By Vallancey


December 2016

A theory made of concrete, rebar and stone

Beware those offering cast-iron proofs of the intentions of Neolithic builders. The monuments they bequeathed us are deeply enigmatic fragments of a complex code of belief and practice, many elements of which are not available to modern investigators. Here lies the potential for alienation; a clever theory has been solidified in concrete, rebar and stone, a hunch made manifest on the face of an ancient masterwork. We can easily find worse examples of  desecration, but the need to maintain wariness is ever present, because we are the sole guardians of these amazing and beloved treasures.

I have read spirited defences of the Newgrange roof box (i.e. it was a model reconstruction, done in perfect detail, well documented. It represents the exact appearance and purpose of a feature built in 3200 BC). Vallancey too, is spinning, perhaps more gently, towards infinity. Ideally we need a level playing field, with personal interests put aside, all kinds of agendas parked. In this entry I will try to outline what I think is a fair representation of the position as I understand it (and I am very much open to correction, and to better suggestions). I agree with others who have said it is good to have this conversation. I am convinced of one thing, and one thing only, that there is no sugar-coated certainty in play here, and very little in the way of solid proof. At best we are dealing with a whole set of probabilities and guesses; some are those of the excavator, some, in the absence of the complete picture, are our own. We are dealing with emotions, too and sentimental leanings. Everyone has to make their own judgement call. My opinion is that there is a possibility that the function of the roof box was to admit light to the central chamber. But there is also a real possibility that this was not its function at all.

Some of the question marks over the roof box construction and its presentation are listed below. Some of these I would term imponderables. I want to say from my heart that I don’t have an agenda here, other than to satisfy myself, a route to some kind of belief.

  1. The decorated lintel that covers the roof box is not sited at the original surface of the mound, as depicted by O’Kelly himself and subsequent researchers, such as Palle Eriksen, etc. If these estimates are right it would have been covered in late prehistory by a deep layer of cairn material; it was only uncovered in historic times. That most passage tombs were found closed (there may have been an entrance door-stone at Newgrange, suggesting closure) is a curious dimension of the passage tomb alignment hypothesis. But in the case of the roof box, it was not just closed, it was buried in the mound. The modern reconstruction sees the roof box set in a recess faced with quartz which itself is an annexe of the widened curved wall cutaway (which O’Kelly provided to accommodate visiting crowds, though, in his words, it was not archaeologically correct).
  2. There is a stone configuration similar to the roof box located at the point where the passage meets the chamber, with a very similarly decorated lintel. Its function is described as structural. This opens up the roof box (pardon the pun) to the ‘Carrowkeel G criticism’, i.e., that the structure, while unique in terms of its theoretical function, has equivalents inside the monument itself that serve entirely different functions.
  3. There are indications (it is a well rehearsed topic) that a tradition surrounding the entry of the winter sun to the Newgrange passage existed before O’Kelly’s time, both in a folklore and literary context. But the O’Kelly’s played this down, even to the extent that Claire O’Kelly wrote that her husband showed the caretaker Robert Hickey the alignment and not vice versa. The discovery, as O’Kelly described it, was a total surprise, a dramatic revelation. We are not told that the archaeologist suspected, before reconstruction began, that a winter alignment was present, based on local tradition and his own observations. The insistence that the ‘discovery’ around the reconstructed ‘sun path’ ‘slit’ ‘roof box’, was a total surprise in 1967 is for me, somewhat troubling. If O’Kelly didn’t suspect the winter solstice arrangement, and reconstructed this cist (and its surrounds) in total innocence, he was very lucky indeed, because he moved exactly the right stones. If he did know and he concealed or played down this aspect to create a more ‘scientific’ and unbiased aura, well then, Heuston, we have a problem.
  4. The roof box was ‘lightly filled’ O’Kelly writes… he did not find it open. He describes the back corbel as ‘closing the back of the box’. His reconstruction, for some unexplained reason, did not replace the ‘light fill’ (thus allowing the discovery).
  5. Not alone has the entire roof box been reconstructed, but also the stones over the passage behind it, in a way which opens the path to the light beam. In particular, Roof Slab 2 has been raised and tilted in the horizontal plane from a position in which it blocked the putative beam. Roof Slab 3 has been raised but also tilted (in the opposite direction to RS 2). These movements cannot be explained simply by the straightening of the passage orthostats. These changes were crucial to allowing the effect we see today at midwinter to occur.
  6. The detailed drawings of these particular changes, which are so crucial to the whole debate, are not, as far as I know, in the public domain. Even by sixties standards, the reconstruction was done, as the experiments on the facade were done, in a fog of obscurity. Sections of the passage showing subsidence of certain corbels and sloping orthostats are provided. But these effects should be occurring all along the passage, surely, and not just at the point where the light was blocked?
  7. The gap between RS 2 and RS 3 had originally been sealed by a ‘putty’ made of burnt clay and sand which prevented water from passing through (this material eventually yielded C14 dates). If these stones had moved as O’Kelly modelled them, the angle between them would have changed by 13-15 degrees (based on O’Kelly’s drawings), and the putty could not have stayed in place. That the putty held to me suggests that, up to the time of excavation, these stones didn’t move much, and certainly not relative to each other.
  8. Corbel 3 R5-6 and Corbel 3 L4-5, are two decorated stones, which O’Kelly removed from the position where they supported the outer end of a long roofstone called RS3. (The reason given is that their art was so fresh, it merited display in the National Museum of Ireland). These were then replaced with a triple layer of material. No detail is provided on this material, except by drawings. If the drawings are blown up they show a very selective raising of roof slabs and corbels centred on the precise point where the light ray is blocked, and nowhere else (see animation below).
  9. Newgrange, as Eriksen argues, may be multi-phase; if so, the outer sections of the passage naturally wind up being the prime potential candidates for this kind of work. O’Kelly reported that the area of the cairn around the cutting which contained the roof box had been subject to ‘disturbances in the past’ (O’Kelly 1982, p89). There are no carbon dates which establish the date of the roof box itself. Phased construction might even explain the purpose of the roof box as a ‘light box’. On the lines of a theory discussed by Robert Hensey; ‘let us build a taller, wider mound with a longer passage. But how do we continue to get the light to the chamber? Hold on…’. Against this, the carved lintel chimes perfectly with the rest of the artwork and (unless it was recycled by unknown Bronze or Iron Age reconstructors) we can be satisfied of its antiquity.

That basically sums up my primary questions. In my view the authenticity of the roof box is something of an open question. At best we are dealing with combined sets of probabilities and guesses. Any of maybe seven or so variables can cause doubt, independently of the others. Even if O’Kelly never suspected the alignment, he may still have inadvertently altered the way the monument (ever) behaved with respect to the entry of winter light. Or he may not; I still hold out the possibility that O’Kelly got this part of the reconstruction right (regardless of whether this was done consciously or by happy accident). I cannot rule out the possibility that at some point, perhaps in an earlier version of the mound, the function of the roof box was to admit light to the central chamber.

As I keep saying, these questions only impact tangentially on the validation of the monument’s orientation towards the winter solstice. We are not at the end of this story, not by any means. There is a lot more work to be done, and the cultural context of Newgrange in the bigger picture of the Irish/Western passage tomb tradition and the world tradition of celebration of seasonal turning points offers an optimistic path for those, who like me, think that seasonal festivals, and architecture inspired by them, are very ancient indeed.

Newgrange Alignment – a Fake?

So is Newgrange a fake or ain’t it? In the era of ‘post truth’, what can be believed?

Michael Gibbons has made some bold assertions regarding the roof box in Newgrange (I have not yet read his article, so I am basing my thoughts on his radio interviews and reported remarks). From where Vallancey sits, more than a grain of truth can be found in his story. There was an Iron Age/Roman era cult in play there (which the chief excavator, Michael O’Kelly played down). O’Kelly himself never hid the amount of reconstruction he carried out at Brú na Boinne; it is not all reconstructed, though. The beautiful carvings (a certain antiquarian had plenty of theories on these) on the kerbstones and inside the chamber are real. The basin stones, the soaring corbelled roofs. But the roofbox through which the sun shines at midwinter, well… It’s a bit like making a standing statue from the bones of a man who collapsed in a coherent but helpless heap at some unknown point in the past. Do-able but tricky. The word ‘precise’ crops up an awful lot in commentary about Newgrange; it might be a bit patronising to the ancestors, but TV documentary makers love it. O’Kelly liked precise, too. He put enough concrete into Newgrange to keep Cement Roadstone in overdrive for months. He strengthened the structure with starter bars, he added access tunnels, he straightened the crooked teeth in the passage. His masterpiece was the brutalist façade. He wanted to insert the sea-rolled stones in the quartz wall in elaborate patterns, following the style of the abstract forms in the carvings, spirals and lozenges. Luckily some civil servant with a bit of taste dissuaded him from that crime against heritage.

Through this blitz of modern intervention, how can we know how clever our ancestors were, how can we measure their astronomical ambitions, or attempt to discern the original function of Newgrange? Long after O’Kelly ‘discovered’ that solstice light passed through the very box structure which he himself had restored, Newgrange remained an isolate. It could be compared to Maeshowe in Orkney, where the setting sun shines into a chamber 3 weeks before and 3 weeks after the shortest day. But there is no light box in Maeshowe. Or it could be compared to Stonehenge (as O’Kelly did), where a line can be run through the heel stone from either the SE or the NW, lining up with the midwinter sunrise or midsummer sunset. In those days, not much else.

In later years solstice alignments have been claimed for sites in a variety of cultural contexts; Chichen Itza, Mexico; Goseck Circle, Germany, and even Angkor Wat in Cambodia. In Ireland, there have been claims for a roof-box like structure in Carrowkeel, but this is problematic. The monument concerned, Cairn G, does not point towards the summer solstice sunset, and it never did. On that evening the sun shines into the chamber at an obtuse angle. Worse still for Carrowkeel roof-box advocates, there are similar box-like structures placed internally above many of the cells in this and others of the chambered monuments (at least six such openings), where no sun could ever reach. Carrowkeel seems to be a complex designed to flummox alignment hunters. For example, in Carrowkeel cairn F, there was – at some point in antiquity – a pillar stone, positioned centrally in the aisle, which, if light could reach it, would have thrown an impressive shadow on the backstone of the rear chamber (its all in Macalister’s 1911 report). No-one would ever have doubted its authenticity and deliberate orientation had it pointed at a solstice horizon event. It didn’t. But I digress; I will return to Carrowkeel F.

When O’Kelly ‘discovered’ that the sun reached the floor of the Newgrange chamber via the roof box, he wasn’t too sure how to present this phenomenon in academic terms. He played down the knowledge of people before his time regarding any solstice event at Newgrange, and played up his hair-standing-on-end moment of discovery, crouched in the passage. That was a pity. It meant that only a slim theoretical base supported the why of Newgrange, the cultural grounding of his ‘discovery’. It was a sole trader; Newgrange, an architectural tour de force, replete with beautiful stone carving, topped off with a Christmas alignment. It must have seemed to journalists and their readership to be one of a handful of centres of amazing sophistication isolated in a relatively primitive ancient world (That kind of line worked well as a tourism hook, of course).

I bought into Weird Newgrange myself. After I first visited I left with the feeling of having been aboard a lost intergalactic cruiser found drifting in space. All the controls worked, no one could fly her, or read the instructions, and where were the crew? But this sense of cultural isolation for Newgrange is based on a misunderstanding. It’s a basic mistake. The truth is that humans were always clever, always complex, always imaginative, for the best part of quarter of a million years they had been that way. Sophisticated as all hell. To glimpse this, we have to address the problem in a far more generous spirit that that of modernist archaeology.

To be fair to O’Kelly, he did recognise and address cultural aspects. He told of the legend of the Bru, and how the domain of the Dagda and Aenghus Óg became the resting place of Diarmuid after he was slain by a wild boar on Ben Bulben, Co. Sligo. But the connections could go no further in a respectable archaeology book. Poets like William Butler Yeats could follow the track. Yeats, though he lived in the dark ‘Pre Roof Box Ages’, was deeply enmeshed in the Gaelic mythology of renewal and seasonality. One core archetype he identified in ancient texts like The Second Battle of Moytirra and the love story of Diarmad and Grainne; was the idea of renewal and return. Samhain, in these stories, is the time of a heightened engagement between primary forces in the natural world, attended by the spirits of the dead. Moytirra is a battle never truly won or lost; the victory of Spring over Winter is a temporary one. Even at the end of the battle, when a good prophesy is made, prophesies of doom soon follow. Yeats interpreted the ancient legend of Diarmuid and Grainne as a story of winter versus summer, dark versus light, the murderous boar playing the part of winter. The action takes place at Samhain (Halloween), as does the action in virtually all of the primary Gaelic legends.

Why is the Hill of Tara so strongly associated with Samhain? Because it’s the time of renewal of the world, the time of initiation, the time of interacting with the dead, the time of making and breaking kings. These days people like John Waddell, Liz Fitzpatrick or Eamon Kelly  are tackling the ideas of Gaelic kingship in new and imaginative ways. Kelly has shown that bog bodies can be traced deep into the Bronze Age. There are numerous images from the Iron Age and the early Christian period that show a profound interest – at least in later prehistory – in seasonal cyclicality, in kingship and sacrifice, in cosmologies to do with the cycles of the sun.

I find this a useful prism through which to view the great centres of the Irish passage tomb world. Tara. Newgrange. Loughcrew. Carrowkeel, and further west, Carrowmore. ‘Statistical’ surveys of the alignments in these places without putting the subjects of the survey into some kind of landscape and morphological context are really not a great deal of help here. These complexes tend – to greater or lesser extents – to have centres, sometimes set on higher spots in the landscape. Other monuments point into them, like actors, frozen in a theatre of the round. And many (but by no means all) of these focal sites do seem to play a game with the sky.

What is that game? It is very, very, difficult to prove the existence of, never mind to describe clearly. But the centrepiece of my case would be that two central places, the chambers of Tara (Mound of the Hostages, 3400 BC) and of Listoghil, Carrowmore (3550 BC) both are aligned in the direction of the start of winter (Samhain), and the end of winter (Imbolc). Incidentally, only solstice sites receive the sun once a year, because they are at the extreme end of the sun’s travels along the horizon. Seasonal alignments like Tara happen twice yearly, in late October and early February. The seasonal festivals these sites mark have parallels the world over, in particular in East Asia. There are many features in common with seasonal shindigs vastly distant in time and in human footsteps; not least a concern with the dead and spirits, and – paradoxically – with renewal. Often we see the personification of the power of the tilted earth (often as a female), the driver of cyclicality in our lives and those of every living thing, unless we happen to live on the equator or at the poles.

Newgrange faces the winter solstice. Before O’Kelly’s violent reconstruction, the light at the winter solstice shone about half way up the passage (For O’Kelly and other roofbox fans, the Holy Grail is the floor of the chamber proper, i.e. ‘can we get sunlight to fall on that piece of much trampled real estate?’). Well, if we go back to 3200 BC (and leave out the roofbox) the light would have gone deeper down the passage; I am honestly not sure if it would have made it to the chamber floor. It would have been a memorable event anyway. The artwork would have glowed in reflected light (the internal carvings have never been directly illuminated). The roof box – as it is reconstructed – could not have worked in the same way then, as the sun would rise 2 degrees or so further south; there is a case to be made that the roof box was less necessary in the Stone Age than in 1969.

The solstice is an important moment in many cultures. It marks the mid-point of winter (in solar terms), the halfway mark between the season start and season end festivals. Combined with the alignment of Maeshowe, and yes, Stonehenge, Listoghil and Tara, plus the persistence of seasonal themes culturally in Gaelic and other sources, a good case can be made that seasonality was a core element of Irish Neolithic cosmology. O’Kelly’s depredations at Newgrange doesn’t impact that. A 2015 lecture/paper by Wengrow and Graeber (blog here) discusses the impact of seasonality on hierarchy and human social complexity, and adds another layer to the cultural discussion.

Most intriguing of all, in many senses, is Carrowkeel Cairn F. Its centrality within the local topography is more subtle, but it was by far the most elaborate site in the Carrowkeel cluster, and set at the highest point. Cairn F points directly north, towards the darkest part of the sky. It seems not oblivious to the turning of the planet, but to wish for stillness. Like many Egyptian pyramids it points its chamber and passage towards the axis of turning, to the place where the North star is today (In the Stone Age there would have been different stars there, none of them exactly a North star). In the cosmology of Ancient Egypt these stars that never set through the horizon represented the soul of the Pharaoh which never set. It is not hard to imagine possible meanings of this North-facing central chamber, replete with central pillar, broken in antiquity. But it is harder to isolate the prime suspect. Is it the constant, unchanging fixed place? Is it the dark resting place of a decommissioned king? Is it a refuge for souls in love with darkness and death, its back to the highest point of the sun at every time of year? Is it the place of eternity, the Valhalla of kings? Why was the pillar broken in antiquity, and cremated bone placed on the stump? Was someone granting release, relieving the endless spinning? More than anything, though, this kind of exercise shows how a discussion of Newgrange outside its cultural matrix makes very little sense. The hope for the future is to immerse ourselves more in these memes, to look for patterns, to generously interrogate the belief system of the ancestors. In the bigger picture, 3,500 BC is not that long ago, at all.

As Michael Gibbons points out, the main difficulty at Newgrange is that the phenomenon witnessed by the lucky lottery winners is the product entirely of a reconstruction, carried out at the direction of the discoverer, in the months preceding. O’Kelly had found a stone ‘box’ or cist below a carved lintel above the chamber entrance on the south east of the mound. He drew the feature, dismantled it, and a number of important corbels and roof slabs behind it (which he believed had slipped to a lower point than their original position) and put the whole lot back together again. Then he discovered the alignment. There are photographs of him directing crane operators in lowering slabs into what he believed were their original position.

So – is the Newgrange alignment real or invented? The addition of the ‘light box’ allowed the thin sliver of light to reach the chamber floor, far deeper inside the cavern, than the passage below could allow. This light travels in a narrow slit between two layered slabs of rock, these being tilted at just the right angle to make this phenomenon occur in our time. Nowadays the sun rises four minutes before alignment, to the left of the entrance, immediately flooding some of the front section of the passage with light. Four minutes later, the risen sun lines up with the angle of the gap between the slabs in the light box, and illuminates the chamber floor with a strip of angled orangey light.

Twin light beams at the Newgrange solstice event (After Stout and Stout 2008)

Back in the Stone Age, the solstice sun would have risen further to the right (further south) as you look out from the passage, by a factor of approximately three sun thicknesses (the sun is about half a degree across). The effect of this was to better line up the entrance of the chamber with the winter solstice event at the time of building, adding strength to the deliberate orientation case, but making it uncertain whether the roofbox would have worked in the way it does today. The ancient site manager O’Kelly dubbed the ‘Overall Man’ may need some help. I haven’t done all the calculations, but I suspect that for a ‘precise’ solstice event, the ghost of O’Kelly may need to travel back in time with his crane driver and reconstruct again, this time angling the slab a bit shallower, making the horizon visible from the floor of the chamber instead of a piece of sky 4 degrees or so above it.

But all is not lost for the O’Kelly reconstruction. In the weeks leading up to and after the solstice, the Neolithic sun crossed precisely the right strip of sky. I estimate that on or about the 5th of December, 3180 BC, if we force our calendar backwards, and January 1st 3181 BC, the (reconstructed) roof box alignment would be pretty bang on. Without some changes, the box as it is reconstructed might have struggled to get light to the chamber at the actual date of the solstice, but it would have bookended the event. It works for a week or so on either side of the solstice today. The critics of Newgrange like Michael Gibbons have a number of good points in their favour. I look forward to reading his paper in detail. Though there is no reason to believe that O’Kelly’s reconstruction was not based to some extent on an archaeological footing, there are still big questions as to whether this box was filled or open in antiquity, and whether its function was structural, decorative or to admit light.

Was there a celebration here at midwinter? That’s really a different issue. The key point is that Newgrange faces the turning point of winter. If it was open – and that’s a substantial if; remember that it was a closed mound though the historic period up to 1699 – the passage, if not the actual chamber, did receive the light at that time. There is/was a cultural context for beliefs around this phenomenon, and while some of this might have its roots in the Iron Age, an examination of other focal monuments of the passage tomb tradition (and a look at cultures around the world with temperate climates) show that its perfectly feasible – if not likely – that renewal, rebirth and cyclical cycles were predominant in Irish Neolithic stories of farming communities and of their cosmos.

Comparison between pre and post reconstruction section of Newgrange (after O’Kelly, 1982)

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