The ritual origins of the roof-box at Newgrange

The thesis by Laura E. Freeman Marr explores the unique archaeological feature of Newgrange known as the roof-box, which was rediscovered after the excavations carried out at the site in the 1960s by Michael J. O'Kelly.

This rediscovery led to the realization that the roof-box is in fact an open structure that is aligned with the winter solstice sun, and that the solstice sun annually penetrates the passageway illuminating the chamber of the tomb. Since this discovery, Newgrange has grown into a major tourist site that is focused on the solstice phenomenon.

This thesis will examine concepts of ritual throughout history in association with the roof-box and winter solstice. It will also examine concepts of authenticity and public ritual in the form of modern tourism, and the various ways in which the roof-box at Newgrange is interpreted.

The ritual origins of the roof-box at Newgrange PDF document - 54 pages

Correction Notice

It should be noted that Laura E. Freeman Marr has confused two different people, incorrectly claiming that Dr. Robert Hensey was responsible for the article in the Irish Times on Dec 21, 2016 which suggested that the Newgrange roof-box was only 50 years old. Hensey did not make that claim, and indeed has strongly refuted that suggestion. He has however argued elsewhere that the outer part of the passage at Newgrange, including the roof-box, represented an extension to the monument probably created in the late Neolithic (which may be the source of Freeman Marr's confusion). For further clarification see Dr. Hensey's publication Rediscovering the Winter Solstice Alignment at Newgrange.

Newgrange viewed from the river Boyne
Newgrange viewed from the banks of the River Boyne

Newgrange and the Roof-Box

The megalithic passage tomb of Newgrange is one of the most important archaeological and cultural heritage sites in Ireland. It is also one of the most fascinating sites due to its unique archaeological feature known as the roof-box. The roof-box is a stone structure situated above the passage tomb entrance which allows the winter solstice sun to enter the narrow passage way and illuminate the dark chamber within the tomb. Although Newgrange has gone through numerous changes throughout the years, such as the excavation and reconstruction carried out by Michael J. O'Kelly. and the Office of Public Works in the 1960s, the nature of the roof-box and its authenticity has been a continuous topic of inquiry. Was the roof-box found to be preserved in its original structural form when it was rediscovered during excavations in the 1960s, thus reflecting its original function? Or was the structure of the roof-box altered over the years, specifically during the reconstruction and excavation, to be deliberately aligned with the winter solstice sun?

Newgrange dates to 3200 B.C. which makes it older than both Stonehenge and Avebury, and it is also several centuries older than the pyramids of Egypt (O’Kelly 1982, 7). Newgrange is located in the Boyne Valley of County Meath, Ireland, about 1 kilometre from the River Boyne and 14 kilometres near the mouth of the river near the town of Drogheda, which is about 50 kilometres north of Dublin (O’Kelly 1982, 13).

There are over forty other prehistoric sties that are also situated throughout the landscape of the Boyne Valley, and more than half of these sites are passage tombs (O’Kelly 1982, 13). The two most dominant and numerous types of burial monuments in Ireland during the Neolithic period were court tombs and portal tombs, both are represented by over 470 sites across Ireland. The second most common type of tomb in Ireland are passage tombs which are represented by over 200 sites all varying in size and importance (Flanagan 1998, 44).

Court tombs consist of a varying number of chambers laid out in an infinite variety of arrangements with a main gallery that connects to each individual chamber, or sometimes a dual-burial gallery, all of which are enclosed in a small mound or cairn of stones. Portal tombs are thought to be developed from court tombs and are similar in arrangement (Flanagan 1998, 47-50). Passage tombs are another common type of burial monument consisting of a long passageway which is typically located on higher ground, hills, or the summits of mountains (Flanagan 1998, 61). Megalithic art in the form of carvings is also a distinct feature associated with passage tombs which can be found extensively at Newgrange and the Boyne Valley (Flanagan 1998, 61).

Although Passage tombs consist of long passageways leading to a chamber, they are universally covered with round cairns rather than long cairns like other types of tombs, and have the tendency to be situated in clusters known as a ‘cemetery’ or ‘necropolis’ (Flanagan 1998, 62). In the Boyne Valley, clusters of small passage tombs are situated around the three larger more prominent passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth (Flanagan 1998, 44). Newgrange is surrounded by three smaller individual passage tombs, as well as other remains such as standing stones, enclosures and tumuli (O’Kelly 1982, 13). Northwest of Newgrange is the passage tomb of Knowth, which has seventeen smaller passage tombs surrounding it. Finally, the passage tomb of Dowth lies east of Newgrange, and is surrounded by two other small passage tombs (O’Kelly 1982,13).

Inside the mound of Newgrange is a long and narrow passageway leading to a cruciform shaped chamber. This passageway and chamber are comprised of large, heavy slabs that were built entirely without mortar, hence the classification of a ‘megalithic’ passage tomb (O’Kelly 1982, 13). The overall structure of Newgrange is circular, and is covered with a mound or cairn of loose medium-sized water rolled stones that are about 15-22 cm in average diameter (O’Kelly 1982, 21). These stones are interspersed with layers of turves which are made up of organic material such as turf, humus and other types of soil and vegetation (O’Kelly 1982, 85).

Surrounding Newgrange is a non-concentric circle of standing stones, with the nearest circle 7 metres from the edge of the cairn, and the farthest circle 17 metres away from the cairn (O’Kelly 1982, 13). Only 12 stones out of a possible 35 to 38 have survived and are irregularly spaced, except for 3 of the largest stones that are located opposite the tomb entrance and stand on average 2.5 metres above ground level (O’Kelly 1982, 13). In addition to the non-concentric circle of standing stones that surrounds Newgrange, there is a kerb of slabs that line the cairn and sides of the mound. These 97 massive slabs are long and laid horizontally around the base of the mound (O’Kelly 1982, 21).

The ritual origins of the roof-box at Newgrange PDF document - 54 pages

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