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A watercolour of Newgrange by Gabriel Beranger, 1775.
A watercolour of Newgrange by Gabriel Beranger dated to 1775.

History of Research at Newgrange

Newgrange has been visited and investigated by many writers, researchers and archaeologists since it was first opened at the end of the seventeenth century. The modern history of Newgrange began on August 14th 1699 when Charles Campbell took out a 99 year lease on the lands around Newgrange. Campbell was one of the new landowners who appeared after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. While quarrying stone from the huge mound to build roads, his workmen uncovered the decorated Entrance Stone, then found the entrance to the passage and chamber.

Since then the monument has been investigated and written about by Thomas Molyneux, Thomas Pownall, Edward Ledwich, Charles Vallancey, Edward O'Reilly, Thomas Osborne Davis, William Fredrick Wakeman, Sir William Wilde, George Coffey and Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister. Michael J. O'Kelly who excavated Newgrange and his wife Clare, who made an indepth study of the artwork; Michael Herity, who wrote a fantastic summary of the antiquarian records about Newgrange.

Martin Brennan discovered an important link with Dowth, and was the first to point out that the large standing stones outside the monument cast shadows which interact with the carvings on the kerbstones. David Sweetman and Ann Lynch both undertook modern excavations, and Lara Cassidy and her team who released sensational information about the genetic lineage of the Newgrange people. Matthew and Geraldine Stout, both archaeologists have written one of the best books on Newgrange, and excavated a large linear cursus to the south of the monument. This list is by no means exhaustive.

Edward Lhuyd

The first to visit and write about Newgrange was Edward Lhuyd or Lhwyd (1660 - 1709), a pioneering linguist and Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Lhuyd, who toured Ireland in 1699 and 1700, happened to visit Newgrange shortly after the accidental discovery of the entrance to the huge mound of stones by landowner Charles Campbell. Lhuyd was interested in finding out the purpose of megalithic monuments and composed a set of questions to put to native Irish historians during his visit:

Whether it be any where recorded on what purpose or Design the great Carns were made; or the Great Stones pitchd on end in a circular Order; or those other Huge Stones supported by pillars commonly calld Diermat & Grana's Lodging. &c.

He measured and surveyed Newgrange and left the first written description of the monument, while his draftsman William Jones made plans and illustrations. Though Lhuyd's notes from his Irish tour were later lost in a fire in a London bookbinder's, enough survives from correspondance and notes to indicate that he surveyed other monuments close by, such as Site K and Site L.

A portrait of Edward Lhuyd, (1660 - 1709), a pioneering linguist and Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
A portrait of Edward Lhuyd, (1660 - 1709), a pioneering linguist and Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

From a letter to his friend Dr.Tancred Robinson dated 15th December 1699, Lhuyd described the great monument:

The most remarkable curiousity we saw by the way, was a stately Mount at a place called New Grange near Drogheda; having a number of huge stones pitch'd on end round about it, and a single one on the top. The gentleman of the village ( one Mr Charles Campbel ) observing that under the green turf this mount was wholly composed of stone, and having occasion for some, employ'd his servants to carry off a considerable parcel of them; till they came at last to a very broad flat stone, rudely carved, and placed edgewise at the bottom of the mount.

This they discover'd to be the door of a cave, which had a long entry leading into it. At the first entering we were forced to creep; but still as we went on, the pillars on each side of us were higher and higher; and coming into the cave, we found it about 20 foot high. In this cave, on each hand of us was a cell or apartment, and an other went on streight forward opposite to the entry. In those on each hand was a very broad shallow bason of stone, situated at the edge. The bason in the right hand apartment stood in another; that on the left was single; and in the apartment straight forward there was none at all.

The first drawing of Newgrange by Edward Lhuyd, 1699, showing the mound to be a huge truncated cone of stone with a standing stone at the summit.
An early drawing of Newgrange by John Antis, showing the mound to be a huge truncated cone of stone with a standing stone at the summit.

We observed that water dropt into the right hand bason, tho' it had rained but little in many days; and we suspected that the lower bason was intended to preserve the superfluous liquor of the upper, ( whether this water were sacred, or whether it was for Blood in Sacrifice ) that none might come to the ground. The great pillars round this cave, supporting the mount, were not at all hewn or wrought; but were such rude stones as those of Abury in Wiltshire, and rathermore rude than those of Stonehenge: but those about the basons, and some elsewhere, had such barbarous sculpture (viz. spiral like a snake, but without distinction of head and tail) as the fore-mentioned stone at the entry of the cave.

There was no flagging nor floor to this entry nor cave; but any sort of loose stones every where under feet. They found several bones in the cave, and part of a Stags (or else Elks) head, and some other things, which I omit, because the labourers differ'd in their accounts of them. A gold coin of the Emperor Valentinian, being found near the top of this mount, might bespeak it Roman; but that the rude carving at the entry and in the cave seems to denote it a barbarous monument. So, the coin proving it ancienter than any invasion of the Ostmans or Danes; and the carving and rude sculpture, barbarous; it should follow, that it was some place of sacrifice or burial of the ancient Irish ... (Lhuyd 1712, 503).

Roman coins from Newgrange.
Roman coins from Newgrange.

Lhuyd observed a standing stone, which was not mentioned by later visitors, on the summit of the mound. He believed that Newgrange was the work of the ancient Irish, using one of the Roman coins he found there from the Roman reign of Valentinian I (364-375 CE).

The cave consists of three cells

More information is found in a letter to Thomas Molyneux, written in early 1700:

But to give you some Account of our Journey one of the most Remarkable Occurrences in our way hither from Dublin was a large Tumulus or Barrow at a Village calld new Grange within four Miles of Drogheda. It has on the Top a Stone pitchd on End and others Vastly large, pitchd round about it; at Bottom; within it is a Cave, the Entry whereof is guarded on each side with large rude Stones standing on End, having somtimes a Barbarous Sculpture on ’em not unlike the Ruin Monuments in Wormius’s Monumenta Danica and on the Top of these are other Stones laid acrosse but no Letters at all.

At the first Entry these supporters are so pressd with the Weight of the Hill and the Top Stones are so that they that goe in must Creep but by Degrees ’tis still higher till you goe into the Cave, which may be about 6 or 7 Yards in Height. Having enterd the Cave you have on each Hand a Cell or Apartment and another streight forward. In the right hand Cell there is on the Ground a very large Stone Bason or Cistern and within that another with its Brim odly scituated and some very Clear water within it; dropt from the roof of the Cave, tho but an Artificial Mount of Stones.

On the left hand there is a Single Bason with the same Sort of Brim, but we found no Water in't. The floor of this Cave is nothing but a smaller loose Stones, amongst which were found great Quantity of Bones, Staggs horns, and as they said a peice of an Elkshorn, peices of Glass and some kinde of Beads. Near the top of this Mount they found a gold Coyn, which Mr Campbell the Proprietor of this Village shew’d me and tis a Coyn of the Emperor Valentinian. However not withstanding this Coyn, I cannot think this Mount a Work of the Romans in regard the Carving of the Stones is plainly Barbarous and the whole Contrivance too rude for so polite a people. I should have been very apt to Conclude it Danish, but the Date of the Coyn is several Centuarys older than their first coming into Ireland, which (as far as the Irish Annalls Informe us) was about the year 800.

Thus being neither Roman or Danish it remains it should be a place for sacrafice us’d by the Old Irish, and Mr Cormuck Oneil told me they had a vulger Legend about some Strange Operation at that Town in the time of Heathenisme which I shall endeavour to get from him more particularly.

A very old plan of Newgrange, 1727.
Plan of Newgrange from Molyneux dated to 1726. H marks an object which was variously thought to have been a fallen pillar stone, a huge neolithic axe head with a hole in the end, or most likely the edge of a cracked corbel stone from the roof.

We get further details of Lhuyd's visit to Newgrange in a letter sent from Sligo to the Reverend Henry Rowlands dated March 12th 1700:

I also met with one monument in this kingdom very singular: it stands at a place called New-Grange near Drogheda; and is a Mount or Barrow of very considerable height encompass’d with vast stones pitch’d on end round the bottom of it; and having another lesser standing on the top. This Mount is all the work of hands, and consists almost wholly of stones, but is cover’d with gravel and greenswerd, and has within it a remarkable cave.

The entry into this cave is at bottom, and before it we found a great flat stone, like a large tomb-stone, placed edgwise, having on the outside certain barbarous carvings, like snakes encircled, but without heads. This entry was guarded all along on each side with such rude stones pitch’d on end, some of them having the same carving, and other vast ones laid a-cross these at top. The out pillars were so close press’d by the weight of the Mount, that they admitted but just creeping in, but by degrees the passage grew wider and higher till we came to the cave, which was about five or six yards height.

The cave consists of three cells or apartments, one on each hand and the third straight forward, and may be about seven yards over each way. In the right hand cell stands a great bason of an irregular oval figure of one entire stone, having its brim odly sinuated or elbow'd in and out; and that bason in another of much the same form. Within this bason was some very clear water which drop’d from the cave above, which made me imagine the use of this bason was for receiving such water, and that the use of the lower was to receive the water of the upper bason when full, for some sacred use, and therefore not to be spill’d.

Roman coins from Newgrange.
A selection of the Roman coins which were found at Newgrange.

In the left apartment there was such another bason, but single, neither was there any water in it. In the apartment straight forward there was no bason at all. Many of the pillars about the right hand basons were carvd as the stones above-mentiond; but under feet there were nothing but loose stones of any size in confusion; and amongst them a great many bones of beasts and some pieces of deers horns.

Near the top of this Mount they found a gold coin of the Emperor Valentinian; but notwithstanding this, the rude carving abovemention’d makes me conclude this monument was never Roman, not to mention that we want History to prove that ever the Romans were at all in Ireland.

First plan of Newgrange, from the report from Edward Lhwyd.
First plan of Newgrange, from the report from Edward Lhuyd.

In May of 1700 Lhuyd send a plan of Newgrange, prepared by his draftsman William Jones, to his friend and fellow antiquarian, Thomas Molyneux. Lhuyd published his great work Archaeologia Britannica: an Account of the Languages, Histories and Customs of Great Britain, from Travels through Wales, Cornwall, Bas-Bretagne, Ireland and Scotland, in 1707. He died in 1709, ten years after the discovery of Newgrange.

Thomas Molyneux

Thomas Molyneux, an old aquaintance of Lhuyd, was a medical doctor of French ancestry, educated in Trinity College, with a strong interest in antiquarian pursuits. He was awarded membership of the Royal Society in 1686. Returning to Ireland after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, he became the first State Physician and the Physician General to the Army in Ireland. He aired his views on Newgrange in A Discourse Concerning the Danish Mounts, Forts and Towers in Ireland, which he published in 1726.

Tis situated in the county of Meath and barony of Slaine, within four miles of the town of Drogheda; from its largeness and make, from the time and labour it must needs have cost to erect so great a pile, we may easily gather ’twas raised in honour of some mighty prince, or person of the greatest power and dignity in his time.
Right-hand recess in Newgrange by Molyneux, 1726.
Right-hand recess in Newgrange, engraved for Molyneux's article, 1726.

Molyneux believed that the great mound was built by Danish invaders during the Viking period, and he was the first to popularise the story of a pair of bodies being discovered in the chamber, a fact which the careful and observant Lhuyd failed to notice or record:

Mr. Charles Campbell told me since (who was the Second man that went into the Cave upon its first Discovery) that he found the skull and bones of a man in one of those Cisterns and the bones of another humane Body Lying on the Ground in another part of the Cave somewhat remote from the Cistern, from which I gather it must have certainly been the Sepulchre or burying of some person of note that had his wife Interred with him and not a place of Sacrafice, it seeming noe ways proper for that purpose, for the Cave has no window to Let in light, nor any vent to discharge the Smoke of a burnt offering, and the Close & narrow passage into it will not allow one to Immagin the People ever assembled here.

Molyneux's assertion that these ancient monuments were built by Danish settlers was to stick, and meegalithic structures were to be referred to as Danish Mounts for many years to come.

These sort of pyramids or artificial hills, are found not only in this country, but in some parts of England, tho’ not near so common, nor as I think so large as ours. The English call them barrows or burrows, from the old Saxon word, beorg or burg, a hill, from whence we derive our modern word to bury, and burial, as the Latins us’d the word tumulus to express both a hill and a grave. As to the reason of this ambiguous use of the same word in these different languages, we may take occasion to say more hereafter in discoursing upon the original of sepulchral monuments. The old Irish or Scots call them carns, which in their language signifies a heap, but more especially of stones piled together, of which some are composed, as others are of earth: with the English of Ireland they pass under the name of Danes-mounts, from a current and constant tradition, receiv’d from the Irish, that they were first raised by the Danes when they were in possession of this country.

He dismissed any fanciful notions that these monuments were constructed by the ancient native Irish:

Tho' most nations have been apt to fall into the vanity of deriving for themselves from a more ancient then truth or credible authority will vouch for; yet no people have carried this extravagance further than the natives of Ireland, presuming to romance to that degree in their native chronicles, as not only to deduce their stock from generations near the flood, but to invent antediluvian stories, and a fable of a niece of Noah himself landing on this island.

Molyneaux also visited Knowth where he found an ornamented stone basin which has since dissappeared.

The stone basin discovered at Knowth by Thomas Molyneaux.
The stone basin discovered at Knowth by Thomas Molyneaux. This fine artifact resembles the great stone basin in the east chamber in many respects. It's current whereabouts are unknown, and it is probably part of a private collection.
The entrance to Newgrange by Robert Welch.
An early image of Newgrange by the Belfast photographer Robert Welch. A path has been worn to the roof-box stone above and behind the Entrance Stone.

Thomas Pownall

Thomas Pownall is best known as a colonial governor and administrator for the British Empire, but he had a serious interest in antiquities and archaeology. Pownall visited Newgrange in 1769, shortly after his return from America where he had been governor of several states. Pownall made a thorough survey of the monument and engraved decorations.

He wrote a report of his exploration which was read to the Society of Antiquaries soon after he joined in 1770. Powell's account was published in Volume II of Archaeologia, or, Miscellaneous tracts relating to antiquity, the journal of the Society of Antiquaries of London, later that year, and is available to read online. Dr. Norris, master of the great school in Drogheda was Pownall's guide to Newgrange for the day.

After a long-winded preamble where Pownall sets forth his theories about tribal origins and movements in ancient times, and a critical survey of pervious accounts of Newgrange, he gives a detailed description of the neotlthic monument.

This gallery at the mouth is three feet wide, and two feet high. At thirteen feet from the mouth it is only two feet two inches wide at the bottom, and of an indeterminate width and height. Four of the side stones, beginning from the fifth on the right hand, or eastern side, stand now leaning over to the opposite side; so that here the passage is scarce permeable. We made our way by creeping on our hands and knees till we came to this part. Here we were forced to turn upon our sides, and edge ourselves on with one elbow and one foot. After we had passed this strait, we were enabled to stand; and, by degrees, as we advanced farther, we could walk upright, as the height above us increased from six to nine feet.

Barrow at Newgrange by Pownall, 1770.
The Great Barrow at Newgrange by Thomas Pownall. It is interesting to note that Newgrange is once again represented as a huge truncated cone - Pownall described it as 'a ruinous frustrum'- like other large unexcavated monuments in the west of Ireland.

Examining very narrowly, with a candle in my hand, all the parts of this cemetery, I discovered on the flat stone which forms the north side of the left hand niche, what I took to be the traces of letters. Their form is given in the wooden cut annexed. These lines were of a breadth and depth in which I could lay the nail of my little finger; and of different lengths from two to six inches. I tried for some time to assign, if possible, these letters to some known alphabet, by comparing them particularly with that of the Beth-luis-nion ( the ogham alphabet ), or old Irish alphabet; but this produced nothing satisfactory.

Barrow at Newgrange by Pownall.
Sketches of the passage and chamber at Newgrange from the 1770 article by Thomas Pownall, signed J. Gandon.

As I had continued in this cave a much longer time than was prudent, by which I caught a violent illness; and as the tracing these lines with greater accuracy would take up more time than I could then give to it; I gave over the task, referring it to be done at leisure by the surveyor, whom Dr. Norris was so good as to engage.

Pownall had discovered and become obsessed with the so-called 'boat carving' on the left side of the chamber, which he took to be symbols from the Phonecian alphabet. He reproduced the design in his article.

The Newgrange 'ship carving', which Pownall was convinced was an inscription left bt the Phoenicians.
The Newgrange 'ship carving', which Pownall was convinced was an inscription left bt the Phoenicians. Photo by Dublin photographer Thomas Mason.

I have persuaded myself, that this inscription is Phoenician, and contains only numerals; that being, as it now stands, a vacant series of numerals, without reference to any particular epoch or aera, or other circumstance, the stone on which it is cut is a mere fragment; that this fragment is of more ancient date than the building wherein it is found; and that it was brought hither, and used in the structure of this tumulus, without any knowledge of or regard to any characters cut upon it… I am inclined to suppose there may have been, ages before this Barrow was erected, some marine or naval monument erected at themouth of the Boyne, by some of these Eastern people, to whom the ports of Ireland were well known; that this monument, through the course of events and time, fell into ruin, and that these ruins were collected amongst the rest of the shore-stones with which this Barrow was constructed, and so was intermixed, and became part of it; that the peculiar and secreted situation of this stone became a peculiar means of its being a singular Instance of the preservation of the only eastern or Phoenician inscription found in these countries.

Dr. Norris, master of the great school in Drogheda, engaged the land surveyor Samuel Bouie to plan and measure Newgrange for Pownall, and these illustrations were included in the report.

More information on Thomas Pownell's visit to Newgrange here.

Edward Ledwich

Edward Ledwich, an Irish historiam, vicar, antiquarian and topographer, was born in 1738. In 1790 he published his Antiquities of Ireland which contains a section with illustrations, on Newgrange. However, he has little to add to the story, merely repeating what the earlier explorers had reported. His book became a popular guide book and was reprinted in 1804. Ledwich's theories are not taken seriously by modern researchers, but his book is still prized for the fine engravings by J. Ford.

Illustration of Newgrange from Antiquities of Ireland by Edward Ledwich, published in 1790, showing some of the Roman coins found on the mound.
Illustration of Newgrange from Antiquities of Ireland by Edward Ledwich, published in 1790, showing some of the Roman coins found on the mound.

I am clearly of opinion the construction of mounts, or, to speak with Wormius, the age of hillocks was much later, for the Brende-tiid, or age of cremation certainly had not ceased in the North or Germany in 789, for a capitular of Charlemagne, of that year, punishes with death such Saxons as burnt their dead after the manner of pagans. Christianity had been long preached among the subjects of this prince, and yet they were still but half Christians. It is evident from the contents of our cave that cremation had ceased among the Ostmen in Ireland, they also shew the dawnings of christianity among them; every other circumstance evinces pagan ideas. This might reasonably be supposed to happen at the period of their conversion: then we might expect to find in the same structure some indications of their new, and many of their old religion: for an instantaneous dereliction of their ancient creed never occurred among a rude people. The Irish Ostmen embraced the faith about 853, and in this century I think we may date the construction of the mount at New Grange: it was made and adorned with every sepulchral honour to the memory of some illustrious northern chief.

A copy can be downloaded from the Ask About Ireland website.

An early engraving of the passage and chamber of Newgrange by Charles Vallancey.

Charles Vallancey

The next researcher to tackle Newgrange was the soldier and military engineer General Charles Vallancey, who made a survey of the site in 1786. Vallancey believed the carvings were the remains of an ancient script, which he translated. He claimed that the monument was a 'Cave of the Sun', linking it with Chaldean Mithratic sun worshop. In many ways he was correct and before his time, despite being labelled a 'pyramidiot' at the time. The chamber is indeed a great artificial cave and it is designed to capture the light of the rising sun on the winter solstices.

Druidic inscriptions form Newgrange, illustration from Charles Vallancey's Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicus, 1790.
Druidic inscriptions from Newgrange, illustration from Charles Vallancey's Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicus, 1790.

Vallancey published his theories in his Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicus in 1790.

It is the opinion of many learned Irishmen, that some colony of the oriental people, who worshipped Belus, or Baal as the Chaldæans express it, gave its first inhabitants to this island. In all probability they were no other than the indigenæ of the Land of Promise, the CHANAANITES; who having been dispossessed by Joshua, and the people of Israel, made vast emigrations into the islands of the Mediterranean sea, and planted themselves not only in those islands, but also on the maritime coasts and regions of that sea.

Instead of Chanaanites they then took the name of Phenicians, not from their dwelling at Tyre, Sidon, and the country near the Red Sea Φοινικος, or by allusion to the traffick of purple garments, or from the palm trees Φοινικις as different etymologists will have it; but rather from the Phenician word BEN-ANAK, the children or tribe of ANAK, the Anakites being the principal tribe of the whole, agreeable to the Irish tribes MAC-MAHON, MAC-CARTHY, &c.

Edward O'Reilly

O'Reilly was a scholor from Dublin who spent a few months working for the Ordnance Survey. An account of Newgrange from 1820.

Gráinseach Nuadh or New Grange in county Meath is situate on the north of the Boyne, a small distance from the river, about mid way between Slane and Drogheda, and about half a mile to the west of the road leading from the Drogheda road to Dowth the ancient family seat of the Lords Neterville now in the possession of Mr Hamill. From this seat the moat of New Grange stands about 3/4 of a mile to the north west. This stupendous specimen of ancient Irish art is an artificial moat or mount standing on an eminence from which to the edge of the Boyne at about 1/4 of a mile distance there is a gentle declivity.

Mrs. Ann Hickey, guide at Newgrange for many years.
An old postcard of Mrs. Ann Hickey, guide at Newgrange for many years.

The moat is circular formed of loose stones rising to a height of about 50 feet and occupies an area of nearly half an acre of ground. It is surrounded by a circle of stones some of which are several tuns weight. They stand at the distance of about 10 ( 30 crossed out ) paces from the base of the mount & where they remain in their original position are from seven to ten paces asunder. At present there are only 15 of those stones the greater number of which are on the South and west sides of the moat, those on the other sides having been destroyed or removed by the occupiers of the land at different periods.

Mr Kirk, the present occupier has lately blasted with powder some of these stones that stood in the way of his ploughing and in digging to remove the parts of each that remained in the ground there were found a number of long flags placed on their edges, between every two of which there lay a human skeleton the bones of which, the workmen say, were of a remarkably large size.

The summit of the moat is flat or rather a sort of hollow like a dish, and in most places the stones of which it is formed appear, the soil, if ever they were covered with any, having been washed away by the successive rains of some thousands ( several hundreds above the line ) of ages. Some parts of the moat towards the summit are covered with scrubby ash plants and on the top, about the centre, is a large Gooseberry tree, with several young black-thorn quicks, and two or three young cherry trees growing up through the loose stones. These last were probably produced from cherry-stones dropped there by some of the visitors to this moat, which with the cave embowelled in its centre may justly be reckoned among the wonders of Ireland.

Edward O'Reilly, about 1820.
Source: An Early Nineteenth Century Description of Newgrange, County Meath.

William Wakeman

The artist and antiquarian William Wakeman was fascinated by the three huge mounds in the Boyne Valley, and left us many engravings of Newgrange and Dowth, and he was the first antiquarian to illustrate the mound of Knowth. Wakeman began his career as a draftsman with the Ordnance Survey, where he was taken under the wing of Ireland's leading antiquarian, George Petrie.

William Wakeman's plan and section of Newgrange, around 1880.
William Wakeman's plan and section of Newgrange, around 1880.

Sir William Wilde

Sir William Wilde, father of Oscar, was a noted antiquarian and historian, who first visited Newgrange in 1837.

Newgrange, 1880 or so.
The oldest known photograph of Newgrange, probably dating to around 1880, some 40 years after Sir William Wilde's first visit.

Still to come:

Thomas Newenham Deane

George Coffey

Robert Welch

William A. Green

George Du Noyer

William Borlase

W. Y. Evans-Wentz

W. Y. Evans-Wentz

R. A. S. Macalsiter

The Caves at Newgrange Excavated

Report from the Drogheda Independent newspaper dated July 14th 1928.

Archaeological excavations and investigations are at present in the course of progress at the Caves of Newgrange near Drogheda, that strange and ancient tomb in which legend tells us the Kings of Ireland were buried as long ago as 1500 BC.

Newgrange as Archaeologists know is the largest tumulus in Europe, Egypt being the only other place were monuments of similar antiquity are to be found. The present investigation is being carried on under the direction of that eminent archaeologist, Professor MacAlister and consists of digging about the base of the tumulus. This work has so far revealed oblong stones on which ancient and unfortunately undecipherable patterns and markings are worked in spiral, lozenge and other forms. One stone now resting on wooden supports has had all these patterns worked on it.

Plans have also been made, we understand to cut down the trees growing on top of the mount, as their roots have become dangerous to the ceiling of the tumulus and which it is feared have already damaged the chambers and corridors that are thought to exist but have never yet been opened. The further progress of work will be followed with interest by those with a penchant for probing in to the secrets of the past.


Michael Herity

Michael O'Kelly

Professor Michael J. O’Kelly excavated and restored the megalithic passage tomb at Newgrange from 1962 to 1975. He discovered that the builders of Newgrange deliberately oriented the passage so that each year around the time of the winter solstice, the rays of the rising sun would shine through a special aperture he called a roofbox to illuminate the chamber. Michael J. O’Kelly was born in Abbeyfeale, Co. Limerick. Professor O’Kelly was known as Brian to his family and friends. His mother picked the name Brian, but he was christened Michael Joseph. His mother refused to accept the name Michael Joseph and called his Brian. He attended secondary school at Rockwell College, Tipperary and entered University College, Cork, as a student of engineering in 1934, a year later he switched to architecture.

Seán P. Ó Ríordáin, Professor of archaeology at UCC was looking for a surveyor as he engaged in the excavation of the ring-fort at Garranes, Co Cork. Michael J. began work there in the spring of 1937 and later that year moved on to the neolithic site of Lough Gur. Ó Ríordáin’s enthusiasm wooed many to the cause of archaeology and in that summer of 1937, Michael J. proved to be a ready convert. The new recruit returned to UCC that October, as a student of Ó Ríordáin’s, in the faculty of archaeology. By the time Michael J. graduated in 1940 with a first class honours degree in archaeology he had trained as an engineer, surveyor and architect and had taken courses in Irish, geology and geography, all of which uniquely qualified and equipped him to take on the challenges that Irish archaeology would present in the second half of the 20th century. He followed his degree with first-class M.A.

Shortly after securing his M.A., Michael J. was appointed curator of the recently founded Cork Public Museum in Fitzgerald Park. Michael J. and his wife Claire (married in 1945) were involved in building up the displays and dioramas at the museum. The displays were ground breaking with full sized figures, Michael J. supplying the artefacts and Claire making the clothes in faithful reproductions of the originals. Michael J. remained curator of the museum for over two decades.

In 1946 he replaced Ó Ríordáin as head of the Department at UCC, a position he held for thirty-six years. For O’Kelly, teaching was an integral part of his zest for humanity and scholarship, and demanded and received whole-hearted student participation. By the 1960s O’Kelly was the most highly qualified archaeologist in the country, armed as he was with twenty five years of practical experience – having excavated continuously every summer – and by virtue of being the only recipient of the D.Litt. Degree awarded on foot of published works.

By 1961 Newgrange was in a dilapidated condition and despite the rapidly increasing number of visitors, there was no right of public access. It was becoming clear to many that this, one of the greatest monuments in Western Europe, could not be left in its then condition. PJ Hartnett, the archaeological officer with Bord Fáilte Eireann (Irish Tourist Board) and a former pupil of Professor O’Kelly’s, arranged a meeting at Newgrange of all those who had a professional interest in the monument. It was the unanimous agreed at the meeting that Professor O’Kelly should undertake the direction of the excavation, being the acknowledged expert on archaeological excavation and exploration in Ireland.

Excavation commenced in 1962 and continued every summer for a four month season up to and including 1975. The aim of the excavation was to discover as much as possible about the archaeological and historical context of Newgrange and the people who built it and to discover what its original finished appearance was so as to direct a reconstruction, conservation and restoration of the structure to its former condition and appearance.

Source: Historical Tours Ireland.

Claire O'Kelly

Robert Hensey

Robert Hensey is an Irish archaeologist and author of First Light: The Origins of Newgrange (2015) and co-editor of The Archaeology of Darkness (2016). His research is primarily focused on the monuments and societies of the northwest European Neolithic with particular reference to Irish passage tomb chronology, art and ritual. Currently, with partners, he is involved in the Human Population Dynamics at Carrowkeel, Co. Sligo project, a multifaceted project which includes osteological analysis, radiometric dating and isotopic analyses of a significant bone assemblage from the Carrowkeel passage tombs.

Dr. Robert Hensey: "Newgrange: A Shared Past, A Shared Future"

Other ongoing research includes assisting with The biography of megalithic art at Millin Bay, Northern Ireland project, a collaborative project with the University of Edinburgh, using new photogrammetry-based methods to facilitate an in-depth study of the megalithic art from the highly decorated monument at Millin Bay, Co. Down.

Rediscovering the Winter Solstice Alignment at Newgrange, Ireland: Article.

The chamber of Newgrange.
The view from the end recess looking across the chamber and down into the passage of Newgrange. This photograph was used for the cover of Professor Michael O'Kelly's book on Newgrange. Image © Office of Public Works.
The passage at Newgrange bt W. A. Green.
The passage at Newgrange by W. A. Green shows how the passage-stones or orthostats have leaned inwards over time. Photograph © NMNI.
Dowth Hall
Knowth 13
Knowth 15
Knowth 6
Tractor outside Newgrange
Newgrange kerbstones


Newgrange was re-discovered in 1699 when the local landlord, Charles Campbell set his workers removing stones from a large, convenient mound on his land. By good fortune they began their excavation on the south west side and uncovered an engraved stone - the lintel of the roof-box Before long they uncovered the Entrance Stone, and for the first time since the Bronze age people entered the chamber of Newgrange.

Graffiti within the chamber of Newgrange
Graffiti within the chamber of Newgrange covers the 'fern' pattern on the edge slab of the left recess.

The great mound quickly became famous and many of the early antiquarians made the journey to visit the huge megalith. The first to visit was the Welsh polymath and language expert, Edward Lhuyd who was on hand when the mound was opened, and who surmised the mound was a pre-Roman monument of the native Irish.

Gold coins discovered at Newgrange.
Gold coins discovered at Newgrange.

Lhuyd found a gold Roman coin on the summit of the mound, which indicated that people were leaving offerings long after the mound was built. The chamber has been dug over many times by visitors, many of whom etched their names into the ancient rocks. To prevent this continual vandalism the monument came into State care around 1892 and a gate was fitted around 1900, when a caretaker, Mrs. Ann Hickey, was appointed.

An early engraving of the passage and chamber of Newgrange by Charles Vallancey.
An early engraving of the passage and chamber of Newgrange by Charles Vallancey from his the six-volume Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis (1770-1804). The False Lintol had bot been discovered and so is not included in the illustration.
Newgrange in 1953.
Newgrange in 1953.
Visitors to Newgrange.
Visitors to Newgrange, possibly on an inspection of the monument, around 1890.