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)