The Tumulus of Newgrange, Co. Meath.
As the size and character of the grave mounds would depend upon
the rank of the dead, the magnitude of these monuments of kings
and heroes can be readily understood from the evidence.
The Tumulus at Newgrange, in County Meath,
lying at a distance of about eight miles from Drogheda,
is perhaps the most remarkable monument of its class
now existing in any part of western Europe. In
one respect, at least, it may compare with any Celtic
monument known to exist, inasmuch as a number
of the great stones of which its gallery and chambers
are composed, exhibit a profusion of ornamental design,
consisting of spiral, lozenge, and zigzag work, such as
is usually found upon the ornaments, weapons, fictilia,
and other remains of prehistoric times in Ireland.
The earliest account of the tumulus is contained in a
letter written by Edward Lhwyd, keeper of the
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and dated December 15th 1699.
The entrance to the chamber had been discovered a short
time before by workmen employed in the removal of stones
for the repair of a road. It is recorded, however, in the
Annals of the Four Masters that Newgrange was plundered
by the Danes in 861.
This vast cairn which, even in its present condition,
measures from the floor of the inside chamber to the
summit 44 feet, and in its greatest diameter 280 feet
presents, from a little distance, the appearance of a
grassy hill partially wooded; but upon examination the
coating of earth is found to be altogether superficial,
and the stones, of which the hill is entirely composed,
can easily be laid bare. The quantity of stones has
been estimated at 100,000 tons. The base is surrounded
by a belt of large blocks of stones eight to ten feet in
length, upon which a dry wall five to six feet in height
has been raised.
The like method was adopted in some
of the great barrows in England, as in Uley, in Gloucestershire.
A circle of large stones, of which twelve may
be identified, originally surrounded its base,
and when Lhwyd saw it, there was 'another lesser
standing on the top.' This pillar-stone no longer exists.
The stones stand about thirty feet apart, and if the circle
were completed the original number of stones would be 32.
The area of the mound is about one acre in extent; but
if the area of the circle within the stones be taken,
it would extend to two acres.
The entrance to the gallery is to the south, and across
it lies one of the retaining stones, which is
beautifully covered with spirals and lozenges; two others,
also richly carved, have been discovered in the
boundary circle to the north-west. The gallery,
which extends in a direction nearly north and south,
communicates with a chamber or cave nearly in the centre
of the mound. This gallery, which measures in
length 63 feet, is, at its entrance from the exterior,
4 feet 9 inches high; in breadth at the top, 3 feet 2 inches;
and at the base, 3 feet 5 inches.
These dimensions it
fairly retains — except in one or two places where the
stones appear to have been forced from their original position
— and rises gradually to a height of about 6 feet through
a distance of 26 feet from the external entrance. Thence
towards the interior its size gradually increases,
but sinks to 4 feet 10 inches at 43 feet, and again rapidly
rises by the overlapping of the stones until it joins the
chamber roof. Large blocks of stone, from 5 feet to 8 feet
high, and numbering 22 on one side, and 21 on the other,
form the passage. These are Lower Silurian rocks, the
formation of the adjoining district; they show but little
traces of the weathering of surface rocks, 'but,
on the contrary, even faces, which indicate that
they have been split along the cleavage, and care
taken in their selection.'
The ground-plan of the chamber is cruciform, the head and arms of the cross
being formed by three recesses, one placed directly
fronting the entrance, the others east and west, and
each containing a basin of granite. The lower portions
of the walls of the chamber are composed of large uncemented stones, placed in an upright position,
over which are others laid horizontally, each
course projecting slightly beyond that upon which
it rests, and so on, until the sides so closely approximate
that a single flag suffices to close in and complete the roof.
The chamber is 19.5 feet high, and measures
from the end of the gallery to the back of the
north recess 26 feet; from the back of the east recess to the
back of the west, 21 feet. The recesses are not of uniform size. The east is 7 feet 9 inches in depth,
the north 7.5 feet, and the west 3 feet 4 inches.
The sides of these recesses are composed of immense blocks
of stones; several of the stones in the recesses and
passage bear a great variety of carving, supposed by
some to be symbolical. The carvings represent various characteristic selections in the work upon the roof of
the east recess, in the construction and decoration
of which a great degree of care appears to have been
exercised. A carving upon a stone forming the north
external angle of the west recess is supposed to be
an inscription; but even could any satisfactory
explanation of it be given, its authenticity is doubtful,
as it has been supposed to have been forged by one
of the many dishonest Irish antiquaries of the eighteenth century.
The same stone, upon its east face, exhibits
what appears to have been intended as a representation
of a fern or yew-branch. An ornament of a similar character
was found within a tomb at Locmariaker, in Brittany. It is
a remarkable fact that the majority of these carvings must
have been executed before the stones upon which they
appear had been placed in their present positions. Of this
there is abundant evidence in the east recess, where we
find the lines continued over portions of the stones
which it would be impossible now to reach with an
instrument, and which form the sides of mere interstices.
A very remarkable series of carvings is to be seen on
a boundary stone on the north side opposite the
entrance, consisting of spirals, cup-markings,
rings, and 'cartouche-like figures.' '
No examples of these ' (the last), says
Mr. George Coffey, 'have, I believe, been
previously found in Ireland.'
Of the basins contained in the various recesses, that
in the chamber, and which stood within the
larger basin in the east recess, is the most
remarkable. It measures 4 feet by 3 feet 6 inches, and is
formed of a block of granite, that must have been
brought from the nearest granite district, either Down
or Wicklow, a distance of over 50 miles. Two small
circular cavities have been cut within its interior — a
peculiarity not found in either of the others,
which are of much ruder construction, and very shallow.
We see in Newgrange a great advance in the architecture
of sepulchres from the rude cromlechs of the
Stone Age to the well-developed vaulted chamber,
with its recesses, of the Bronze Period. But the principle
of the rude passage-graves is maintained; and the desire
to honour the dead under the most appropriate monument
that art and skill could raise remains the same.
Within the chamber and recesses the relics of the
dead were most probably placed on the basins — a
purpose for which these were apparently adapted.
The general plan of Newgrange is similar to the bee-hive
tomb at Mycenae, known as the Treasury of Atreus, but
differing in size, detail, and general magnificence.
This great tomb consists of a long passage, a large
vaulted chamber — formed of successive courses of stones
laid horizontally and closed with a single slab — and
a square recess. In the centre of the rocky floor of
the recess is a circular depression 3 feet in diameter
and 2 feet deep. Dr. Schuchhardt is of opinion that
this was the actual grave, that the recess
was never opened but to admit another body, while
the great vault was devoted to the cult of the dead.
'It was and remained easily accessible; the rich
facade and the expensively-built approach conclusively
show that the entrance to the vault was not blocked
up after the reception of the bodies.'
Other authorities consider that this was not the case,
but that the central chamber was the tomb for the family,
and the side chamber for specially distinguished persons
and chiefs. Whichever view we accept, it is at least
suggestive of the purpose for which the Newgrange
type of sepulchre was planned.
In the neighbourhood of the
tumulus are two
other monuments of the same class, and of an extent nearly
equal, the 'Hills' of
; or, as they
are called by the Irish, Dubhath and Cnoabh, the latter
lying about one mile to the westward of Newgrange,
and the former at a similar distance in the opposite direction.
Among the objects found about the tumuli Lhwyd
mentions a gold coin of Valentinian, said to have been
discovered on the top of Newgrange Molyneux mentions
a similar coin, and one of Theodosius, as being found
outside the cairn. A gold chain, two finger rings, and
two gold torcs were found in 1842 close to the entrance
of Newgrange; and on further search a denarius of Geta
and two small brass, but defaced, coins were also found.
Too much caution cannot be used in considering these
as evidence in determining the date of the tumuli. A
bronze pin, a ring pin, and a small iron weapon were
found in the chamber discovered in Dowth in 1885. If,
as seems certain, this chamber and passage are of much
later date than the tumulus itself, the presence of these
objects is easily accounted for. A discussion of the
evidence upon which expert opinion is based, as to the
date of these monuments, is outside the province of this
book. It takes into consideration the character of the
architecture, the nature of the ornamentation, and the
objects found. Weighing these, the Boyne tumuli are
assigned to the Early Bronze Period, and Newgrange is
considered the oldest of the group.
Boyne Valley Private Day Tours
Pick up and return to your accommodation or cruise ship. Suggested day tour:
Newgrange World Heritage site, 10th century High Crosses at Monasterboice,
Hill of Tara the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, Bective Abbey and Trim Castle the largest Norman castle in Ireland