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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 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 Chamber of Newgrange

The interior of Newgrange is an amazing piece of architecture and engineering. The Entrance stone outside the monument marks the boundary between the World of the Living and the Land of the Dead. The passage allows the Living to make a symbolic journey to the Underworld, represented by the Chamber, and return again to the Land of the Living. This is the symbolism built into passage-graves.

As the Newgrange passage approaches the chamber the roofing corbels rise above the orthostats, soaring upwards to meet and lock into the chamber ceiling. The lofty corbelled vault of the Newgrange rises to a neat capstone six meters above the floor, forming an incredible artificial cave. The earliest description of the chamber was penned by Edward Lhuyd in a letter to his friend Dr. Tancred Robinson shortly after his visit to Newgrange:

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.

Edward Lhuyd, 15th December 1699.

An early photograph of the point where the passage and chamber meet.
An early photograph of the point where the passage and chamber of Newgrange meet. This is the point where most structural stress occurs in megalithic chambers. The photo shows how the roof of the passage is integrated into the corbelled roof of the chamber. The photographer is uncredited, but was probably T. H. Mason.

Many antiquarians visited Newgrange and published descriptions of the chamber. Sir Thomas Molyneux, a correspondant of Lhuyd visited both Newgrange and Knowth, publishing his account in 1727. A visitor to Newgrange in 1844, the celebrated German traveller Mr. Kohl, penned this description of the chamber in his book on Ireland:

We soon reached the convenient interior of the tumulus, where it was possible not only to stand upright, but likewise to walk freely about, the place being neither more nor less than a small chapel, with three side chapels depending on it. We had brought with us a great number of candles. One of these we suspended in the centre of the principal chapel, and in each of the smaller chapels we likewise placed a light, sticking the rest to the walls as best we could; and amid this illumination my eyes wandered over the most remarkable and interesting specimen of old Cyclopean architecture that I ever beheld. Rude and simple as everything was, I fear it will be difficult to give my readers anything like an accurate idea of the structure and appearance of the place.

The Temple of Newgrange, 1844.

An early photograph of the entrance to the chamber of Newgrange.
An early photograph of the tall engraved pillar at the entrance to the chamber of Newgrange. Again, the photographer is unknown, but may have been R. A. S. Macalister.

The Newgrange chamber is cruciform or cross-shaped in plan, a layout commonly found in Irish passage-graves, with three recesses opening off the central area. The right-hand recess is much larger than the other two recesses, another common feature frequently found in this type of monument. The chamber is about the same size and shape as the East chamber at Knowth, though the passage at Knowth is twice as long as the Newgrange passage.

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.

Edward Lhuyd, 15th December 1699.

The Corbelled Roof

The cruciform chamber is formed by a series of seventeen large, upright orthostats which were placed into sockets and secured in place with small packing stones. Above the orthostats, roofing corbels were added, large flat slabs of stone overlapping each other in layers, in much the same way as modern slates are used. The corbelling technique has been largely sucessful in keeping the interior of the monument dry over the millenia.

An early photograph of the chamber of Newgrange.
An early photograph of the large right-hand recess in chamber of Newgrange. The granite basin has been replaced on the larger basin where it was originally found. The concrete pillar was added around 1890.

The corbels were added course by course, tilted at an angle to allow the rainwater to run off the outside surface, using smaller packing stones called spalls to increase the angle of the corbel. Many of the corbels had grooves carved on their upper surfaces to drain water away from the chamber. The same technique was used on the corbels covering the passage.

Many of the spalls had fallen from the roof, and Lhuyd reports that there were many small stones scattered around the interior, intermixed with animal bones and pieces of deer antler. William Jones, a draftsman working for Lhuyd prepared a plan of the passage and chamber. Jones noted a long triangular stone with a hole pierced through the wider end. While it has been speculated that this stone may have been an axehead, it is just as likely to have been the edge of a broken corbel. The stone has long since vanished.

Though a number of the corbels are cracked, the excavators did not attempt to move any stones or fix the vault, as they doubted that they would have had the skill to rebuild it. Many of the corbel-edges are engraved on their outer face, the most common motifs being diamonds, triangles and zig-zags.

Megalithic Art

There are some wonderful examples of megalithic art to be found in the chamber. The designs feature spirals, lozanges and triangles. Antiquarians were fascinated by he triple spiral in the end recess, the solar boat and the Newgrange fern. The richly carved panel of engraved art on the ceiling of the right-hand recess the most accomplished neolithic composition in the entire Boyne Valley. The stone was carved before being places in position, as in many areas the engravings extend under the corbels.

Engravings within Newgrange.
The elaborately carved panel of engraved art on the ceiling of the right-hand recess. Illustration by H. G. Leask, from R. A. S. Macalister's 1929 Penny Guide to Newgrange.

There is a large selection of Victorian and later graffiti carved into the soft greywackie stones, including a Freemason's symbol within the chamber, which is surely worthy of a study of its own.

An early photograph of the corbeled roof at Newgrange.
The corbeled roof at Newgrange, from a postcard published in 1920. The photograph was taken by T. H. Mason.

Recesses and Basin Stones

Off this center chamber were three small ones, each with the same sort of huge stones, and nearly each one carved; they bear evidence that the carving must have been done before they were placed in position, and how they were got into place is a mystery. There were no contrivances in those days for lifting heavy weights as there are now, and again all that carving must have been done by those interesting little flint implements and hammers so well known in Antrim and Down districts. It is wonderful, and if such a monument of long-gone days were anywhere but in Ireland it would be as well-known and visited as the Pyramids of Egypt are.

A Day Trip to the Boyne Valley, 1897.

The left, end and right-hand recesses each contain a large stone slab or basin, which must have been in place before the chamber was constructed, as they are much too large to have been added later. The left-hand recess is the smallest of the three, with the smallest basin. Spirals are carved on each of the three slabs forming the recess, a single large spiral to the left, a large spiral and two smaller examples on the back stone, and two small spirals on the right-hand orthostat.

An old photo of the designs in the left recess of the chamber of Newgrange.
An extremely old photo of the designs in the left recess of the chamber of Newgrange. The concrete pillar was removed during the modern excavation and restoration. Photo probably by T. H. Mason.

An unusual motif on this stone has long fascinated antiquarians such as Charles Vallancey, who thought it to be a ship carving, and proof thet the monument was constructed by the ancient Phonecians. The edge of this slab has an engraving known as the fern leaf carving. This symbol may represent the herb of rejuvenation, a magical plant with the ability to bestow immortality and bring the dead back to lifr, which is found in Sumarian mythology.

Graffiti within the chamber of Newgrange.
Graffiti covering the fern-leaf engraving within the chamber of Newgrange. The photograph is scanned from an early glass slide taken by T. H. Mason.

The end or north recess is larger and deeper than the left-hand recess. A large flat basin slab, which fills the entire recess, lies broken into several fragments. Apparently, a gentleman from Connaught had a dream that gold was buried under this stone in 1795. He travelled to Newgrange to test the truth of his dream, breaking the basin and digging a pit underneath it. We are not told whether he found treasure, but Michael O'Kelly found the hole, filled with fragments of the basin, while exvacating the chamber.

The triple spiral
Back Recess: Right-hand walling stone (ingenious pattern of three linked spirals). The inner triple-spiral is one third of the size of the triple-spiral on the Entrance stone.

The most famous carving at Newgrange, the triple-spiral is found on the right-hand orthostat of this recess. This inner spiral, one third of the size of the triple spiral on the Entrance stone, is actually a double spiral with a third spiral added. This orthostat was broken, possibly by the 1795 visitor, and old photos show the stone leaning into the recess. More damage was inflicted when a series of casts were taken of a number of engraves stones in 1901. This involved digging down at the base of several orthostats to get the casts, including the triple-spiral stone, which further destabilized the orthostat. A concrete butress was added to prop the stone in place.

The Right-hand Recess

The right-hand recess is the largest of the three recesses at Newgrange. A massive sandstone basin, weighing several tons covers the floor, and a second smaller white granite basin sits on top within this lower basin.

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. 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.

Edward Lhuyd, 15th December 1699.

The granite basin basin was moved some stage, probably when the Board of Works tidied up the monument in the 1880's, the top basin was moved to the centre of the chamber where it remained for some years. The upper basin is a beautifully sculpted piece, carved out of a large piece of granite and is carefully finished and polished. The basin is oval shaped and has two round depressions at the wider end. Ideas vary greatly as to what the basins may have been used for. Archaeologists suggest the basins held cremated human remains, while Lhuyd thought the upper basin was a font for liquids, and as he mentions above, water was collecting it during his visit. Others again believe that these may have been birthing basins used by Irish neolithic royalty. The birthing suggestion certainly fits in with the mythology and the alignment of the monument to the winter solstice sunrise, the rebirth of the sun.

The basin stone in the west recess is almost rectangular, measuring 1.2 meters by 90 centimeters; the interior is flat and there is a very slight lip for about two-thirds of the perimeter. That in the north recess is in several fragments but a basin of about 1.2 by 1.8 meters is suggested; there is a very slight lip on one fragment. The upper of the two basin stones in the east recess is chiselled all over, both inside and out. Note the two circular depressions 20 and 45 centimeters respectively in diameter, which are sunk close together just below the inside of the rim. Their purpose is not known. This basin is almost circular, having a rim-diameter varying from l meter to 1.2 meters. The lower basin is a good deal larger and is also a splendid specimen; it is rectangular in shape, measuring 1.8 by 1.2 meters.

Description of Newgrange by Claire O'Kelly

Right-hand recess in Newgrange by Molyneux, 1726.
The right-hand recess in Newgrange, showing the granite basin sitting in its original position within the massive sandstone basin. The engraving was published by Thomas Molyneux, a correspondant of Lhuyd, in 1727.

Mrs. Ann Hickey was caretaker at Newgrange and gave guided tours of the chamber for more than half a century, which involved crawling for part of the way, using candles for ligt in a pre-electric era. She also had to keep visitors from leaving their names on the stones, as this 1914 visitor who was disgusted by the amount of graffiti recounts:

Here too there are three recesses; but everything is on a grander scale than at Dowth, and the ornamentation is much more elaborate. It consists of intricate and beautifully formed spirals, coils, lozenges and chevrons; and here, also, the vandal had been at work, scratching his initials, sometimes even his detested name, upon these sacred stones. There was one especially glaring set of initials right opposite the entrance, deeply and evidently freshly cut, and I asked the woman how such a thing could happen.

"Ah, sir," she said, "that was done by a young man who you would never think would be doing such a thing. He come here one day, not long since, and with him was a young woman, and they were very quiet and nice-appearing, so after I had brought them in, I left them to theirselves, for I had me work to do; but when I came in later, with another party, that was what I saw. And I made the vow then that never again would I be leaving any one alone here, no matter how respectable they might look."

A guided tour of Newgrange with Mrs. Hickey, 1914.


Mrs. Hickey had retired by the time Michael O'Kelly began to excavate Newgrange in 1962, though she often came to visit her monument. The exterior of the monument was radically transformed, and the roofbox was dismantled, the passage straightened, and the roof-box was rebuilt, allowing the sun to enter the chamber, an event first witnessed by O'Kelly in 1967. But the chamber essentially remains in the same condition as when Lhydd visited in 1699, and continues to awe and fascinate visitors. Modern tours are conducted by the Office of Public Works, and the monument can only be accessed throght the visitor cernre.

The chamber of Newgrange by W. A. Green.
The chamber of Newgrange, photographed by W. A. Green, shows the granite basin in the centre of the chamber and containing liquid.

Tours usually have twenty to twenty-five people in each group, crammed into the chamber for 20 minutes. Though the chamber can accomodate so many bodies at a squeeze, it can feel a bit crushed and is not for the claustrophobic. A visitor gets to experience the chamber in the dark for a few minutes, when the guide turns off the lights to give a simulation of the solstice sunbeam in the chamber. It is highly likely that very few individuals could or would even want to enter the chamber. The privilige of observing the winter solstice from within was hardly allowed to the general public, and probably resolved for the neolithic royalty and their ritual specialists.

A rug, too, is laid to crawl on, and the passage is very short, and having traversed it, we stood upright once more in a wonderful place, a circular-domed chamber, about fourteen feet high, composed of enormous monolithic blocks of un-hewn stones, some about twelve feet high, and large in proportion, and nearly all with beautiful carvings--the circle or spiders web was the favorite device, but the patterns varied; one stone had a fern leaf almost true to nature; there were diamond-shaped and zig-zag patterns and many others. These are actually the earliest known form of ornaments existing in this kingdom, the efforts of an artistic talent untrained and rude, but struggling to give expression to something beautiful.

A Day Trip to the Boyne Valley, 1897.

An illustration of Aengus Og at Newgrange, 1914.
An illustration of Aengus Og at Newgrange, 1914.

Mythology and Ancient DNA

According to several Irish myths, Newgrange was the palace of the solar deity known as the Dagda, and his spouse Boann, the personification of the River Boyne. They commit adultry and have a son, Aengus, who birth took place on the same day as his conception, which may symbolise an astronomical event such as a solar eclipse, or perhaps be an echo of a memory dating back to the time of the neolithic farmers and the bronze age people who came after them. A related myth about the passage-grave at Dowth closeby recounts how a druidess cast a spell which caused the sun to stand still in the sky, so the mound could be completed. Her brother was overcome with lust, and committed incest with her, breaking the enchantment, causing the sun to set, an event which can once again be viewed as an astronomical metephor for a solar eclise.

As New Grange was rifled by Scandinavian pirates in the year 861 A.D., we are unable to say anything about the actual disposition of the ancient interments within it; but analogy with similar structures which have been excavated in recent years shows that these recesses were the receptacles for the interments themselves. These were probably cremated and deposited either in urns or upon small slabs of stone, and heaped up with the associated grave goods upon the flagstones that still remain in the floor of the recesses. The flagstone in the back recess has been broken up, possibly by raiders in search of treasure or of an entrance to supposed concealed passages further in.

R. A. S. Macalister's Penny Guide to Newgrange, 1929.

Though there were many mentions of human and animal bones within the chamber, by the time O'Kelly came to excavating the chamber in 1967, the partial remains of five people were found, some in the right-hand recess. These remains were analysed as part of a study on Ancient DNA conducted by a team led by Lara Cassidy and Dan Bradley.

A Game of Bones, Episode 6: The web of connections through Ancient DNA at Listoghil with Carrowmore guide Pádriag Meehan.

According to their genomes, the man buried in Newgrange was a sixth-degree relative of people buried at Carrowmore and Carrowkeel Passage tombs in County Sligo and the Millin Bay Megalith on Ireland’s northeast coast. Sixth-degree relatives could be second cousins, first cousins twice removed, great-great-great-great grandchildren/parents, or great-great-great uncles or aunts (or nieces or nephews). Like a prehistoric version of the Habsburgs, this extended group of relatives seems to have ruled Ireland and maintained its connected dynasties for centuries.

Incestuous kings may have built Ireland’s Newgrange Passage tomb. Source.

Cassidy and Bradley discovered that the individual buiried in the right-hand recess was born of an incestious union, possibly one of the last members of an Irish neolithic royal family. He was also related to people buried in monuments at Millin Bay, Carrowkeel, and at Listoghil, the focal monument at Carrowmore an early neolithic site which has a similar layout to Knowth. It is worth noting that there is a roof-box at Cairn G in Carrowkeel, and Listoghil has both megalithic art and an astronomical alignment which includes the winter solstice sunrise.

An early photograph of the  complex panel of engravings in the roof of the right-hand recess at Newgrange.
An early photograph of the complex panel of engravings, a masterpiece of neolithic art, on the ceiling of the right-hand recess within the chamber of Newgrange.