Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
An early image of a group of visitors at Newgrange. Photograph by Robert Welch .
An early image of a group of visitors at Newgrange. Photograph by Robert Welch.

Bru na Boinne, the Bend of the Boyne

The River Boyne takes a spiral course as it meanders up from the plains of Kildare, winds its way through Meath and takes a curious bend before emptying into the Irish Sea. The bend in the river encloses a picturesque area dominated by three large stone structures known as megalithic mounds and named Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. These are strategi­ cally positioned on ridges, appearing above a landscape dotted with smaller mounds, earthworks and standing stones.

The Stars and the Stones, Martin Brennan, 1983.

The neolithic monuments in the Boyne Valley are Ireland's largest and most complex stone age buildings. Between three and five hundred chambered cairns or passage-graves exist in Ireland, with the earliest dates found on the north-west coast. The huge monuments in the Boyne Valley are the climax of the cultural and religious wave which extended across the island from Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in County Sligo and Loughcrew in County Meath during the neolithic period. Carrowmore, Carrowkeel and Newgrange have recently been connected by Ancient DNA studies.

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The Boyne Valley

The mounds and passage-graves at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth are the largest, finest and most decorated megalithic temples in the country and have few rivals in Ancient Europe. The three huge mounds are surrounded by the remains of up to forty smaller satellite monuments, half of which are found at Knowth.

Knowth kerbstone.
A decorated kerbstone, carved about 3,200 BC at Knowth may be a diagram of Newgrange.

As at the other great megalithic complexes of Carrowmore in Coolrea, Carrowkeel and Loughcrew, the monuments in the Boyne Valley are completely interlinked and interconnected. The late Michael Poynder, in his book Pi in the Sky, suggested that the Boyne Valley is connected to the other Irish sites by a great energy line or leyline crossing the country.

That a line or chain of monuments crossed the country from Sligo to the Boyne was recognised by Gabrial Beranger, commenting on the views from Queen Maeve's cairn in 1779. American researcher Martin Brennan has also written about and illustrated the great chain of passage-graves, built by the Cailleach named Garavogue, as she leapt from peak to peak across the country, with her magic apron filled with stones.

The Knowth basin
The Dagda's Cauldron, the Great Basin of Knowth, right recess, east chamber. This beautiful piece of granite was carved in position; it is much too large to have been moved in after the chamber was built. Picture © Padraig Conway.

The monuments comprise an extensive interconnected sacred, ritual, and astronomicaly oriented complex of passage-graves. The Boyne monuments occupy an important place in Irish mythology; there are many wonderful myths and legends connected with the mounds. The principle monuments are said to be the mansions of notable members of the Tuatha De Danann, a mythological wave of colonising settlers, who arrive in Ireland by ship: the Dagda, his son Aengus Og, and Lugh of the Long Arm.

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Modern genetic research seems to indicate that an elite leadership, the families of the original colony of farmers who had left Brittany by 4,000 BC to settle the Sligo region, are buried in important neolithic passage-graves across the country. These farmers came in waves by ship, all the way up the west coast of Ireland, bringing young cattle and red deer, and a new and vastly alien way of life to anything seen in Ireland before.

A Sacred landscape

The monuments within the Boyne valley are all interconnected, and many passage-graves point to other monuments. For example, standing on Site B, the unopened mound within a henge below Newgrange, a viewer can watch the midsummer sunsets and the midwinter lunar standstills setting between Sites K and L and Newgrange. The large timber circle built later at the end of the neolithic may have been used in the same way to view lunar settings.

New discoveries in the Boyne Valley.

The three large mounds are intervisible and interconnected. The buried north chamber at Dowth is aligned directly to Newgrange, and the Samhain and Imbolc sunsets which drop directly over the great mound. The three mega-monuments are about ninety meters in diameter and up to twelve meters high, and each mound contains an estimated 300,000 tons of cairn material.

Burial mound at Aali on Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.
Burial mound at Aali on Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.

All three huge of the huge mounds had flat, circular platforms on their summits, ideal for viewing the horizons and making astronomical observations; and each would have looked much like Queen Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea in County Sligo in 3,200 BC. Newgrange excavated in the 1960's was questionably 'restored' in the 1970's, probably looking very different to Michael O'Kelly's makeover than when it built.

Mrs. Ann Hickey at Newgrange.
An old postcard of Mrs. Ann Hickey at Newgrange, who was caretaker and guide at Newgrange for sixty years.

The Neolithic Landscape

There is some evidence for mesolithic activity on the terraces below Newgrange, where bann flakes, pieces of worked flint are often found. The river would have provided abundant food during the mesolithic, and travel by river was much easier than trecking through the heavily forested landscape. The river Boyne opens into the Irish sea seventeen kilometers to the east of the Boyne Valley. Water was the main way of transport in Neolithic times when the landscape was densely forested. It has been demonstrated that the Boyne Valley had links with many other sites in Europe.

The land in the Boyne Valley is considered to be some of the finest farming land in modern Ireland. Archaeologists are puzzled as to how so much turf was stripped from the surrounding landscape to build the mounds, as this process would have destroyed good farming land. Whatever, it is likely that the area around the sites was deforested well before the large mounds were built.

An engraving of Dowth from before it was quarried. Lord Netterville's tea house sits on the summit.

An example is the fine mace head which was found at Knowth - the extremely hard flint came from Orkney. The Boyne is also nagivable for a long way upstream, and travellers could have reached near enough to the Loughcrew Mountains by boat. It is thought that the tides came as far as Newgrange in the neolithic.

Some of the building materials for the mounds were transported by boat - the nearest source for the quartz so strikingly used to face Newgrange is the Wicklow Mountains, 50 km to the south. Granite cobbles were collected from beaches 30 km to the north of the Boyne's mouth near the Cooley peninsula. The greywackie kerbstones and orthostats - several hunderds of them - are thought to have come from 8 km to the northeast of the Boyne Valley.

        O'Gibne with one of his river currachs.
Cliadhbh O'Gibne with one of his river currachs.

Local woodcarver and boatbuilder Cliadhbh O'Gibne builds river currachs - boats constructed from cow hides and hazel rods. I had the pleasure of a voyage down the River Boyne with Cliadhbh in the currach above. He has built an 8 meter currach which can be taken out to sea and along the coast, and this beautiful vessel can sometimes be seen at his workshop 1 km to the east before the entrance to the Boyne Valley visitor center.

    north-east across the River Boyne towards Newgrange.
Looking north-east across the River Boyne towards Newgrange.

The Monuments

Construction of megalithic monuments in Boyne Valley probably began around 3,500 B.C. The area was undoubtedly sacred during the mesolithic, when people would have been drawn to the Boyne for its abundant salmon. The smaller mounds, or satellites are thought to be the earliest sites. A considerable length of time must have been spent surveying the area before anything was built.

It is likely that the monuments were developed gradually in stages, Site K being a good example as the mound was enlarged and the passage extended. There is some evidence that each of the three huge mounds are built on smaller pre-existing sites: the bent passage at Knowth west, the annex at Dowth and the bulge at the back of Newgrange all hint at earlier structures. Also, Newgrange and Knowth seem to have stones that were reused from earlier buildings.

Knowth moonmap
The end recess of the east chamber at Knowth; the photo is looking west. Canadian researcher Philip Stooke has suggested that the engravings are the oldest known diagram of the moon.

The large monuments were constructed around 3,200 BC, and may have taken several generations to complete, Each covers an acre of ground and contains upwards of 300,000 tons of material. A large labour force needed to be fed, housed and equipped: boats, baskets, bags, lots and lots of rope, timber scaffolds and log rollers, chisels - a massive undertaking. The amount of timber alone need to move the stones and construct the corbelled chambers was enormous. It all points to a prosperous and confident society. I am always inspired by the neolithic sense of vision: who had the idea, and then convinced the people to do it?

Visiting Newgrange.

Dowth is thought to be the oldest monument, and the parallels in engraved symbols and technique between Dowth and Loughcrew would tend to support this. Dowth was plundered for stone in the 1830s and has a huge crater in the summit. There are two passages and some early Christian souterrains. St Bernard's well is close to the cairn, as is Dowth church, Nettweville castle and house, and the memorial to John Boyle O'Rielly.

Standing stone near Newgrange.
Looking to Newgrange from Site C, a large standing stone near the Boyne.

Knowth, the largest of the three monuments, was probably constructed next, and it is likely that the great stone basin in the east chamber was one of the first stones set in place, and played an important part in the setting out of the other sites. Knowth is by far the most complex of the three sites, the main mound being surrounded by 18 smaller monuments. Knowth appears to dedicated to the study of the moon's movements, as several of the satellites appear to be oriented to standstill positions, and the moon's cycle takes 18.6 years to complete.

Knowth during excavations in 2007.
Knowth during excavations in 2007. Source: DNA of ‘Irish Pharaoh’ Sheds Light on Ancient Tomb Builders.

Newgrange - The Cave of the Sun

Newgrange, the most famous of the three mounds was probably last to be built and was the first to be re-discovered. A group of workmen quarrying for stone discovered the entrance in 1699. It quickly became popular with antiquarians and other visitors, as can be seen by the quantity of graffiti in the chamber. New research from Ancient DNA suggests that Newgrange was the tomb / temple of a family of god-kings or pharaohs.

Visitors to Newgrange, around 1900.
Early visitors to Newgrange. From the book Megalithomania by John Michell.

No major habitation sites have been found yet, apart from some neolithic houses under the main mound at Knowth. Obviously the area supported a large number of people, and the most likely location for a village is to the east of Dowth, where the Mattock joins the Boyne, and an enormous henge monument is located.

The River Boyne is dedicated to the Goddess Boann who is associated with cattle. There are several mythological tales associated with the great mounds. The Dagda, a chieftain of the Tuatha De Dannan, lived in Newgrange. He had a child, Aongus Og, with Boann, and he caused the sun to stand still in the sky for nine months, so the child could be born on the day it was conceived, and her husband not find out. The Ulster hero, Cuchullain was also conceived at Newgrange.

An old engraving of Newgrange.
An old engraving of Newgrange.

A goddess called Bui, a consort of Lugh is associated with Knowth, which was known as Cnogba, which comes from Cnoc Bui. Dowth has slightly sinister mythology - the druid Breasil rapes his sister there, and the place is cursed. The Boyne has always been a famous salmon river, and is where Fionn mac Cumhal ate of the Salmon of Knowledge in later mythology.

The Boyne Valley Henges

The sites continued to be used long after the stone age: there are four late neolithic henges in the Boyne Valley, one encircling Site B. The timber circle beside Newgrange, probably dating from the transition between the neolithic and Bronze ages, is 100 meters in diameter. Another smaller henge was discovered nearby and a similar timber circle was built on the east side of Knowth; it has been reconstructed, and is quite impressive. There is a massive circular henge, one of the largest in the country 1 km northeast of Dowth.

Seventh century graffiti in Knowth.
Seventh century graffiti: an ogham inscrition in the east chamber of Knowth.

Knowth was in continual use up until medieval times. From about the early fifth century, the kings of Breaga had their residence on top of Knowth, and probably used Newgrange for their inauguration site. This would account for the mysterious standing stone, reported to have been mounted on the summit of Newgrange. Similar inaugrations took place at a standing stone on the summit of Heapstown cairn by Lough Arrow in County Sligo, a site that has much in common with Newgrange. The Normans took Knowth from the Gaelic chiefs and fortified the top of the mound.

The late neolithic timber henge at Knowth.
The late neolithic timber henge and some of the smaller satellite mounds that surround the Great Mound at Knowth.