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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.