Based on his interpretation of the position of the quartz layer and the line of boulders behind Kerbstone 52, O'Kelly had convinced himself that a vertical wall had been constructed above the kerbstones at Newgrange in the neolithic.

The vertical revetment at Newgrange which was constructed around 1880.
The drystone vertical revetment at Newgrange which was constructed around 1880. O'Kelly was convinced that such a wall, three meters high, was constructed on the kerbstones in the neolithic. The 1880's wall, pictured, needed constant repair and attention from the Office of Public Works.

Michael J. O'Kelly's Quartz Facade at Newgrange

To test his theories about a vertical facade O'Kelly, who always had an interest in experimental archaeology, had a trench excavated in front of kerbstones 81 and 82. The quartz and material found on the old ground surface was used to construct a vertical revetment two meters high. The wall was deliberately collapsed, and the resulting stratigraphy seemed close enough to the layers found in the cairn-slip. This famous experiment, which does not seem to have been photographed or recorded, became the basis and justification for O'Kelly's restored facade.

The quartz and granite boulders collected from this cutting were then built as a revetment upon the 2 meters length of kerb and the space behind was filled in with the remainder of the excavated material. The revetment finished at 2 meters in height — the difference between this and the calculated height of 3 meters postulated for the original revetment can be accounted for by several factors. A good quantity of the quartz found in the trial excavation was shattered and could not be used, also a good deal had been removed in the trench diggings of previous years, but the most important reason was that at the point selected for our trial trench the quartz facing was tending to peter out, although we did not realize this until several seasons later. We caused the newly-built revetment to collapse so as to compare the new stratification with the original. In the lower layers the results were well-nigh identical, such slight differences as existed being due to the fact that turves had not been incorporated into the upper part of the rebuilt cairn.

Newgrange - Archaeology, Art and Legend by Michael J. O'Kelly.

O'Kelly seems to have decided to construct a revetment as early as 1968. His justifications were his interpretation of the layers within the cairn-slip; the fact that no quartz was found under Kerbstone 96; the line of boulders behind Kerbstones 48 - 50; the fact that the builders seem to have been keen to keep the tops of the kerbstones level; and finally O'Kellys interpretation of the layers of turf within the cairn.

The concrete wall at Newgrange.
The area around the entrance to Newgrange. In this photograph, the passage and chamber have been encased in a covering of reinforced concrete, and work has just started on the area around the entrance.

O'Kelly stated ‘Engineering research based on our detailed contour plan of the mound and on a series of typical section profiles ... has revealed that the quartz was not spread on the surface of the mound, but was used as a building material for a revetment wall standing about 2.5m high on top of the kerb, the wall lying back about 30cm in this height’. After consultation with a colleague, John Fogarty of the Civil Engineering Department at University College Cork, who visited Newgrange late in 1968, O'Kelly had decided to build his quartz facade.

The concrete wall at Newgrange.
The concrete wall at Newgrange. Image from O'Kelly's book, Newgrange Archaeology, art and legend.

Long before we had completed investigation of the slip it had become clear that the simplistic approach of the 1961 Committee in which we ourselves had shared at the time — could no longer be sustained. The Committee had recommended that 'the original natural sloping face of the mound be restored', but the layers identified in the collapse could not have derived from such a surface and must have come from a near-vertical one. It had become obvious that the quartz/granite made up this surface at the front of the mound and that elsewhere selected boulders of the normal cairn material had been used, that it had been built on top of the kerb as a revetment and that when it fell there was nothing to hold the cairn behind it in place.

Newgrange - Archaeology, Art and Legend by Michael J. O'Kelly.

A trench was excavated behind the kerbstones for some fifty meters on each side of the entrance to Newgrange. This trench became the foundation for the massive reinforced concrete revetment which O'Kelly had constructed to support his quartz wall. It is strange looking at excavation photographs taken at the time the concrete wall was installed. The mound of quartz which was excavated from the front of the monument is visible in photographs from the time, but it does not seem remotely large enough to face a facade three by one hundred square meters, which is what O'Kelly constructed. A modern cut-limestone entry area was installed to each side of the entrance, which was finished in such a way as to let the visitor know it is modern. The quartz was then cemented into the concrete wall to create O'Kelly's modern facade, which has been the subject of much critical debate ever since.

Rebuilding the Roofbox

O'Kelly also oversaw the dismantling and reconstruction of the roofbox structure located above the entrance to the monument. Though it is often claimed to be unique, there is an earlier example of a roofbox at Cairn G in Carrowkeel which is designed to moniter the movements of the sun at midsummer, the setting moons in midwinter, and the points where their cycles or nodes converge to produce eclipses.

The view through the roofbox in Cairn G at Carrowkeel.
The setting sun close to midsummer viewed through the roofbox in Cairn G at Carrowkeel.

The roofbox at Newgrange seems to be a third or outer extension or enhancement of the passage at Newgrange. The roofbox was constructed at a sufficient height to allow the sun to enter the chamber, two meters higher up the sloping hill. The passage stones had fallen in and some of the roofing corbels were cracked or broken. O'Kelly had about half the passage stones straightened which raised the height of the stones they supported. By raising the slabs at the back of the roofbox, which had subsided and slumped due to the massive weight of the cairn, O'Kelly's reconstructed roofbox allowed the sun's rays to enter the chamber, possibly for the first time since the cairn collapsed.

The plan and elevation of Newgrange showing the reinforced concrete additions. The image if taken from Newgrange - Archaeology, Art and Legend by Michael J. O'Kelly.
The plan and elevation of Newgrange showing the reinforced concrete additions. The image if taken from Newgrange - Archaeology, Art and Legend by Michael J. O'Kelly.

Both the passage and chamber were encased within reinforced concrete casings, and a large reinforced concrete structure like a hood of hip roof was installed in the area above the chamber. The liberal use of reinforced concrete in O'Kelly's restored Newgrange was to have repurcussions for the integrity of the monument within a few years of its completion.

Rebuilding the Roofbox at Newgrange after excavation.
Rebuilding the Roofbox at Newgrange after excavation.

The Back of Newgrange Collapses

By the late 1980's the weep holes built into the concrete facade had become blocked, and with nowhere to escape from the front of the monument, being contained within the curved reinforced concrete revetment wall, the accumulated rainfall caused the back of Newgrange to collapse.

By the early 1980s, sections of the nineteenth-century revetment wall along the north side of the mound had collapsed, resulting in loose cairn material lumping forward over the kerbstones. It is likely that the weep-holes in the reinforced concrete wall built behind the front façade of the mound in the 1970s restoration work had blocked up, causing an increased flow of rainwater towards the back of the mound and leading eventually to a collapse of the revetment. To rectify the problem, a programme of conservation works was implemented by the National Monuments Service of the OPW that involved the placement of stone-filled gabions behind the kerbstones to retain the loose cairn material while at the same time allowing rainwater to percolate through. The opportunity was also taken to restore to vertical (where feasible) a number of the kerbstones that had been pushed forward, and concrete slabs were cantilevered over them to provide some protection from the elements (many of the kerbstones were visibly deteriorating as a result of frost/thaw action and wind/rain erosion). A stone revetment wall averaging 1m in height was reinstated above the kerbstones to continue the line of the existing nineteenth-century wall.

Newgrange revisited: new insights from excavations at the back of the mound in 1984–8 by Ann Lynch.

The back of Newgrange showing the collapsed 1880's mortared revetment caused by a back-up of water caused by the reinforced concrete additions to the front of the monument. The image is taken Newgrange revisited: new insights from excavations at the back of the mound in 1984–8 by Ann Lynch.
The back of Newgrange showing the collapsed 1880's mortared revetment caused by a back-up of water caused by the reinforced concrete additions to the front of the monument. The image is taken Newgrange revisited: new insights from excavations at the back of the mound in 1984–8 by Ann Lynch.

In many ways the situation at the back of Newgrange in the late 1980's and early 1990's highlights problems about restoration of ancient monuments using modern methods. O'Kelly's excavations and restorations affected about one third of the monument at Newgrange, leaving two-thirds relatively untouched. Some of the original 1880's revetment, constructed with mortar above the kerbstones, needed continual monitoring and maintainance. The lack of soakage caused by the reinforced concrete wall caused a massive build-up of water which erupted from the back of the monument. Sections of mortared wall collapsed, and the back of the site had to be close to the public for excavation and repair work.

Ann Lynch oversaw the series of excavation and conservation which took place between 1984 and 1988. The operations involved excavations along the east side of Newgrange where some twenty-five kerbstones were under pressure from the collapsed revetment. A machine was introduced to remove the cairn material and shuttering supported by steel beams was intruduced to allow the archaeologists to dig down to the original ground level. The massive weight of the cairn bent and crushed several of the steel beams which held back the cairn material, which prompts many queestions about the possibility of a drystone wall at the front of the monument standing for any length of time. The turf mound, discovered by O'Kelly in his excavations behind Kerbstone 52, was examined and found to extend beyond the ring of kerbstones. This turf mound is believed to be the remains of an earlier or proto-Newgrange.

The back of Newgrange showing the repairs undertaken after the major cairn collapse caused by a back-up of water caused by the reinforced concrete additions to the front of the monument. The image is taken Newgrange revisited: new insights from excavations at the back of the mound in 1984–8 by Ann Lynch.
The back of Newgrange showing the repairs undertaken after the major cairn collapse caused by a back-up of water caused by the reinforced concrete additions to the front of the monument. The image is taken Newgrange revisited: new insights from excavations at the back of the mound in 1984–8 by Ann Lynch.

Critical Opionions and Dissenting Voices

O'Kelly's decision to erect a vertical quartz facade was contraversial from the moment it was finished. The restored monument wows and amazes many visitors each year, but not every is dazzled by the extremely modern looking neolithic building they are confronted with. Time spent examining other passage-graves in the west of Ireland and antiquarian accounts, drawings and photographs invariably show a cairn quite different in appearance to the version we have today, presented by Michael J. O'Kelly in 1975.

The white quartz wall has a glaringly modern appearance. Although it was justified on the basis of an engineer’s analysis of the cairn collapse, it is difficult to imagine that the monument could ever have appeared like this in prehistoric times. Its construction has to be understood in the context of the late 1960s fashions in restoration. Many have argued for its removal. O’Kelly believed that the cairn collapse indicated that the cairn had a near-vertical face. A highly controversial wall was erected at the entrance to Newgrange designed according to this hypothesis. The wall is made up of quartz and granite cobbles found during the excavation. O’Kelly believed that the builders used selected boulders as a foundation to build a revetment behind the kerbstones creating a drum-like shape. It is highly unlikely that such a steep profile was ever maintained using a quartz revetment in the neolithic.

Newgrange and the Bend of the Boyne
by Geraldine Stout

In 2006 Gabriel Cooney, one of Ireland's leading archaeologists published a paper called Newgrange: the View From the Platform, which examined the evidence for a vertical revetment quartz facade as opposed to a ceremonial platform spread out infront of the monument. It is interesting to note that Michael J. O'Kelly's contemporary, George Eogan, who was excavating at Knowth close by, did not believe in O'Kelly's quartz facade, and he encouraged debate on the subject with his archaeology students. When Eogan found spreads of quartz and granite mixed with exotic stones in front of both the East and the West entrances at Knowth, he was happy to leave the quartz where he found it - on the old ground surface.

Cooney's paper analyses the sections and cuttings made by O'Kelly, and looks at the bank of yellow clay which was added to cover over and seal off any activities in front of the monument. Cooney's paper comes to the conclusion that if a revetted wall ever stood at Newgrange, it did not stand for very long, as it collapsed before any new turves of grass could form on the stripped area in front of the monument. Others have attempted to explain this anomoly away by speculating that the area outside Newgrange was continually stripped annualy long after the cairn was completed.

If the sequence suggested above is correct then the quartz/granite layer had a long-term significance and role as a platform or enclosing bank in the sequence of activity at Newgrange stretching over more than 300 years. If it ever had been a wall or facing on the mound, that role would have been much shorter in term and was brought to an end by deliberate or natural destruction. Thinking about the history of the wall since its reconstruction in the 1970s, it started as a particular, personal interpretation of how the monument looked.

Newgrange: the View From the Platform, Gabriel Cooney, 2006.

Rebuilt kerb and revettment at Newgrange.
The rebuilt kerb and revettment at the back of Newgrange. Within a few years of O'Kelly's completed renovations, this mortared wall collapsed because of a build up of water within the cairn caused by the concrete wall.

In 2008 Danish archaeologist published a paper titles The Great Mound of Newgrange, where he described his dismay and dissapointment at seeing how heavily the monument had been restored.

There was, however, one unpleasant and provocative sight, which we probably were expecting but which still shocked us: Newgrange. This fantastic monument, more than 5000 years old, has been defaced by an exceptionally severe restoration involving a large and conspicuous, high white wall. It looks very modern and we were left with more than the faintest suspicion that there is something seriously wrong with Newgrange. Or was it us who had a problem because we still lived “in the romantic days of candlelight and cattle”? O’Kelly was so certain of his collapse theory that he did not even consider that Newgrange could be a multi-period mound. And with his convincing book “Newgrange. Archaeology, Art and Legend” which was published in 1982 – the same year in which he died – he silenced critics and sceptics many years into the future. The book was, as Colin Renfrew wrote in the foreword, “the final and definite report”.

The Great Mound of Newgrange by Palle Eriksen, 2008.

 A photo from the excavation of the pit circle demonstrates that the woodhenge pre-dates the great stone circle. Picture © Con Brogan.
An extremely interesting aerial photograph of Newgrange during excavations. At this stage the excavation of the area at the front of the monument has been completed, and the concrete wall which will support the quartz facade has been installed. It is interesting to note the pile of quartz at the bottom right of the image, which does not seem to contain enough material to cover the 100 x 3 meter wall whcih was inevetably constructed. Photograph from the Cambridge Aerial Photographic Collection.

Recent research has suggested that the mound should have been restored to a shape similar to Queen Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea, the two monuments on Carns Hill and Heapstown cairn, all unopened and unexcavated passage-graves found in County Sligo.

Michael J. O'Kelly was, to the end of his days, dismissive of anyone who disagreed with his vision of Newgrange. It was O'Kelly's wish to restore the cobbles within his quartz wall with swirling spiral or zig-zag designs taken from the megalithic art, but this subjective whimsey was a step too far for the Office of Public Works, and the granite cobbles were distributed randomly throughout the quartz facade.

The succession of events deduced from excavation of the collapse and tested by experiment demolished the old notion that an ancient 'bank-and-ditch' feature existed outside the kerb. Demolished also was the 'shapely hemispherical mound of stones, the entire surface of which was covered with a layer of broken fragments of quartz', as it was described in the guidebook to the monument current before the excavations. It has been understandably difficult for those who knew Newgrange in the romantic days of candlelight to accept the fact that, when originally built, the mound was drum-like rather than dome-shaped. Those who accept the 'new archaeology' of Newgrange, however, can observe for themselves how much more impressive it now is than if it had been restored to a bogus hemispherical shape in accordance with the misconceptions of earlier days.

Newgrange - Archaeology, Art and Legend by Michael J. O'Kelly.

An aerial image of Newgrange during excavations. Photograph by Leo Swan.
An extremely interesting photograph of Newgrange during excavations. At this stage the excavation of the area at the front of the monument has been completed, and the concrete wall which will support the quartz facade has yet to be installed. It is interesting to note that here is no sign of the pile of quartz which would become the modern facade.