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Mrs Hickey at Newgrange.
A photo of Mrs. Ann Hickey, caretaker at Newgrange, taken around 1910. Mrs. Hickey worked as a guide and caretaker for sixty years; you can hear an interview with her in 1962, at the age of 90, in this clip.

Art and Symbolism at Newgrange

Upon a careful examination of the spiral carvings, we find them nearly all formed of a double coil, commencing with a loop, and, in most instances, having seven turns. Many of these spirals or scrolls look like the first drawings or markings for the subsequent engraving in relief, such as we find in the finished work of the great flag at the entrance.

Beauties of the Boyne, Sir William Wilde, 1849.

Newgrange has some of the finest examples of megalithic art in Western Europe, and marks a high point of neolithic symbolism and expression. The decorated stones have fascinated visitors since they were first described by Edward lhuyd in 1699. While it is appreciated that the art at Newgrange is related to carvings on continental passage-graves such as Garvinis in Brittany, the Irish carvings, particularly those at Newgrange, are considered to be the most accomplished and cohesive compositions in the entire neolithic world.

There are seventy-five engraved stones at Newgrange, thirty-one kerbstones, sixteen passage stones and eighteen stones in the chamber.

The three key decorated kerbstone at Newgrange.
The three key decorated kerbstone at Newgrange. Illustrations © Padraig Conway.

Engraved Kerbstones

Three of the Newgrange kerbstones, illustrated above, are fully decorated—the Entrance stone, Kerbstone 52 which is positioned at the exact opposite side of the cairn to the entrance—and Kerbstone 67 which lies to the north of the chamber. The Entrance stone was discovered in 1699 and described by Lhwyd, but the other stones seem to have remained buried under cairn-slip until the 1890's when Newgrange was tidied up by the Board of Works. During these works a gate was added to the monument, which was being badly damaged by graffiti, and Kerbstone 52 and Kerbstone 67 were exposed.

Plan of Newgrange.
Plan of Newgrange.

Each of these three stones is placed in a special position in relation to direction from the chamber and the winter solstice, and each features large spirals or gyres in their composition. A vertical groove dividing the panel of swirling art on the Entrance stone is echoed and complemented by a more formal band dividing Kerbstone 52 into two sections. There is much speculation about the meaning of the engravings, which illustrate the winter solstice sunrise event which occurs annually at Newgrange. The three spirals may represent many things: the Sun, Moon and Earth, the three days of the solstice, or the divine or royal family assiciated with the monument in Irish mythology.

In addition to the three fully-decorated stones there are many lesser carvings on several other kerb-stones. During the excavation it was discovered that a number of the kerbstones are also decorated on their inner faces, and were hidden as the mound expanded to its full size, and the art was hidden.

Engraving of the Entrance Stone from William Wilde.
An engraving of the Entrance Stone published by William Wilde in 1847, shows the carved lintel of the Roof-box which was discovered in the late 1820's.

The False Lintel

The lintel of the Roof-box had fascinated early researchers since its discovery in the 1840's, and several attempts were made to dig it out in the belief that there was another chamber behind it. The lintel, a large corbel with a projecting edge, is engraved with a series of eight lozanges, wach with a cross or X in the middle. This design may reflect the division of the year into eight parts, analagous to the equinox engravings within Cairn T at Loughcrew.

A carved lintel above the Roof-box at Newgrange, photograph from 1936.
A carved lintel above the Roof-box at Newgrange, photograph from 1936.

The Roof-box is a specially contrived structure above the Entrance to the monument. The passage is built on a slope, and the Roof-box opening allows the rays of the winter solstice sunrise to rnter the chamber. The structure was a later addition to the monument, and Michael O'Kelly found two decorated corbels marking the point where the Roofbox joins the passage. There are also carvings and grooves on the back of the Roof-box corbel.

Michael O'Kelly pointing out a carving on a kerbstone at Newgrange.
Michael O'Kelly points out a carving on a kerbstone at Newgrange.

The carvings on several of the kerbstones interact with the sunlight on the winter solstice morning, when shadows cast by the stone circle fall on specific carvings, a phenomenon first noted by Martin Brennan.

Illustration of the engraved lintel above the Entrance at Newgrange.
A sketch of the engraved lintel above the Entrance at Newgrange. Illustration © George Du Noyer, 1866.

Within the Monument

The passage and chamber stones are also richly engraved with spiral, lozange and zig-zag motifs. The signiture of the Newgrange builders is the enigmatic triple spiral which appears in a large version on the Entrance stone, another form in the passage, and a finer version in the end recess of the chamber. There are various suggestions as to the meaning of the spirals here, with some maintaining that the three spirals are a map of the Boyne monuments, while others believe the spirals represent springs of water or energies beneath the mound. There was, in fact, a spring in the passage at Newgrange, which was closed up during restorations.

Graffiti in Newgrange.
Graffiti in the passage at Newgrange.

The passage and chamber are built of huge slabs of greywackie, a fairly soft sandstone which was easy enough to carve. The fact that Newgrange had become a popular place to visit can be seen in the amount of graffiti in the passage and chamber, some of which almost obliterates the neolithic carvings. Under the direction of George Coffey, casts of the engraved stones within the passage and chamber were taken in 1902. Evidence of the process was discovered by Michael O'Kelly when the chamber was excavated in 1967. Holes had been bug down under the orthostats to extend the casting area, and layers of plaster of paris were found in the chamber floor. It must have been difficult to makes casts in such dark and cramped conditions.

Illustration of the engraved stones above the Entrance in Newgrange.
A sketch of the engraved stones within the chamber of Newgrange. Illustration © George Du Noyer, 1866.

There are several notable carvings in the passage, and the as at Knowth, the art becomes more complex and definite as you proceed towards the chamber. Stone L19 and L22 are notable examples, and the undulating zig-zag motifs may be an attempt to illustrate the solstice beam of light. Closer to the chamber, deep grooves like ribs are cut into the stone, much like the grooves around the basin stone in the East chamber at Knowth. The stones have been illustrated and photographed many times, notably by William Wakeman, George Du Noyer, George Coffey and Robert Welch.

The Ship carving within the chamber of Newgrange.
The Ship carving within the chamber of Newgrange. The photograph is by T. H. Mason.

Engravings in the Chamber

A number of the carvings in Newgrange fascinated antiquarian researchers. A carving within the left-hand recess was dubbed the Ship Carving, and gave rise to a whole slew of fantastic ideas, from Phonecian writing to a solar boat flying through the heavens. Prehistoric Ireland by Joseph Raftery has the following photograph turned on its side, with the following caption:

The well-known 'solar ship' at Newgrange. The design is generally accepted as representing a ship with crew and hoisted sail, with a sun above it.

Martin Brennan was convinced that these devices or motifs represent a unit of measurement, and he monitered similar engravings at Loughcrew interacting with sun beams.

A carved stone in the east recess of Newgrange, by William Wakeman.
A carved stone in the east recess of Newgrange. Illustration by William Wakeman.

On the edge of the same slab, another, somewhat similar carving dubbed the fern leaf, is illustrated below. This design may give some indication of the meaning behind the rituals which would have taken place in Newgrange. A similar motif, found in the near east, is known as the Herb of Rejuvenation, a plant which features in the Epic poem of Gilgamesh. The plant has the power to overturn death and bestow immortality, common themes in the mystery religions and mythologies of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Gilgamesh makes a journey to the Abode of the Blessed, an Otherworld inhabited by the gods. He meets Utnapishtim, the man who survived the Flood and was rewarded with eternal life. The same symbol as the Newgrange fern carving is used to represent the herb.

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 famous triple-spiral, the prime motif at Newgrange, is carved on the right-hand stone in the end recess. This stone was broken at the base, possibly when excavations took place here in 1795, when the basin was smashed and a large hole dug by someone looking for treasure or even another passage. The spiral carving consists of two spirals in an S shape, with a third spiral attached, the ends of the third spiral enclosing the S shape. The carving is 30 centimeters across, one third the size of the larger triple-spiral on the Entrance stone. It is believed that this design was lit up by the beam of light at sunrise on the winter solstice, but though this does not happen directly today, there is enough light from the sunbeam to see the carving.

The triple spiral
The triple spiral carving within the end recess of Newgrange, illustration by William Wakeman.

The other carving of note is the magnificant panel of art covering the massive slab which froms the ceiling of the right-hand recess. This slab is more than two by four meters, and the carvings extend inwards under the corbels. This composition may well be the finest example of neolithic art in the Boyne Valley. Large diamond or lozange shapes are surrounded by series of circles which expand outwards in moving ripples. The entire panel seems to be very cosmological and astronomical in its location and symbolism. The right-hand resess is much larger than the other two, and has a double basin. Human remains found here in 1967 were analysed as part of a research programme, which indicated that the individual buried here was a child born of incest.

Claire O'Kelly

The artwork at Newgrange was recorded and illustrated by Claire O'Kelly, wife of Michael O'Kelly, while the excavations were taking place. She discovered that there was art on seventy-five stones covering 84 surfaces. Claire took rubbings of all of the stones using tinfoil and plastic, and these were then traced life-size on to paper, a process which took place at the Netterville Institute at Dowth, where there were large rooms and floors. All of the artwork that had been discovered is are reproduced in Michael O'Kelly's Newgrange book, published in 1983.

Decorated cairn stone from Newgrange.
Decorated cairn stones from Newgrange, discovered during excavations.
Illustration by Claire of Kelly.

Claire O'Kelly's work on the art at Newgrange was complimented by a survey of Dowth which she undertook with her husband, in 1983, which remains the only catalogue of art for that site.

Martin Brennan

Martin Brennan is a researcher who has made an intensive study of the megalithic art of the Boyne Valley and at Loughcrew. His pioneering work was published in two books, The Boyne Valley Vision published in 1979 and The Stars and the Stones published in 1983.

Martin Brennan was trained as an artist who made sesnsitive illustrations of a wide selection of the megalithis art in the Boyne Valley. Brennan and his co-researcher Jack Roberts he made several ground-breaking discoveries about the relationship between the art and the astronomical alignments of the huge monuments. Brennan was the first person to draw attention to the important alignments at Loughcrew, and the shadow-casting properties of the standing stones at Newgrange.

Newgrange carvings.
Carved lintel in the heavily decorated east recess in the chamber of Newgrange, illustration by William Wakeman.

Although most archaeologists have either ignored Brennan or referred obliquely to him via denunciation of 'pseudo-scientific theories', there have been signs in recent years that some archaeologists at least are prepared to adopt a less hostile attitude. Quite a few are quietly dropping their die-hard opposition, are trying to come to terms with the developing discipline of archaeo-astronomy, and without admitting Brennan's influence, are conceding that the term 'tomb' should not be taken too literally in describing passage-mounds. It is allowed by some that at least one of the engraved stones at Knowth, kerbstone 15, could have been constructed as a sundial, while Elizabeth Shee Twohig has stated that Knowth was also oriented so that sunlight could enter its chambers at particular times of the year.

RTE's Richard Dowling speaks to Muiris O'Suilleabhain, Professor of Archeology at UCD about Neolithic Art at Newgrange ahead of this year's Winter Solstice on December 21st 2011.

Younger archaeologists are, or should be showing signs of awareness that the destructive excavation techniques they have been taught should be moderated through the use of new surveying and probing technology and computer simulation. Powerful support for some of Brennan's theories has been provided by a dramatic series of time-lapse photographs in a work by Tim O'Brien. Philip Stooke has reinforced and developed Brennan's claims that some of the decorated stones at Knowth display lunar images, stating that these inscriptions are in effect the oldest known lunar maps. Mention should also be made of the work of Frank Prendergast of the Department of Surveying, College of Technology, Bolton Street, Dublin, who has used computer simulation to study the orientation of stones at Newgrange.


Sadly, his work was much maligned at the time. However, now forty years after his books were published, many of his theories have become accepted, particularly the alignments at Cairn T and Cairn L in Loughcrew; though his discoveries are often uncredited.

The panel of art, on the roofslab within the right recess of Newgrange.
The large and elaborate panel of art on the roofslab within the right recess of Newgrange. This area is the largest and seems to be to most important part of the monument. Apart from the art, there is a double basin in this recess, and human remains were discovered here in 1967.