The ninety-seven Kerbstones at Newgrange
There are ninety-seven large kerbstones encircling the base of the massive mound at Newgrange. The kerbstones are of a kind of rock called greywacke and they are thought to have been quarried and then dragged or carried by boat to the Boyne Valley from Clogher Head some twenty kilometers to the northeast, up the coast from the mouth of the Boyne.
Quarrying and hauling the kerbstones to the site was surely a mammoth task. The stones were probably dragged on rollers or on a rough sled, and would have required large, well organised work gangs, well equipped with ropes and logs. Others suggest that the stones could have been floated down the coast and up the Boyne with relative ease, but the undertaking would have involved colossal organization and skill. Once docked on the Boyne the stones would have been moved several hundred meters over land, up hill all the way, in specially constructed sleds or cradles.
The Cailleach's Apron
It is interesting to note that at Carrowmore and Loughcrew, where the construction stones are glacial, there is a folk memory of the stones being carried in the white apron of the great Witch or Cailleach named Garavogue. The stones at Newgrange were quarried, not carried by the glaciers, the white apron of the Cailleach. While this story is not mentioned in relation to Newgrange, Mrs. Ann Hickey, who was caretaker and guide at Newgrange for sixty years, mentioned a mysterious woman with an apron, who often appeared at Newgrange.
The Newgrange kerbstones are arranged from end to end in a huge ring that encircles the base of the turf mound. The massive chain of kerbstones define the boundry of the mound and helped to contain and stabelize the cairn of stones. They also mark the boundary between the living and the dead. Once you pass the ring of kerbstones at the Entrance Stone, as you move through the passage you make a symbolic journey to the Underworld or Land of the Dead represented by the chamber.
It is highly likely that Newgrange is built on the site of one or more earlier monuments, and the lines of boulders found on the old ground level may well be the remains of earlier kerbs or inner circles. Such inner circles are quite common with examples known at several sites in Carrowmore in County Sligo and at Knowth closeby. Many of the kerbstones at Newgrange are massive, the largest being 4.4 meters long. The Newgrange kerbstones are generally of higher quality than the kerbstones at Knowth and Dowth.
Several of the kerbs fell outwards when the mound collapsed and during the excavations they were found lying face down. An effort had been made to keep the tops of the kerbstones level; some were placed in shallow pits supported by boulders and prop stones. Other kerbstones were propped up on layers of supporting stones.
Many of the kerbstones bear fragments of megalithic art, and three excellent stones, the Entrance Stone, Kerbstone 52 and Kerbstone 67 are completely covered with complex panels of engravings. All the art on the kerbs has beeen recorded in Michael O'Kelly's book on Newgrange; the art was illustrated by his wife Claire, who traced all visible designs on to clear plastic and reduced them to scale for the book.
During the excavations it was discovered that a number of kerbstones are also engraved on their inner faces, and that this art would not have been visible once the cairn was completed. Obviously they were engraved before the cairn was raised or filled, and the ring of kerbstones may have been in position for some time before the cairn was finished. The kerb represents a massive expansion of what may have been a much smaller monument.
Positioning of Key Stones
The main stones bearing engravings, the Entrance Stone, Kerbstone 52 and Kerbstone 67 are all positioned in relation to the winter solstice. The Entrance Stone faces the winter solstice sunrise, and a line drawn from the vertical groove on K1 passes up the passageway, through the triple spiral in the chamber, and through the corresponding vertical groove on Kerbstone 52. Kerbstone 67, the only other fully engraved stone, is due north of the triple spiral in the chamber.
The positioning of the two engraved kerbs with their central grooves and complex panels of megalithic engraving, among the finest examples from the neolithic, illustrate the importance of Newgrange and the winter solstice to the neolithic farmers. The site continued to be venerated during the Bronze age, when the huge stone circle was constructed around the already ancient passage-grave. The importance of the solstice continued in the Bronze age Martin Brennan noted in 1983 that shadows cast by the standing stones interact with engravings on the kerbstones.