Newgrange Excavation Report Critique by Alan Marshall
Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend by Michael, J, O’Kelly.
Summary of excavations at Newgrange
This monograph details excavations of 1962-1975 at the Neolithic
chambered passage tomb of Newgrange, Co. Meath, Ireland. Newgrange lies on
the Boyne River approximately 50km north of Dublin and is part of a tomb
complex (O’Kelly, 1982
, 13). The project was financed by the
Irish Office of Public Works as the monument had become neglected. Nature
and unsupervised visitors had taken their toll leaving the passage
orthostats worn and dangerous. The mound too was tattered by animal
burrows, visitors and tree roots so a programme of repair was devised. This
incorporated careful survey to establish the monuments original form and
consolidation of the tomb to its former state. Excavation was carried out
by Bord Fáilte volunteers and various universities including Cork (O’Kelly, 1982, 10-11).
Adapted from Map of Boyne passage-grave cemetery (O’Kelly, 1982
Excavation included initial exploratory trenches over a 30º section to
establish original ground levels and the nature of material which had
slumped from the mound. A kerb of megaliths was found with a collapsed
quartz and granite façade instigating further seasons of work (O’Kelly,
1982, 11). The main excavations involved clearing approximately 1/3 of the
slump running either side of the south-eastern passage entrance and
included the surrounding stone circle, a band of post holes and a clay bank
(O’Kelly, 1982, 21-22). Beaker settlement was found along with elaborate
carvings on many of the kerbs. The revetment was reconstructed with
concrete support (O’Kelly, 1982, 110) and the cairn reshaped (see fig. 2).
The second area of excavation was the passage itself which was
consolidated and protected with concrete capping and reinforcing to halt
movement (O’Kelly, 1982, 112). This necessitated an embrasure cutting
providing further information of the cairn construction along with
megaliths of the chamber (O’Kelly, 1982, 89). The passage itself
presented more megalithic art, many hidden from view, and a unique ‘roof
box’ which is aligned to the winter solstice (O’Kelly, 1982, 21). Other
test trenches were excavated around the cairn to gauge its construction.
The result is a restored passage tomb, secure for tourism and exhibiting O’Kelly’s
interpretation of its original form. Michael O’Kelly sadly died prior to
publishing so sections of the report are compiled by his wife
Summary of this critique
Fig. 2: Contour plan of Newgrange’s cairn and passage with the 1962-1975
trench positions marked (O’Kelly, 1982
The report will now be examined in roughly chapter order assessing how
the sections are arranged, written and presented before a more general
critique of the report as a whole is addressed. This will consider the
organisation of illustration and text and the reliability of O’Kelly’s
Interpretation. A summary of whether the report meets its aims successfully
Introduction and background
The introduction makes the location of Newgrange very clear with scaled
illustrations and maps (see Fig. 1). Only a grid reference is lacking
(suggested by IAI guidelines) (IAPA, 2000, 20). Topography of the site is
dealt with at length describing its ridge location and views of the Brú na
Bóinne area. It identifies associated tombs and monuments although does
not mention any previous archaeological work from them (O’Kelly, 1982,
13) and establishes that many more are likely to have once existed. The
contour survey is reproduced but is too small to be of use (see fig. 2
approximately original size) and a simple site plan may have proved more
legible. The geology of the region is notably absent and only mentioned in
interpretation of how Neolithic builders sourced their materials 10
chapters later (O’Kelly, 1982, 116). The actual structure of the cairn
however is pre-empted and would sit better in the excavation section. There
is brief mention of previous work at Newgrange which was certainly minimal
prior 1962. Victorian repair work is alluded to although O’Kelly states
that all documentation relating to the work has been lost (O’Kelly, 1982,
23). The remaining antiquarian accounts and folklore therefore take centre
stage serving as both historical sources and scant archives of work.
The visibility of the monument means that historical accounts are wide
ranging and Newgrange’s national importance means that O’Kelly elects
to cover it in two chapters: History and Newgrange in Irish literature.
The first compiles sources from 1699 to 1939 which O’Kelly interprets
reasonably, for example equating Charles Campbell’s 1699 ‘broad flat
stone, rudely carved’ as the entrance stone with its art. He assesses the
sources for reliability, exercising caution with some such as the potential
misdating of the Annals of Ulster (862AD) (O’Kelly, 1982, 24-25) and
frequently compares contemporary sources to make evidence not visible today
more conclusive. Conversely he cross-references antiquarian notes to his
own findings and assesses their validity that way, e.g. the Office of
Public Works’ props and shores are identified (O’Kelly, 1982, 38-39).
Finally the sources are examined to identify a gap in knowledge (mainly
cairn construction) which justifies the modern excavation as research
alongside repair (O’Kelly, 1982, 42).
The second chapter is less integrated into the report. It surveys
Newgrange’s part in mythology and folklore, ancient and modern, and its
importance as a monument of Irish identity. The section overflows with
Irish pride (deservedly) to the point of nationalism, especially as the
Boyne Valley is of political importance from later events (O’Kelly, 1982,
44-45), but O’Kelly treats the myths rationally and extracts
archaeological evidence form them that support the cultural value of his
Methodology and excavation
The circumstances of the project are reflected in the methodology and
explained in detail. The approaches used are simple but logical and were
reviewed as work proceeded (see fig. 3). The only improvement would be to
have included greater pre-excavation survey. The topographic survey of the
mound and surroundings (mentioned above) is present but perhaps ground
penetrating radar or similar would shed light on the 2/3 remaining
unexcavated (although it is acknowledged the project was carried out in
1962), for example, a similar excavation at Knowth tomb nearby discovered 2
passages (May, 2002, 328). The report reviews the excavation in 5 stages
based on location rather than seasons of work which is a great improvement
on the scattered approach of interim reports (O’Kelly, 1964, 1968, 1969)
although only possible following completion.
Fig. 3: Part of the excavation plan showing how methodology
changed to suit changing needs and conditions.
O’Kelly’s analysis of stratification in the cairn is thorough,
presented free from jargon and supported well by detailed section drawings.
These would however benefit from being larger and using shading to separate
distinct layers/stone types (O’Kelly, 1982, 69). Throughout the stages he
makes the objectives plain before working through the findings. These often
include near demolition of the monument before it is reconstructed and at
times seems a little harsh to modern eyes. However, given the national
status of Newgrange and its yearly number of visitors, it is probably
acceptable if adequately recorded which seems to unerringly be the case.
The post excavation section is comprised solely of construction and
restoration of the monument. There is no finds analysis or similar work
included here which seems a large oversight. That said reconstruction is
obviously the key purpose of the excavation and demands reasonable space.
The choice of how to restore the monument is more problematic. It is
largely single phase so the period to present is not addressed but the
construction of the revetment is debated. O’Kelly bases his
interpretation on an engineers report and experimental reconstructions on
site which seem convincing but details such as the position of granite
pebbles caused controversy at the time (O’Kelly, 1982, 110) (see fig. 4).
P, Giot criticises it as ‘looking like a sort of cream cheese cake with
dried currents distributed about’ (Giot, 1983, 149). In O’Kelly’s
defence he makes clear in the report that he is only reconstructing using
the best evidence available and it may be open to criticism (O’Kelly,
Conclusions and interpretations
Fig. 4: Recreation of the cairn façade. Scientifically proven or Cream cheese cake?.
Interpretation is split neatly into Neolithic construction methods and a
discussion of the ‘Cult of the Dead’. The former uses experimental
archaeology, e.g. the lifting and positioning of passage cap stones to
suggest Neolithic methods which is intriguing and well supported by the
evidence found on site (O’Kelly, 1982, 112). A sizable section on labour
and man-hours is included in which O’Kelly rebukes the unsupported
statistics of Frank Mitchell but then uses Mitchell’s work to re-evaluate
Newgrange’s construction (O’Kelly, 1982, 117). This seems largely
pointless and does not add to the monuments understanding. The more
constructional aspects are better supported and interpreted, but it is
unfortunate that O’Kelly does not widen the analysis to include the Brú
na Bóinne landscape as a whole.
The second conclusion explores this in greater detail looking at other
passage graves and their similarities but quickly reverts to studying the
physical structure of the ‘roof box’. This alignment is analysed from
various angles and the significance of it proved conclusively by
construction, mathematics and astrology (O’Kelly, Patrick, 1982, 124).
Less can be said of other enigmas such as an area of stripped turf around
the cairn which is examined and resolved as far as date and scope but not
purpose (O’Kelly, 1982, 127). Dating in general is addressed here
referring to specialist reports in the appendix and appears to be firmly
fixed to 2500BC. This is supported by numerous C14 deposits but no
artefacts (O’Kelly, 1982, 145, 230-231).
In summary the conclusions reached are extremely factual which decode
the tomb realistically but leaving the reader wondering about the wider
Neolithic environment of the Boyne Valley and the people who lived and
worshiped at its monuments.
The report contains 11 specialist reports presenting all the information
for aspects other than the monument itself. These are wide ranging and
informative and enhanced by clear illustration (particularly the finds
section). They are similarly typeset making comparison easy, but some
resort to technical terminology and become impenetrable, e.g. the pollen
analysis tables contain only Latin names in chart format where common names
and pictograms would be more accessible (Groenman van Waateringe, Pals,
1982, 220-221). Only one specialist mentions the archive’s deposit (O’Kelly,
1982, 186) which incidentally is not mentioned elsewhere in the whole
The main criticism of the specialist reports is that they are presented
largely as raw data. This is not normally detrimental as they are
integrated into the excavation interpretation but this does not apply here
and there are few conclusions drawn from the analysis. This makes the work
seem irrelevant to the main body of work.
Appendix F is particularly puzzling with 2 separate mollusc reports
reaching comparable conclusions and neither being used in the interpretive
stage (Van der Spoel, 1982, 226 and Mason, Evans, 1982, 227).
A large section appears as a pictorial corpus of the megalithic art.
This, although not convincingly integrated with the main text, is a useful
report. It is approached objectively and thoroughly presenting differing
views of the carvings and their position and explaining methodology clearly
(O’Kelly, 1982, 152).
The report as a whole
The monograph is logically laid out and broken into distinct but
sequential chapters. These are small enough, and with enough subheadings
and cross referencing, to find particular aspects without undue searching.
The exceptions to this (mentioned above) are the specialist reports which
read as unrelated papers and contribute little to the discussion of the
site. This is largely due to the publishing date as further interpretation
is easily accessible in modern synopses of O’Kelly’s work. For example
wider implications such as Neolithic housing and life in the Boyne Valley
are presented in the modern visitors centre and guide book (see fig. 5)
(Keane, 2003, 36-39). This goes to show that the initial data was
sufficient to provide this aspect and a conscious decision was made to
concentrate specifically on the tomb construction. O’Kelly himself also
published later work on the Beaker phase of the site which provided more
artefacts and thus a wider interpretation of settlement than Neolithic (O’Kelly
et al, 1983).
Fig. 5: Newgrange visitors centre display showing the wider
interpretations of the Boyne Valley Neolithic settlement. This is notably
absent from O’Kelly’s report (Keane, 2003, 36).
Illustration and photography in the book is exquisite. There are many
colour photos and although some provide an arty, coffee table book feel
they back the discussion beautifully. The archaeological photography is of
mixed proficiency. Many do not contain scales or do not state what the
scale is which decreases their analytical use (see fig. 6). However all are
clear and provide a full diary of excavation. The illustration diagrams are
unfortunately not presented to their full potential. They are intricate and
thorough so suffer from being reproduced too small to read accurately, the
redeeming factor is that they are integrated well in the text so their
relevance is clear. One particularly good feature of the report is the use
of margin notes to guide the reader to any relevant plates or illustrations
but without breaking the flow of the text.
The lack of reconstruction drawings is understandable as the monument
itself fills this role. However numerous criticisms of O’Kelly’s
interpretation have been bought forward. The most pertinent is probably
George Eogan (director at Knowth) who disputes the façade construction
(see fig. 4) claiming it would not stand without concrete support. This has
led to Knowth’s alternative quartz arrangement remaining ‘in situ’ on
the ground (May, 2003, 333). O’Kelly does not present alternatives such
as this in his report which is a shame but he does back his theories
adequately. The absence of discussion has resulted in the long-term
acceptance of his reconstruction, sometimes blindly (see fig. 7). It is
difficult to tell if O’Kelly adhered to standards of practice as the IAI
were not in existence during the excavation but his report is largely
written following their guidelines with only minor oversights (IAPA, 2000).
Fig. 6: Photographs from the monograph with no scale and a
indeterminate scale bar which decrease their usefulness (O’Kelly,
, 50, 130).
Fig. 7: Reconstruction of cremation at Newgrange which inadvertently
depicts the façade complete with unoriginal visitor access designed by O’Kelly
1972, not Neolithic settlers (Exploring
Newgrange by Liam Mac Uistin, 1999, p47
O’Kelly sets out to provide more than an excavation report and notes
that it has transformed into ‘ a review of the history of research at
Newgrange, a survey of its place in history and the corpus of the art and
objects found there’ (O’Kelly, 1982, 8). With these objectives in mind
it can only be concluded that the book succeeds admirably. O’Kelly
produces a work of facts not theory, much in line with his fieldwork
methods (Giot, 1983, 150). He was undoubtedly a processualist and thus
presents a tested, functional interpretation. This makes for a detailed,
accurate report which includes technical construction mixed favourably with
historical magic. The major downfall is the adherence to the tomb fabric
and lack of contemplation of Newgrange’s social and cultural position in
the Neolithic. Much of this is a criticism of the archaeological discipline
as a whole rather than O’Kelly’s
writing and on balance it is concluded
that Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend provides an excellent chronicle
of the excavations at this important site.
Giot, P. 1983. Reviews: Newgrange. Antiquity Vol. 57. pages 149-150.
Groenman van Waateringe, W & Pals, J. 1982. Pollen and Seed
Analysis. In O’Kelly, M. 1982. Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend.
London: Thames & Hudson.
Irish Association of Professional Archaeologists. 2000. Guidelines
Keane, E. 2003. Brú na Bóinne. Wicklow: Archaeology Ireland.
Mason, C & Evans, J. Land Molluscs 2. In O’Kelly, M. 1982.
Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend. London: Thames & Hudson.
Mac Uistin, L. 1999. Exploring Newgrange. Dublin: O’Brien Press.
May, J. 2003. Eogan of Knowth. Current Archaeology Vol. 188. Pages
O’Kelly, C. 1982. Corpus of Newgrange Art. In O’Kelly, M. 1982.
Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend. London: Thames & Hudson.
O’Kelly, M. Cleary, R. & Lehane, D. 1983. Newgrange: County
Meath, Ireland: The late Neolithic/ Beaker period Settlement. Oxford:
Patrick, J. 1982. The Cult of the Dead. In O’Kelly, M. 1982.
Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend. London: Thames & Hudson.
Van der Spoel, S. Land Molluscs 1. In O’Kelly, M. 1982. Newgrange:
Archaeology, Art and Legend. London: Thames & Hudson.
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 and the Hill of Slane where St. Patrick let a Paschal fire in 433