Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
Many visitors to Newgrange today are unaware of how extensively Newgrange has been excavated and restored. This photograph from the Newgrange Archive shows the front of the monument during excavation, with the cairn around the entrance area removed. The Roofbox structure, visible above the entrance, was entirely dismantled so the passage orthostats could be straightened.

Excavations at Newgrange

By the time one of Ireland's leading archaeologists, Professor Michael O'Kelly of University College, Cork, came to excavate and restore Newgrange in the 1960s, the tomb had been a tourist attraction for more than 250 years. (It had been discovered by chance in 1699.) So it was hardly surprising that he was able to find only a handful of the bones which the tomb and its stone basins must have been designed to hold. But despite the visitors who had walked up the stone passageway into the corbelled chamber for more than two centuries, the most spectacular secret of Newgrange still awaited discovery.

Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, 1980.

The first set of excavations took place at Newgrange in 1699, when the new landowner Charles Campbell set his labourers to quarrying stone from the great mound on the hill. Luckily, the area where they began digging was close to the entrance and the workers soon uncovered the Entrance Stone, long passage and elabourately corbeled chamber deep within the cairn.

Pre-excavation: Newgrange in the 1930's.
The pre-excavation appearance of Newgrange in 1950.

Edward Lhwyd was the first antiquarian to visit and describe the mound, during his tour of Ireland in 1699. Lhwyd was lucky enough to pass by soon after the entrance had been discovered, and he wrote an account and had his draftsman make some illustrations. Over the next 200 years the site had many visitors, among them treasure-hunters and vandals as can be seen from the quantity of graffiti they left behind them.

Aerial photo of Newgrange taken during excavations.
Aerial photo of Newgrange taken close to the start of Michael J. O'Kelly's excavations, shows the large crater in the summit of the mound. O'Kelly began to fill this hole with cairn-slip, material he found at the front of the collapsed cairn Image from the Cambridge Archive.

Newgrange seems to have been in a state of some disrepair. The mound was overgrown with trees and briars, and within the passage, leaning orthostats made the journey to the chamber much more of an adventure than todays experience. The large quantity of graffiti in the passage and chamber gives an idea of the number and quality of visitors. One individual, believed to have come from Sligo, visited Newgrange to excavate the area under the end recess, where he had dreamed treasure was buried. He is said to have smashed the basin stone, and dug a large pit, which destabilized and probably broke the triple-spiral stone, C10.

The earliest known photograph of Newgrange, probably taken in the 1880's when the monument came into state care.
The earliest known photograph of Newgrange, possibly taken in the 1882 when the monument came into state care. Color added.

The oldest photographs of Newgrange date from the 1880's and show the monument to be extremely overgrown. To enter the chamber involved crawling through the passage, which was filled with loose cairn stones. The carved lintel above the roofbox was discovered in the late 1820's, and a number of attempts were made to open the sturcture, which was thought to lead to another hidden chamber.

The Board of Works

The Board of Works took over management of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth in 1882, and steps were made to tidy up the entrance area at 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 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. The slab was turned and laid flat as a paving flag behind the Entrance Stone.

Sir Thomas Newenham Deane.
Sir Thomas Newenham Deane was appointed as the first Inspector of National Monuments under the Irish Board of Works. Deane had works undertaken at Newgrange and at Loughcrew in the 1890's.

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. Unfortunately the records of these improvements have been lost, and were not available to Michael O'Kelly when he came to excavate Newgrange.

A cast of the Entrance stone at Newgrange.
A cast of the Entrance stone at Newgrange made for George Coffey of the National Museum around 1901.

Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister

R. A. F. Macalister undertook some excavations at Newgrange in 1928 and at Knowth in 1941. He began digging at Newgrange at the Entrance stone, and working his way clockwise around the mound, he exposed fifty-four kerbstones, slightly more than half the total, that had been buried under cairn-slip. His excavation was stopped by an irate landowner shortly after he had reached Kerbstone 52. Macalister wrote a guide book, the 'Penny Guide to Newgrange' which he published in 1929. In 1935 he was of the opinion, somewhat prophetically given recent Ancient DNA results, that–

the social order, of which the great tumuli are the expression, is based on a centralized and widespread tyranny. They must have been made to order in the manner of the Egyptian pyramids to which we have just compared them, made to the order of tyrannical Pharaohs. Such a monarch commandeers the available activities of a kingdom ... I have made a very rough estimate that the weight of [Newgrange’s] materials may be about 50,000 tons [45000 tonnes]; and when we recollect that when completed it was covered with a surface layer of blocks of quartz, the nearest natural source of which is about thirty miles [50 km] away, we realize clearly that the tomb must have been a long time, perhaps many years, a-building, and must have been made under the auspices of its first owner; not hastily run up, like an ordinary dolmen-tumulus, which willing hands could readily erect in the few days intervening between the death and the interment.

R. A. S. Macalister, 1935.

The modern, reconstructed Newgrange. The photo is taken from the so-called Dowth Stone, which was erected here by Michael O'Kelly after the excavations.

Modern Excavations

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.

Michael O'Kelly pointing out megalithic art at Newgrange, from the report from RTE, 1964.
Michael O'Kelly pointing out megalithic art at Newgrange, from the report from RTE, 1964.

Professor Michael J. O'Kelly began work at Newgrange in 1962 and excavated every summer for a season of four months until 1975, and his work and recreations created the Newgrange we see today. There has been plenty of controversy and debate, in particular about both the reconstruction of the roof-box and the almost vertical white wall of quartz. It is highly unlikely that neolithic Newgrange could ever have looked as it currently appears today.

Newgrange as it appeared in 1844 - a huge frustrum or truncated cone.
Newgrange as it appeared in 1844 - a huge frustrum or truncated cone.

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

O'Kelly's' brief was to excavate and restore the monument in such a way as to make it both safe and accessible to the public, who were beginning to visit the monument in ever greater numbers. O'Kelly's excavations can be divided into four main sections: the cairn, the passage and chamber, the Great Stone Circle and its relationship to the cairn, and the investigations behind Kerbstone 52 which searched for an as yet undiscovered chamber.

Excavations at Kerbstone 52.
Excavations at Kerbstone 52, photograph by Michael O'Kelly.

Over thirteen years of excavation and restoration, four main areas were examined: the cairn-slip, the cairn itself, the passage and chamber, and the relationship of the monument to the circle of standing stones. The results are published in Michael O'Kelly's book, Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend, which, while it is a good read for those familiar with the monument, is not as detailed as one might wish, and leaves many questions unanswered.

O'Kelly's first job was to remove the trees, scrub and bushes from the mound, so that a series of detailed profiles plans and drawings of the shape of the cairn could be made. They found that the cairn had a large crater in its top section, as if it had been used as a quarry. This hole, visible in early photographs of the excavation, is not mentioned by O'Kelly. During the first few seasons O'Kelly used the crater as a place for the cairn-slip excavated at the front of the monumnet. Photographs show material was hoisted up on a scaffolding and wheelbarrowed into the crater during the early seasons. When O'Kelly realized how much cairn-slip lay on the ground he revised his plans.

The first season of excavations at Newgrange, still from an RTE film clip, 1962.
The first season of excavations at Newgrange, still from an RTE film clip, 1962.

Early illustrations show Newgrange to have been a tall truncated cone or frustrum. O'Kelly's restoration, based on his revetment at the front of the monument, created a drum-shaped mound with a flat platform at the top, 32 meters in diameter. Much of the cairn-slip, which largely consisting of thousands of tons of water-rolled head-sized stones and gravel, was found on the ground outside the ring of kerbstones, making it look like the monument was of a much larger diameter than it actually is.

Plan from the excavation from the book Newgrange by Michael O'Kelly.
Plan from the excavation area at the front of the monument, from the book Newgrange, Archaeology, Atd and Legend by Michael O'Kelly.

O'Kelly's excavations began with a series of chequerboard excavations, but on beginning to realise the enormity of the site, extended to a series of seven trenches througgh the cairn-slip. Eventually a large area extending for fifty meters to each side of the entrance area and extending outside the Great Circle was stripped completely. It was discovered that the area in front of Newgrange had been extensively stripped of the top layer of sod or turf, and these turves had been used to add layers used to build up and bulk out the cairn material. At the lowest level of the cairn-slip, lying directly on the old neolithic stripped ground surface was a layer of quarz which extended from 4 to 5 and as much as 7.5 meters out from the ring of kerbstones.

Excavation outside the kerb at Newgrange.
Excavation outside the kerbstones at Newgrange showing the profile of the trench which had been opened several times to expose the ring of kerbstones, and dry-stone walling erected by the Office of Public Works the 1880's. This is the only evidence of a stone revetment actually found at Newgrange.

Two structures were discovered close to the entrance. The first was a large oval setting with flat pieces of stone placed on edge and arranged around the circumference. This container was filled with some 607 potato-sized pieces of water-rolled quartz, and a polished 'phallic object' was found within the quartz.

Settings have also been found at other neolithic cairns. A set of six settings are dispersed around the base of Queen Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea in County Sligo. A pair, which were filled with chips of quartz, were found and excavated by Rotherham outside Cairn T at Loughcrew. And settings were also found outside the entrances at Knowth: seven touching the kerb and a large one at the east side, with six more outside the west entrance. This fascinating setting-type structure was removed during renovations. The second discovery was the foundations of what appeared to be a house or hut, which, again, was removed during O'Kelly's renovations. O'Kelly seemed to want Newgrange to appear as a pristine neolithic monument, and was keen to present the monument that way, referring to the bronze age settlers who replaced the neolithic farmers as 'squatters'.

The modern reconstructed reinforced concrete and quartz facade at Newgrange with a useful tractor for scale.

The area outside Newgrange was used extensively throughout both the neolithic and the bronze age, and is covered with the remains of another building, a number of firepits or hearths and the pits from the great pit circle. This pit circle, believed to have been a type of Woodhenge, was discovered by O'Kelly during his excavations. The Great Pit Circle was later excavated by David Sweetman, who also found a second smaller pit circle on the west side of Newgrange. Both of these monuments are believed to represent a bronze age continuation of of reuse of the monument. Massive amounts of feasting seem to have taken place here, and there are large quantities of both pig and cattle bone found in the pits.

Excavations Within the Passage-Grave

The next job undertaken by O'Kelly was to straighten and stabelize the passage, where the orthostats were leaning inwards making it difficult for visitors to enter the mound. This, in consequence, also causing much wear on the engravings carved on the passage stones, which were constantly being rubbed and eroded by visitors. The passage and chamber were excavated within the first few seasons. A trench had previously been dug through the passage when electricity was installed in the 1950's. The passage was found to be 19 meters long, and have eleven stones on one side and twelve on the other. In order to straighten the passage stones, the roofbox structure above the first three passage orthostats was dismantled. This structure which had intrigued early researchers, had been dubbed the 'False Lintel' by Sir William Wilde, an enthusiastic antiquarian who wrote extensively about Newgrange. Wilde believed the ornately carved projecting lintel marked the entrance to another chamber.

Straightening the passage stones at Newgrange.
Straightening the passage stones at Newgrange.

O'Kelly removed the roofbox in its entirety, alonge with the first ten covering stones of the passage so the orthostats could be straightened. The passage itself was also excavated. O'Kelly found that the passage roof followed the ground level contour up the hill, but rose up about half way along when the stones became tied into the corbeled roof. He could not straighten up the inner passage stones, as this would have entailed interference with the structural stones of the corbeled roof. It was found that the roof of the passage follows the contour of the hill like a flight of steps.

As they cleared the stones from the passage roof, they discovered that the builders had carved groovs to act as water channels and carry moisture away from the interior. This feature is currently unique in the Irish neolithic, having only been found here at Newgrange. O'Kelly was also fortunate to find organic material - a compound of burnt soil and sand which had been used as a sort of putty to caulk the passage roof. The caulk yeilded dates centering around 3,200 BC which is taken as the approximate construction date for Newgrange.

Workmen during the excavations at Newgrange, shortly before the roofbox structure was dismantled. Note the kerbstone which has fallen forwards due to cairn collapse.
Workmen during the excavations at Newgrange, shortly before the roof-box structure was dismantled. Note the kerbstone which has fallen forwards due to cairn collapse.

The cuttings ran some ten meters into the mound. Because of the amount of loose stones in the monument, excavation was not easy and the top of the trench was slanted. The roofs of the passage and chamber were carefully joined together with corbels which soared to 3.5 meters in height over the entrance of the chamber. The chamber was enclosed within its own stabilizing cairn of larger round boulders, six meters high, and level with, but not covering the capstone of the vault. This fact has led to speculation that the capstone may have been lifted on and off for a period of stargazing from the chamber at some time during the ancient use of Newgrange

Excavations Within the Chamber

Both the passage and chamber had been subjected to various excavaations, diggings, and treasure hunting exercises in the more than 250 years between the opening of the monument and O'Kelly's excavations. The floor of the chamber was found to be littered with small stones - spalls which had fallen from between the corbels of the ceiling. There were a number of wooden and concrete supporting pillars which had been added during Daene's renovations in the 1880's, covrered above.

Plan and elevation of the chamber and passage at Newgrange.
Plan and elevation of the chamber and passage at Newgrange.

O'Kelly found evidence of modern dental plaster within the monument, which was from the stone-casting project initiated by George Coffey in 1903. Coffey, then Keeper of the National Museum had a series of casts made of the most important carved stones within the passage and chamber. It was spillage from these casts which O'kelly uncovered. A deep pit had been excavated under the large flag or basin stone, which had been smashed, in the end recess. This pit had undermined the foundations of the triple-spiral stone on the east side of the inner recess, breaking the base of the slab and allowing it to fall into the recess. It is said that a Connaught peasant, possibly from Sligo, after reading a newspaper article about Newgrange, dreamed that there was treasure buried within the chamber. Determined to make his golden fortune, he travelled to Newgrange, broke up the stone and dug his pit. Whether or not he found his gold is not recorded.

Gold objects found at Newgrange around 1830.
Gold objects found at Newgrange around 1830, now in the collection of the British Museum.

Another large pit had been discovered in the centre of the chamber. Some twenty-three deposits of human remains, both cremated and uncremated, were found around the chamber, which are believed to be the remains of a minimum of five individuals. Ancinet DNA extracted from the petrus bone of one individual in 2017 demonstrated that he was the product of an incestuous relationship, with his parents being either brother and sister or father and daughter. This individual was found to be related to people found buried in Listoghil, the central monument at Carrowmore, in Carrowkeel and in Millin Bay.

Rebuilding the cairn at Newgrange after building a reinforced concrete casing above the chamber and around the passage after excavation in the mid 1960's.
Rebuilding the cairn at Newgrange after building a reinforced concrete casing above the chamber and around the passage after excavation in the mid 1960's.

The passage and chamber were cloaked within a structure of mass concrete as part of the conservation process. The vast amounts of concrete used in the restorations at Newgrange should be a cause of concern among the Irish public. It has been discovered in recent years that reinforced concrete is highly succeptable to concrete cancer, a chemical process where the moisture from the wet concrete reacts with the steel bars which begin to degrade and leech into the concrete. Concerns about concrete cancer have seen monuments in both France and England studied and reevaluated by engineering specialists who reccomended the removal of the concrete.

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.

Re-assembling O'Kelly's Roofbox

The Newgrange roofbox was completely dismantled and then re-assembled over the entrance, at a somewhat higher position than before the restoration, and the orthostats and corbels beneath had been straightened. There is much debate about the authenticity of O'Kelly's restored roofbox. What is certain is that there was a structure there from the late neolithic. Research indicates that the passage at Newgrange was probably built in three phases, and that the roofbox belongs to the latest outer phase.

Dismantling the roofbox at Newgrange.
Dismantling the roofbox at Newgrange prior to the straightening the passage stones underneath.

The purpose of the roofbox was not known or discovered until after O'Kelly had it dismantled and reconstructed. Because of the slumped and collapsed nature of the orthostats in the passage below, straightening them caused the stones of the roofbox to be raised. The stones at the inner end of the roofbox had slumped and collapsed, some of the stones being crushed, possibly when the cairn collapsed. It is likely that the roofbox, a structure which seems to have been contrived to accurately observe the winter solstice sunrise, did not function after the cairn fell during the neolithic.

A decorated corbel found under the roofbox at Newgrange.
A decorated corbel found under the roofbox at Newgrange. This stone, one of a pair, was removed to the National Museum in Dublin where they form part of a modern mock-up of a small passage-grave within the neolithic exhibit in the museum. The pair of corbels were replaced with plain slabs.

According to local knowledge, both Bob and Anne Hickey were well aware that the passage was aligned to the winter solstice sunrise, and they would have seen the illumination of the passage prior to the restoration of the roofbox in 1967. Both Sir Norman Locklyer and W. Y. Evans-Wentz had written about the alignment in 1909 and 1911, while AEON, the poet George Russell has mentioned the alignment as early as 1897 in a poem.

Rebuilding the roof-box at Newgrange in 1967.
Michael O'Kelly supervises the rebuilding of the roofbox at Newgrange in 1967.

O'Kelly's reassembled roofbox, elevated by some 45 - 50 centimeters higher than it was found, was encased in reinforced concrete. A large block of quartz was found within the roofbox, and scratch-marks on the large slab below the roofbox led O'Kelly to suspect that this block was one of a pair which were used to close the roofbox when the monument was not in use. The second block, though not found in excavation, was suspected because of another curving set of scratch marks indicating frequent use for a period of time. The quartz block which was found during excavations went missing and has not been seen since 1967.

The Great Circle at Newgrange

Though the cairn at Newgrange has been dated to about 3,200 BC from two samples of material in the caulking of sand and burnt clay used to seal the passage roof, O'Kelly always maintained that the Great Circle, of which apparently twelve of the stones remained, dated to the bronze age. O'Kelly seems to have greatly played down the bronze age aspects of Newgrange. It now seems that the huge ring of pits on the south side of the monument and a smaller example on the west side, are both contemporary with the Knowth beaker period or early bronze age period. While O'Kelly insisted the Great Circle was a later addition, discoveries of some examples of neolithic art in the Great Circle by photographer Ken Williams seem to indicate that they are contemporary with the neolithic passage-grave phase of the monument.

Plan of the excavation from the book Newgrange by Michael O'Kelly.
A photo from the excavation of the pit circle demonstrates that the woodhenge pre-dates the great stone circle. Picture © Con Brogan.

Essentially O'Kelly argued that the Great Circle was a bronze age construction, possibly built by bronze age squatters who found the huge greywacke boulders, too big to have been used in the monument construction, onsite. O'Kelly believed that the Pit Circle he discovered was older than the Great Circle. David Sweetman, who excavated the Pit Circle after O'Kelly believed the opposite: that the pits were younger than the Circle. It is now recognised that some of the stones from the Great Circle sat in shallow pits. O'Kelly found six pits which may have been the sockets of missing Great Circle stones. Another possible pit from a missing circle stone was discovered by geophysics close to Kerbstone 52.

The Modern Quartz Facade at Newgrange

As the excavations continued, the restoration works also continued in tandem. O'Kelly's examination of the way the cairn had collapsed had convinvced him that the front of the monument was faced by a vertical drystone quartz wall was the only explanation for the stratigraphy he found outside Newgrange. He also felt that the amount of cairn-slip was too large to have come off the monument, reconstructed at a natural angle of repose, which he felt would crush the internal structures.

The concrete wall at Newgrange.
The reinforced concrete wall at Newgrange, which props up the modern quartz facade. Image from O'Kelly's book, Newgrange Archaeology, art and legend.

After conducting a series of poorly documented experiments, where O'Kelly built a revetment two meters wide by two meters high over Kerbstones 81 and 82. Though the quartz was not as prevelant here as by the entrance, O'Kelly had the revetment faced with quartz which was then made collapse. The resulting stratigraphy convinced O'Kelly to restore the cairn with a vertical wall of quartz supported by a massive reinforced concrete wall by 1968. This restoration has been and will remain a contraversial subject within the historical narrative of Newgrange. O'Kelly had found the quartz lying on the old ground level, under the cairn slip outside the kerbstones. The quartz seems to have been most thickly distributed around the entrance area. O'Kelly believed that the quartz had featured as part of a vertical wall that had collapsed sometime after the monument was built.

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.

Modern Research at Newgrange

It is highly unlikely that such a vertical wall as O'Kelly built would have stood for long in the neolithic. Some academics have gone to great pains to justify the Newgrange reconstruction, but their arguments are selective and unconvincing. A 2017 paper titled Facing the cairn at Newgrange, Co. Meath purports to examine the evidence, but skirts quickly through the excavation and ignores the stratigraphy, opting instead for a tour of monuments on the Continent which have vertical revetments, such as Gavrinis and Barnenez, used as 'evidence' that a similar wall must have existed at Newgrange. The piece finishes with a useful summary of the contents of the O'Kelly / Newgrange excavation archives.

This paper reviews the archaeological evidence for the presence of a quartz and granite-faced dry-walled revetment built on top of the kerbstones that encircle the passage tomb at Newgrange, Co. Meath. Over time, doubts have been cast on the interpretation of the facing as put forward by the excavator, Professor M.J. O’Kelly (1915–82). It has been variously claimed that it is not typical of Neolithic construction, that such a sheer elevation would not have been able to stand or that it looks too contemporary.We review the evidence for the cairn facing, making use of the substantial excavation archive, the contents of which we list for future researchers.

Among other materials, the archive includes copies of correspondence between O’Kelly and officials of the Office of Public Works that provides, inter alia, a better understanding of the decision-making processes with regard to the restoration of the monument, and in particular of the quartz revetment.

The correspondence shows that O’Kelly insisted on the need to return the considerable quantity of fallen stones to the cairn from which they had slipped, behind a revetted exterior.The correspondence also indicates, however, that the decisions regarding the design and construction of the retaining revetment wall were made by the Office of Public Works architects and their advisers.We find that the cairn facing as interpreted by O’Kelly in the main withstands interrogation, and we provide evidence of similar cairn revetments recorded through fieldwork and excavation in Ireland and elsewhere in western Europe since the publication of the 1982 Newgrange report.

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

Hugh Kearns, an engineer who wrote a book about Newgrange made the interesting observation that the vertical wall at Newgrange represents a cairn—shaped like Queen Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea, in County Sligo—in mid collapse. The huge truncated cone or frustrum was largely composed of water-rolles stones and gravel - poor material according to O'Kelly. The addition of layers of stripped turves of topsoil may have been to bulk out the mound and also to stabelize the loose cairn material. Kearns proposed that when the cairn collapsed, the downward and outward pressure caused the quartz-covered cairn surface, reposing at an angle of about 40°:, to bulge outwards like a standing wave before falling. It the quartz came off the cairn, the pressure must have been huge, as the quartz layer spreads from 4 to 7 meters out from the kerbstones.

 A photo from the excavation of the pit circle demonstrates that the woodhenge pre-dates the great stone circle. Picture © Con Brogan.
A photo from the excavation of the pit circle demonstrates that the woodhenge pre-dates the great stone circle. Picture © Con Brogan.

The completed site was opened to the public in 1975, and is now one of the largest and busiest tourist attractions in Ireland.

David Sweetman

When the back of the cairn began to collapse in the 1980's, archaeologist David Sweetman was tasked with conducting a series of excavations at Newgrange for the Office of Public Works. Because of blocked drainage holes in the massive reinforced concrete wall holding up O'Kelly's quartz facade, the back of Newgrange burst. A large section of the old 1880's revetted wall stretching from Kerbstone 52 to Kerbstone 67 collapsed. Sweetman opened a trench on the west side of the Newgrange to allow cement lorries access to the back of the monument. To the west of the cairn, the ground when a ten meter strip was desodded they discovered the area to be covered with a large spread of charcoal and burnt soil. A new, unknown monument was discovered, two arcs of pits or postholes.

New Discovery made at Newgrange - The Irish Times - April 1982.

Archaeologists with the Office of Public Works have made what they believe to be a significant discovery at Newgrange, Co. Meath. The unearthing of a "beaker house" alongside a crematorium and burial ground was made about six weeks ago as workers moved in to prepare the site for a new tourist office in the shadow of the world-famous passage grave. Barely 100 yards from the passage grave, which fronts onto the public car park, workers under the supervision of archaeologist David Sweetman discovered a series of holes and shafts which date back to 2,000BC. Archaeologists have never before found crematoria and shaft burials side-by-side. Commenting on the discovery Mr. Sweetman said: "Up until now we did not know that Bronze Age man cremated the bodies right beside where they buried them."

In all a total of 13 shaft burials and an equal number of crematoria have been unearthed. While crematoria and shafts are similar, the former were somewhat larger and were used to burn the bodies. The large pits were lined with clay and the bodies ceremonially burned. The remains were then removed and laid to rest in the shafts alongside. It is believed that each crematorium and burial shaft was used only once. In a corner of the site workers discovered traces of a Bronze Age house and they also unearthed some Beaker pottery. Sweetman is puzzled by the fact that the house is beside the burial ground, which dates from the same period. The beaker house was constructed of wattles and clay and was used for flint napping ­ a process of removing nodules of flint. Only one other beaker house has been discovered in the country, at Monknewtown, not far from Newgrange. That discovery was also made by Mr Sweetman some years ago.

A stone, similar to those which ring the passage grave, was also unearthed at Newgrange recently. Along with the stone Mr. Sweetman discovered traces of poles in a number of the pits which indicates that the area was the scene of pagan rituals. "We might be in the middle of a stone circle somewhat like Woodhenge or Stonehenge," Mr Sweetman suggested. Exhaustive excavations continued during the week, but it seems likely that when the work is completed the foundations for the new tourist office will be laid over the burial ground. It will be approximately another month before the final go-ahead for the work will be given. Asked why another location could not be found for the office in view of the significance of the site, Mr. Sweetman said that regardless of where one dug at Newgrange the possibility was that something would be unearthed.


Site Z, a ruined passage-grave at Newgrange.
Site Z, a ruined passage-grave at Newgrange.

Ann Lynch

In the 1980's, serious problems began to manifest, caused by the reconstruction techniques, specifically the amoung of reinforced concrete used to hold up the quartz wall at the front of the monument. Drainage holes left in the concrete wall had becom silted and blocked up within a decade, causing a build up of pressure from water retained by the concrete wall. The 1880's revetment wall, constatntly repaired by the Office of Public Works to the rear of the mound, burst as the pent up water attempted to escape. The north-western portion of the mound began to collapse and the kerbstones were pushed over. Excavation, restoration and conservation work was undertaken to reinforce that side of the mound with gabions and concrete.

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

The passage tomb at Newgrange serued as a focus of ceremonial actiuity in tbe Late Neolitbic and Beaker periods. A complex of monuments was constructed around the mound, consisting of a timber circle or woodhenge to the south-east and a smaller, possibly roofed, timber circle to tbe west; an enclosing bank constructed along tbe southern and western sides, and a free-standing circle of great stones encircling the monument. In this paper tbe view that the faunal and material remains from the Newgrange excauations are domestic refuse is questioned. The deposition and spatial patterning of tbe faunal material is interpreted as having a ritual significance and the use of this material as representatiue of the Late Neolitbic and Beaker period economy is reiected.

Aspects of Ritual Deposition in the Late Neolithic and
Beaker Periods at Newgrange, Co. Meath - Charles Mount.

The huge passage-grave with a modern wall of quartz at Newgrange. In reality, the site could hardly have looked like this, as neolithic builders did not use concrete. Photograph © National Monuments Services.