Excavation and reconstruction at Newgrange by Michael O'Kelly
Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
Many visitors to Newgrange today are unaware that the mounds facade is a modern reworking, and hardly 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.
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.

Excavations at Newgrange

The first dig at Newgrange took place in 1699, when the new landowner Charles Campbell, making improvements to his farm, set laborours to quarrying stone from the great mound on the hill. The area where they began digging was close to the entrance and they soon uncovered the Roofbox and the Entrance Stone.

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

Edward Lhwyd was the first antiquarians to visit and describe the mound, during his tour of Ireland in 1699. He was lucky enough to pass by just after the entrance had been discovered. During 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. Image by Leo Swan.
Aerial photo of Newgrange taken during excavations, shows the position of the huge monument on the gravel ridge. Image by Leo Swan.

The Board of Works finally took over management of the monument in 1882 took steps to tidy up the entrance area. In 1890 a gate was fitted, blocking access to the interior of the monument, which helped to limit the damage. Sadly the records of these improvements seem to have been lost, and were not available to O'Kelly.

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

R. A. F. Macalister did some excavations at Newgrange in 1928 and at Knowth in 1943. He began digging at the Entrance stone, and working clockwise exposed 54 kerbstones that had been buried under cairn-slip. See Macalister's 'Penny Guide to Newgrange' for more details.

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

Professor Michael J. O'Kelly began work at Newgrange in 1962 and excavated every summer for a season of 4 months until 1975, and his work gives us the Newgrange we see today. There has been quite a bit of controversy and debate, in particular about both the reconstruction of the roof-box and the white wall of quartz, and it is highly unlikely that Newgrange ever would have looked as it currently appears.

Over thirteen years of excavation and restoration, four main areas were examined: the cairn-slip, the cairn, the passage and chamber, and the relationship of the monument to the circle of standing stones. The results are published in O'Kelly's book, Newgrange: archaeology, art and legend, a good read, though not as detailed as one might wish.

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 could be made. They found that the cairn had a flat platform at the top, 32 meters in diameter. Much of the cairn material, which largely consisting of thousands of tons of water-rolled head-sized stones, was found on the ground outside the ring of kerbstones, making it look like the monument was of a much larger diameter.

Rebuilding the roof-box at Newgrange.
Rebuilding the roof-box at Newgrange after straightening the passage stones underneath..

The next job undertaken was to straighten and stabelize the passage, where the orthostats were leaning inwards making it hard 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.

O'Kelly and his team began by making cuttings into the body of the mound. They found that the profile of the cairn had been carefully built up in layers composed of turves, clay, water-rolled boulders and snail-shells.

A trench was extended along each side of the passage, exposing the structural stones. It was found that the roof of the passage follows the contour of the hill like a flight of steps. The roof-box structure, discovered in 1967, was completely dismantled and the passage was uncovered, allowing the excavators / restorers to straighten the passage orthostats in their sockets. 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.

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

The passage and chamber were cloaked within a structure of mass concrete as part of the conservation process. The roof-box was 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 roof-box.

An aerial image of Newgrange during excavations. Photograph by Leo Swan.
An aerial image of Newgrange during excavations. Photograph by Leo Swan.

The mound 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 corbels against damp. No evidence of this 'neolithic putty' was mentioned in relation to the corbels within the chamber.

Plan from the excavation from the book Newgrange by Michael O'Kelly.
Plan from the excavation from the book Newgrange by Michael O'Kelly.

As the excavations progressed, they began to repair and restore the mound. O'Kelly examined the way the cairn had slipped, and after a series of experiments decided to restore the mound with a verticle wall. This has been and will remain a contraversial subject at Newgrange.

O'Kelly found the quartz lying on the old ground level, under the cairn slip outside the kerbstones. The quattz seems to have been most thickly distributed around the entrance area. O'Kelly reasoned that the quartz had featured as part of a verticle wall that had collapsed soon after the monument was built.

However, it is impossible that such a wall could have stood for long in the neolithic without the reinforcing concrete and steel.

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

Indeed, recent research has suggested that O'Kelly's ideas about the collapsing wall suggest that the mound should have been restored to a shape similar to Queen Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea in County Sligo.

In the last few years, more questions have been raised as to the nature of the reconstruction, in particular in relation to the dismantling and reconstruction of the roof-box structure. The entire structure was dismantled and removed so that the three passage-stones on each side could be straightened.

The entrance at Newgrange.
The entrance at Newgrange was remodeled during the reconstruction to allow easier access for visitors. The gray cut limestone was used to differentiate the old from the modern.

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

Ann Lynch

In the 1990 problems were caused by the reconstruction techniques. Drainage holes left in the concrete wall had silted up, causing a build up of pressure to the rear of the mound as the water attempted to escape. The north-western portion of the mound began to collapse and restoration and conservation work was undertaken to reinforce that side of the mound with gabions and concrete. Evidence uncovered during those excavations show it is unlikely that such a steep wall ever fronted Newgrange.

The wall of quartz at Newgrange. In reality, the site could hardly have looked like this, as neolithic builders did not use concrete.