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The buried entrance to the north chamber at Dowth.
The buried entrance to the north chamber at Dowth. A whole arc of kerbstones are buried on the east side of the mound, between the two passages, where the 1847 trench drove through.

Dowth North

In this excavation, on the western side, a passage somewhat similar to that of New Grange had long remained exposed but, from the falling in of its sides and roof, it was not possible to follow it for more than a few yards on either side. Whether this passage was that originally broken open by Amlaff and his plundering Danes, it is difficult to determine.

Beauties of the Boyne, Sir William Wilde, 1849

There are two passages and chambers concealed within the huge cairn of Dowth, both located within the southwest quadrant of the monument. The cave at Dowth was raided by the Vikings as noted in the Annals of Ulster, 'cave' being used to describe a chamber or souterrain.

William A. Green's photograph of the souterraon entrance at Dowth North.
William A. Green's photograph of the souterraon entrance at Dowth North.

There is such a souterrain, some 4,000 years younger than the passage-grave, which was in use at the time of the Viking raids. The souterrain was used to enter and exit the monument in Victorian times, when these monuments featured on a popular tourist day-trip from Belfast:

This Dowth monument has really been invaded for road making purposes, and possibly the rumor embodied in the article of our contemporary derived of its origin from what has been done to it than from what has been done to the monument of Grange. The entrance by which the interior of this Dowth monument was formerly reached had been long obstructed, and lost, so that the existence of any interior chambers within it was questioned, but the excavation made for the road-making materials has actually cut in upon the entrance, which is a circuitous gallery, winding round the pyramid, and in this respect differing from that of the pyramid of New Grange, which is straight and direct.

One Day Trip from Belfast, 1897.

The entrance to the north passage stood open, as it appears in William Wakeman's illustration, belwo, up until about 1848. When the monument was excavated in 1847 and 1848, the entrance was re-modelled, with the original opening blocked off and a new entry made in the roof using a trapdoor and ladder.

William Wakeman's illustration of the north entrance.
William Wakeman's illustration of the north entrance at Dowth, from Sir William Wilde's Beauties of the Boyne, 1849. Wilde made this comment on the drawing: 'The upper portion above the lintel in this drawing, representing the mouth of the passage, is modern, the stones being replaced by the workmen, but the cut gives a very good idea of the appearance of this passage.'

Our next stop along this road was at Dowth, to examine a famous souterrain. We girls were all curiosity about this and bent on exploring, and which we commenced with the new experience of climbing down an iron ladder into the modern well-like entrance about 12 feet deep. We were then handed candles, and told to stoop, and follow the guide along a narrow, low passage, wonderfully cool and sweet, into a sort of round chamber or cell, in which we could once more stand upright, in the middle of which was a huge stone slightly depressed in the center; the guide said that was a cinerary basin in which, the bodies of the chiefs and great men were burnt. Off this cell were three smaller ones; the sides and roof of all this were formed of stone, some very large and some with carvings. The cells all had the sides of fiat stones, each one overlapping the last, so that it gradually drew into a round roof.

One Day Trip from Belfast, 1897.

The original opening is currently buried underground while the Victorian concrete shaft intersects with the passage near it's entrance and has long fallen out of use as an entrance. The early Christian souterrain which joins up with the neolithic passage, is now the main way to access Dowth North.

Looking across the chamber at Dowth North.
Looking across the chamber from the mouth of the passage within the passage-tomb at Dowth North. Photograph © National Monuments Service.

The Passage

The passage is oriented to the sunsets at Samhain and Imbolc, which occur in early November and February. Due to the obstructions at the entrance the sun has been unable to enter for many years and the chamber remains in darkness, like the name of the mound. Viewed from the passage, the sun would have set directly over the cairn at Newgrange, two kilometers to the south-west.

Dowth by George Coffey.
A plan of Dowth mound,showing the two passages and souterrain, by George Coffey.

This passage is twenty-seven feet long, and some of its stones are carved with circles, curved and zig-zag lines. Both in this passage, and at the entrances of several of the minor crypts and recesses which branch from the chamber, we find sills, formed by large flags, projecting above the surface, placed there apparently for the purpose of preventing the external pressure driving in the side walls.

Beauties of the Boyne, Sir William Wilde, 1849

The passage extends for about eight meters from the entrance to the chamber, and has eight orthostats on the right side and nine on the left. There are three sill-stones, barriers or thresholds in the passage, marking stages in the journey to the Land of the Dead. The third sill seperates the passage from the chamber.

Map of Dowth.
Map of Dowth. The huge passage-grave is to the lower left; the massive neolithic enclosure is top right. Dowth Hall, where a destroyed passage-tomb was recently discovered, is in the trees at the centre of the map. Image © OSI.

The Chamber

The chamber of Dowth North is an unusual and complex affair, and feels infinitely old and eerie. The passage opens to a vault built of truly massive, almost intimidating orthostats towering three and four meters over the floor and roofed by one huge slab. The centre of the chamber is dominated by a large oval basin, which was smashed at some time in the past, quite possibly by the Vikings when they raided here.

Large, shaped stones in which a hollow has been chiselled and which are called basin stones are found in some passage graves. In them were the placed remains, burnt and unburnt, of those for whom the tomb was built and grave offerings would have accompanied them. The Dowth basin was found in scattered fragments during the 1847 excavation but it is not clear exactly where the various pieces were. Wilde says that a portion was in the chamber and others were in the 'chambers and passages around.' It was found, for example, that the basin stone in the western tomb at Knowth had been moved to a position a good way down the passage, but it had not been broken up.

The nine fragments of the Dowth basin were put together in the course of the excavation and the whole placed in the centre of the chamber but there is no certainty that this is the correct position. On the analogy of Newgrange, one of the recesses is the more likely place. The basin would fit only in the right-hand recess; perhaps this was its original location and it may be that it was broken in the attempt to dislodge it or in the course of whatever disturbance caused such damage in this part of the tomb. Its dimensions are l-5m by lm and themaximum depth of the hollowed part is 25cm. There was no trace of the contents but it is possible that careful excavation might reveal some of them as was the case when the Newgrange chamber was excavated in 1967.

The Tumulus of Dowth, County Meath, Michael and Claire O'Kelly, 1983.

Nine pieces and fragments were gathered and pieced back together after the 1847 dig. The presence of this most mysterious coffin-shaped basin only adds to the unusual and quite spooky atmosphere of this chamber.

An early photo of Dowth by Hogg.
An early photo of the north chamber of Dowth looking out along the passage.
Photograph by A. R. Hogg, © NMNI.

But as one stands there in that cyclopean chamber, the wonder of the thing, its uncanniness, its mystery, grow more and more over-whelming, until one peers around nervously, in the dim and wavering candle-light, expecting to see I know not what. With me, that sensation passed; for I happened suddenly to remember how George Moore and AEON made a pilgrimage to this spot, one day, and sat in this dark chamber, cross-legged like Yogi, trying to evoke the spirits of the Druids, and just when they were about to succeed, or so it seemed, the vision was shattered by the arrival of two portly Presbyterian preachers.

Dowth described in 1914.

Plan of Dowth North by Claire and Michael O'Kelly.
Plan and elevation of Dowth North by Claire and Michael O'Kelly from their 1969 report on the monument.

Megalithic Art in Dowth North.

There are eleven stones in the passage and chamber which bear megalithic engravings. In comparison to newgrange and Knowth, the art is cruder and has more in common with the Loughcrew style. The sun, the moon, eclipses: ritual astronomical observation seems to be a key theme in the Dowth art.

The sun wheels on the image below echo the motifs on the kerbstone dubbed the Stone of the Seven Suns by Martin Brennan. Researcher Robin Edgar has pointed out that these neolithic symbols are virtually identical to Victorian photographs of solar eclipses.

Megalithic art in Dowth North by Claire O'Kelly.
Megalithic art in Dowth North by Claire O'Kelly from the 1983 report on the Dowth.

The King's Chamber

The chamber is cruciform or cross-shaped in plan with three recesses opening off the central space. The left-hand and back recess are typical of cruciform chambers, both being large pentagonal cists. The right-hand recess seems like a regular space, but upon closer inspection, a small opening on the right extends into another short passage which turns first straight and then left, creating a pair of annexed cists.

The first annex is small, cramped and claustrophobic; the visitor has to cross three sillstones to enter it, the last of which is virtually a standing stone. The second annex is four meters long and again, has a very coffin-like feeling. The floor is made from one huge slab more than three meters long with a curious and unusual depression. These inner compartments reminded the excavators of the Great Pyramid, and Thomas Deane referred to the annex as 'the king's Tomb'.

The roof of the right hand chamber is nine feet seven inches from the floor. Creeping through these dark passages, and over the high projecting sills which we have already described, we come to two small chambers, one within another, running nearly south-west, and measuring about two feet six each in breadth.

Following, however, the long, southern gallery, we find its floor formed by a single stone, ten feet six long; and, in the centre of this flag, we find a shallow oval excavation, capable of holding about one gallon of fluid, and apparently rubbed down with some rude tool, or another stone; it is not unlike one of the shallow, very early quearns in the museum of the Royal Irish Academy. Beyond this flag, and separated from it by a projecting sill, we find a terminal chamber, with a sloping roof, and capable of holding a man in the sitting posture.

Beauties of the Boyne, Sir William Wilde, 1849

The Dowth annex is a very unusual feature not found at any other site in the catalogue of passage-grave design in Ireland. This so-called dog leg may be the passage remains from an earlier phase of the monument which was altered when the huge mound was built.

The chamber of Dowth north with it's massive smashed basin, large enough to hold a body.
The chamber of Dowth north with it's massive smashed basin, large enough to hold a body. Photo © O.P.W.

New research on the Passage Grave people reveals that they were a wealthy and elite group of cattle farmers with a complex social system. In some ways this was always obvious, since monuments on the scale of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth would need cohesive leadership and planning.

The discovery that people buried at sites such as Carrowmore, Carrowkeel, Milin Bay and Newgrange were related, and that a man who was buried in the chamber at Newgrange was born of incest, has promped a new understanding of the social and religious forces at work in the stone age. Dowth has long been associated with a myth involving incest and the midwinter sunsets.

Tree at Dowth
Dowth, an enormous passage-grave some eighty-five meters across and fifteen meters high.