The elaborate structure above and behind the entrance to Newgrange, which the excavator, Professor M.J. O’Kelly, termed the ‘roof-box’, is one of the most celebrated features of the passage tomb at Newgrange. Along with the spiral decorated entrance stone, the glistening quartz-clad façade and the magnificently engineered corbelled chamber, it forms one of the defining aspects which make Newgrange unique and fascinating for both visitors and researchers today. O’Kelly’s first observation of the rising sun on the Winter Solstice of 1967 was a pivotal moment in modern archaeo-astronomy. The resulting publicity raised the profile of Newgrange to a global audience.
Because of its universal significance in terms of architecture, art and astronomy, Newgrange and the wider landscape of Brú na Boinne, encompassing the other great passage tombs of Knowth and Dowth, were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1993. Authenticity and integrity form the backbone of the selection process for World Heritage sites. According to UNESCO’s website: “The archaeological remains on the site, both above and below ground are wholly authentic” and “The restoration work on these monuments, the result of close collaboration between archaeologists and conservation architects, conforms with the principles enunciated in Article 7 of the International Charter for Archaeological Heritage Management of 1990”.
The importance of the roof-box
The significance of the roof-box as a unique, purpose-built device, constructed during the Neolithic period and designed to admit the light of the rising sun on the winter solstice can hardly be overstated. So far, no comparable feature has been found among the thousands of other megalithic sites across Western Europe.
The form of the roof-box and what was found within it are without doubt the most persuasive evidence we have of the special importance the winter solstice held for Neolithic communities in Ireland.
In recent years, baseless claims and conspiracy theories about the reconstruction of the roof-box have featured prominently in the national media, while doubts and caveats about the accuracy of the reconstruction have appeared in reviews and accounts of the excavation both before and after the publication of the excavation report. 1
Unfortunately, Professor O’Kelly passed away just three weeks before the final report on the excavations of the passage tomb itself was finally published in 1982. Thus, he was unable to respond to the doubts and criticisms which have appeared since. Some have claimed that the roof-box was not properly recorded during the excavation and no sufficiently detailed drawings or photographs of the original structure and its contents existed. Some of the more extreme claims went much further. The situation is compounded somewhat by an incorrect caption in the 1982 excavation report, labelling a photograph of the reconstructed roof-box “as revealed after the removal of the overlying cairn”. 2
However, following over two years of research into the Newgrange excavation archive and the personal papers of the O’Kelly archive held by the National Monuments Archive Unit, I believe these doubts, criticisms and conspiracy theories can finally be conclusively set aside. I’ve found that the roof-box, including the quartz block it contained, had indeed been well recorded. I have also discovered several previously unrecognised photographs of the surviving quartz block, which appear to have been used to seal the roof-box in the time between the annual winter solstice, actually in situ. Although I first presented these photographs at the ‘Pathways to the Cosmos’ conference at Dublin Castle in September 2018, to my knowledge this is the first time these photographs have been published anywhere.
Background to the excavation
In 1962, excavations commenced following a meeting the previous year between the most prominent Irish archaeologists and heritage management officials. According to the documents in the O’Kelly Archive, this meeting unanimously nominated M.J. O’Kelly, known to all who knew him as Brian, to direct the excavations. At that time, O’Kelly was the most qualified and experienced archaeologist in Ireland. He had been involved in excavations every year apart from one or two over the previous 25 years and became the first person to hold the D.Litt Degree in archaeology in the country, on foot of his published works.
By the time work began at Newgrange in 1962, the exterior and passage of the monument were in a critical state of disrepair. To enter the chamber, visitors had to almost crawl beneath the heavily leaning orthostats of the outer passage. Some were held in place by wooden chocks and the priceless Neolithic art carved on them was being eroded out of existence by the continuous stream of passing bodies.
To stabilise the outer passage and restore the leaning stones to the vertical, the covering cairn and passage roof slabs had to be removed first. It was during the course of this work that one of the most extraordinary secrets of Neolithic Ireland was fully revealed.
Historical evidence for the roof-box
In 1850, Sir William Wilde, father of Oscar, wrote an account of his travels along the Boyne and Blackwater rivers. His description of Newgrange appears to contain the first recorded account of a special stone embedded in the cairn above the entrance. 3 At that time, only the front edge was visible.
However, the exceptionally well-executed carvings on this surface drew much attention and speculation. In 1874, Richard Burchett read a paper to the Society of Antiquaries in London, detailing how he had exposed the entire top surface of this stone, lamenting that two men with crow bars had been unable to shift it and reveal the secrets beneath. 4
Many historical photographs, from at least the 1880s onwards, show the roof-box lintel in position above and behind the entrance. A selection of these photographs can be seen on the Irish Archaeology blog.
The space beneath the roof-box lintel had been investigated several times before O’Kelly’s excavation began. In a photograph dated from 1935 the fill of material has been disturbed and parts of the drystone walling that support it may also have been removed in the process:
When O’Kelly uncovered the structure in its entirety he found that it consisted of a funnel shaped box, its top made of overlapping slabs and its sides consisting of low dry-stone walls capped by two slabs, one on each wall. 5 It was closed to the rear by the front edge of the second roofslab. Thus he coined the term ‘roof-box’ to describe it. Deep inside the roof-box, a single quartz block was positioned lengthwise along the back edge of roofslab 1.
Discovery of the original records
While researching the excavation of Newgrange over many years, I had also wondered about the account of the quartz block. However, I couldn’t find anyone who had a photograph of it. What I did have was a vivid description of it provided by Frances Lynch, the archaeologist who had worked closely with O’Kelly in the early years of the excavations, before turning her focus on to the excavation of the satellite passage tombs to the west of Newgrange itself. She described it as being about 25-30cm long, about 20cm in cross section and larger than the gap behind it, so it could not have fallen through it. She also said it was less than half the width of the gap and angular in shape, with abraded corners.
While examining the vast photographic archive of the excavations, I noticed two photographs, both of an almost identical view looking into the roof-box opening. They had been taken before the roof-box had been dismantled and after the structure had been stabilised. One of these pictures is reproduced below:
As soon as I saw it I realised these photographs appeared to show a quartz block, similar to Frances Lynch’s description, actually inside the roof-box. I sent a copy of the photograph to her and she promptly replied that this was indeed the original quartz block, still in place as it was found.
While scanning this photograph to send on to me, Tony Roche of the Photographic Unit of the National Monuments Service, came across a similar view which was also previously unpublished. This photograph, which appears to have been taken at an earlier date than the photograph above, also shows the same quartz block in position:
The photograph shows the same structure but the dry stone walling, shown to have been disturbed during previous excavations in the photograph from 1935 above, is insufficient to support the broken projecting slab to the right. This is also obvious from the drawing of the roof-box in Fig. 17 of the 1982 excavation report. The photograph has been taken with multiple scale bars and forms the primary, authentic record of the roof-box and its quartz block. Note, however, that the stack of stones supporting the projecting slab to the right have likely been placed there during the excavation as the stone above them is broken just a little further back.
Later photographs show that, during the excavation, the exposed roof-box was blocked by a small dry stone wall spanning the gap between the two projecting slabs. This appears to have been built for safety reasons and to discourage any attempts to access the passage through the newly exposed roof-box (Frances Lynch, pers. comm.). It certainly could not have been an original feature since it would have been clearly visible in the photograph of the same area taken in 1935 above, since it rises to the same height as the top edge of the two projecting slabs above the low stone supporting walls. It can only have been built between 1935 and the dismantling of the passage roof in 1964. Update: Since this blog post was published, I have discovered a note on an original section drawing which says that this small dry-stone wall was in fact built by the then caretaker, Bob Hickey, following R.A.F. Macalister’s dig here in 1928.
Apart from the two photographs above, I have also since found an original colour slide of the structure and quartz block from the east, also within the extensive photographic archive of the excavations held by the National Monuments Service.
Drawings of the roof-box
There have also been claims that no detailed drawings exist of the original roof-box structure and the quartz block it contained. This is a particularly strange assertion since several drawings have been published showing all the features seen in the photographs above.
Apart from the published material, in 1964 O’Kelly also produced an innovative multi-layered plan of the exposed passage at 1:25 scale. This well-preserved plan is held among the records in the O’Kelly Archive. It was previously described by Hensey and Twohig in their paper ‘Facing the Cairn’, published in the 2017 edition of the Journal of Irish Archaeology. It identifies the exact positions of the roofslabs and corbels and their vertical and horizontal relationships to each other. The meticulous notes on the sheets identify the fronts faces of each stone, areas of carving, which stones had broken, which were irredeemably crushed and which had been repaired. Each stone is orientated by its shape, while direction arrows and a centre line painted across the top of each roof stone allowed their exact repositioning.
A copy of the top page of this drawing, with the multiple layers beneath shown clearly, has in fact been displayed regularly in the Brú na Bóinne visitor centre, among many photographs, clippings and notes presented in a semi-permanent exhibition detailing the work of O’Kelly at Newgrange:
The published material dates as far back as 1973, when Frances Lynch contributed a paper entitled ‘The Use of the Passage in certain Passage Graves as a means of Communication rather than Access’, in a volume of papers based on a conference held Copenhagen in 1969. 6 The scale drawing, based on her own survey of the passage before it was dismantled, clearly identifies the location and size of the quartz block in section:
Obviously, if the main excavation report itself had not included a drawing that showed the position and size of the quartz block, this would have been a significant oversight. However, the photographs also confirm that the quartz block was indeed illustrated in the 1982 main excavation report “Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend”, though it seems to have gone largely unnoticed. This is no doubt mainly due to the size of the book which has resulted in most of the scale drawings being reproduced in a smaller size than might be optimal. Nevertheless, it is plainly visible in the cross section of the passage entrance and roof-box of fig. 17 on page 94:
Here’s the illustration and one of the photographs side by side for comparison, note the photograph was taken with a wide angle lens which distorts the perspective somewhat compared to the drawing:
One block or two?
Some confusion has existed among various accounts of the roof-box since the publication of the excavation report. Although several authors state that two blocks had been found, this is not correct. As far back as 1969, when O’Kelly presented a lecture on Newgrange at a conference in Copenhagen, subsequently published in 1973, he clearly states only one block was found.7 Frances Lynch wrote a paper for the aforementioned volume, in it she too states there was only one block. 8 Her drawing, reproduced above, also clearly indicates the location of a single quartz block.
O’Kelly did explain, however, that the former presence of a second block could be inferred from scratch marks on the top rear surface of the first roofslab. He observed that the surviving quartz block showed signs of abrasion on its surface and the scratches on the top of roofslab 1 demonstrated that the block had been pulled in and out of position many times. Similar scratches existed on the other side of roofslab 1, where another block would have been placed. 9
Documenting the excavation
As mentioned previously, the photographic record in the Newgrange archive is extremely extensive. The archive contents were summarised by Hensey and Twohig in 2017 and inside the documents record there is also a folder listing the contents of over thirty boxes of material, including an extremely large photographic collection. However, it has been claimed that no photographs exist which show the removal of the passage roof or the roof-box.
In fact, there are about 100 photographs that specifically show the progress of the work to remove the passage roof stones. The relevant photographs are numbered between 67 and 180 in the contact sheets of black and white negatives held in the Photographic Unit of the National Monuments Service. They cover the process from the arrival of the mobile crane on site to the placement of the slabs in their specially prepared storage areas. The lifting of the slabs that make up the roof-box is covered over several photographs and the original structure, layer by layer, can be examined through this meticulous recording.
Yet another claim is that the removal of the cairn material above the roof-box and the material above roofslab 1 had not been documented properly, therefore the stratigraphy of the features has been lost. Even if this were so, the accounts of Richard Burchett above, where he states he uncovered the entire top surface of the decorated lintel stone, as well as several accounts of digging and interference with the space in front of the roof-box, demonstrate that this stratigraphy had been considerably destroyed before the modern excavation began. Any conclusions based on what was found above the roof-box would therefore be unsafe.
The photographs in the archive also reveal the slipped corbels behind the passage orthostats, partially exposed after the roof has been removed. Combined with the drawings and more recent 3D recording I’ve carried out of the outer passage, it is also possible to confirm that the reconstruction of the outer passage roof-stones, which was essential to allow the roof-box opening to function, was also exceptionally accurate and well documented. I will cover the evidence and recording of the restoration process in part two of this article.
1. Eg. Herity 1984; Ruggles 1999:18, Stout & Stout 2007: 48-52.
2. O’Kelly 1982, plate 41
3. Wilde 1850, 193
4. O’Kelly 1982, 36
5. O’Kelly 1982, 93-94
6. Lynch 1973
7. O’Kelly 1973, 142
8. Lynch 1973, 149
9. O’Kelly 1982, 96
Hensey and Twohig 2017. Facing the Cairn at Newgrange. The Journal of Irish Archaeology Volume XXVI, 2017, pp. 57-76.
Herity, Michael 1984. Newgrange, Archaeology, Art and Legend by Michael J. O’Kelly; Review by: Michael Herity. In The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. 114, 1984, pp. 153–155. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25508871.
Lynch, Frances 1973. ‘The use of the passage in certain passage graves as a means of communication rather than access’. In G.Daniel and P.Kjaerum (eds) Megalithic Graves and Ritual. Copenhagen: Jutland Archaeological Society, pp.147-161.
O’Kelly, M. J. 1973. ‘Current excavations at Newgrange, Ireland. In G.Daniel and P.Kjaerum (eds) Megalithic Graves and Ritual. Copenhagen: Jutland Archaeological Society. Pp. 137-146.
O’Kelly, M.J. 1982. Newgrange: Archaeology, art and Legend. Thames and Hudson.
Ruggles, Clive 1999. Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland. Yale University Press.
Stout and Stout, 2008. Newgrange. Cork University Press.