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Newgrange's recently uncovered neighbour is being preserved for future generations

Digging at the site has been delayed due to the pandemic.

lonely-planets-ultimate-travelist Newgrange in all its glory. Source: Niall Carson/PA Images

IT’S HARD TO imagine how a passage tomb can be simply forgotten about.

These structures took unfathomable levels of manpower to construct in Neolithic Ireland and were sites of great importance.

But during the centuries between then and now, nature took its toll. The cairns covering some of these the tombs become overgrown with weeds, and then earth, until the previous grand burial site turns into nothing more than an unusual mound.

Newgrange was once like this but has been restored to some of its former glory. All eyes are on it for today’s winter solstice, when a thin beam of light passes through a box above the entrance of the passage and traces it’s way into the main chamber – but this was only discovered in recent decades.

Newgrange itself was re-discovered in 1699 when the mound was quarried.

Its sister tombs of Knowth and Dowth lay overgrown too, with latter remaining in an extremely poor state of repair after it was blown up with dynamite during the 1850s (archaeology has a long way).

There are fleeting mentions over the years to ‘caves’ in the area which may refer to the tombs, and local folk memory.

But no such records existed for the Dowth Hall passage tomb, located quite literally a couple of fields over from the Dowth tomb (yes, one is Dowth and the other is Dowth Hall, it can be confusing) and three kilometres from Newgrange.

It didn’t even exist as a strangely shaped mound in a field. It was right under the nose of the other Boyne valley tombs, yet it had disappeared from the history books.

It grabbed headlines in summer 2018 when it was re-discovered during a survey ahead of restoration work on Dowth Hall – an 18th-century structure built on top of the tomb – by agri-technology firm Devenish, and a subsequent dig in partnership between the company and UCD’s School of Archaeology.

Minister Madigan 4 Ní Lionáin with former heritgage minister Josepha Madigan, examining an intricately decorated kerbstone found at Dowth Hall. Source: John Lalor Photography

“The fact that there doesn’t seem to be anything in local folklore or memory would possibly indicate that this monument was already destroyed by the time the house was built,” Dr Clíodhna Ní Lionáin, lead archaeologist on the dig, told TheJournal.ie.

I don’t think the builders came along to a monument that was six, seven metres tall and decided ‘we’re going to put our house on top of this’. They probably came to something that might have looked like a bit of a rise or platform, they probably were able to see some stones sticking out and thought ‘ah sure this will be handy for quarrying’.

She added that there seems to be no local memory of the house being built, although some in the area recall grandparents who worked on the estate speaking of features which may have been sites of archaeological interest, but none underneath the house itself.

Aerial_DowthHallPassageTomb_KWilliams An aerial view of the site. Kerb stones are visible in to the right of the house, and a burial chamber below. Source: Ken Williams/Shadow and Stone

This site is located on a farm that is being used by Devenish for research, focused on everything from carbon-neutral farming to biodiversity.

This includes the EU-funded Heartland project, which aims to develop a more sustainable form of farming with reduced nitrogen use, more resilience to floods and droughts, and healthier animals.

The tomb excavated by Ní Lionáin and her team has suffered significant damage over the years: stone from the cairn is believed to have been used in the construction of Dowth Hall, a servants tunnel cuts through one side of the site, and many orthostats – the slabs of stone with make up the walls of the interior – are not in their original position.

This means that it’s not yet clear whether the monument has an astronomical alignment like other sites. It wouldn’t be an unexpected find, but it’s not possible to determine yet with this passage tomb, despite some exploratory trenches being dug:

We know from what we have that the passage is not to the north, east, or west, so we think originally it was originally to the south or southwest, but we’ve got this 18th-century servants tunnel ploughing through where it would have been.
Similarly, with the chamber we haven’t excavated, we know it’s not to the east of it because we excavated that exploratory trench. We know it’s not to the north of the chamber because we have a continuous section of the wall there, so it’s either to the west, southwest, or south – it’s hard to know.

One final dig was due to take place at the site this year but it was called off due to the pandemic.

DiYxF3gXkAEcCXF Source: Nicky Ryan

Work on the site had been paused since February 2019 to catch up on paperwork and processing findings:

I always say excavation is like the tip of an iceberg, and then the office base work where you’re clearing all your finds, processing all your samples, doing your write-ups, linking with your various different specialists is like the 70% of the iceberg under the water.

There’s about two or three months of work left on the site, Ní Líonáin predicts.

This will include investigating under the collapsed orthostats in the excavated burial chamber, as well as exploring another small excavated section of the cairn further, under which there are possible features of interest.

Another burial chamber at the site will be left untouched for a number of reasons: The main issue is that it’s outside of the remit of the planning permission, but secondly, there must be a solid research purpose for excavating the site, rather than just simply digging it up because it’s there.

DiYxEnOW0AEb9Td Source: Nicky Ryan

The site itself is still visually impressive – the small tomb is visible with many stones still resembling or actually in their original positions, and some are decorated with those iconic spirals.

(I visited the site in 2018 and can attest to it being an incredible thing to see first-hand.)

Describing the dilapidated state of the tomb might belittle its importance. Every discovery of this nature helps build our understanding of Neolithic Ireland, and this site hadn’t been completely ransacked so yielded important findings.

This includes the remains of six people – oh, and a hare.

Tomb1_DowthHall_KWilliams (1) Source: Ken Williams/Shadow and Stone

“We found a partial human skull,” Ní Líonáin said, “We’ve had our osteoarchaeologists look at it. It was a female, probably aged 17 to 25.”

Inside the skull where the bone of several other individuals: A juvenile thumb bone, an adult fingerbone, hand bones from two infants, and what’s believed to be the skull and claw of a hare, not a burrowing animal which would suggest that its inclusion among the remains was deliberate.

The jawbone of possibly an older male – aged 25 to 35 – was found resting on the top of a collapsed orthostat.

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The position of these two discoveries indicates they were either rearranged when the tomb collapsed or was dismantled. The potential also exists that they are not the original Neolithic burials.

However, the lower jawbone of another male was discovered in what is believed to be the original positioning from the middle Neolithic period.

These finds are in addition to a number of cremated remains.

Further analysis

If the bones are confirmed to be Neolithic, the next step will holds clues as to who these people were, and whether they were any relation to other remains found in Neolithic burials – and how they built the site itself.

The team working on the dig are lucky to be able to collaborate with other projects to figure this out.

Dr Lara Cassidy from the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin will be carrying out DNA analysis on the remains as part of an ongoing project studying heterogeneity and hierarchy in neolithic Ireland.

After this, the samples will be used for stable isotope analysis and incorporated into Dr Jessica Smyth’s Passage Tomb People project.

Stable isotope analysis is not dissimilar to carbon dating as it looks at the levels of certain key elements contained in the sample. This analysis can provide a wealth of information from diet to migration patterns.

Finally, the stones used to build the tomb will be put under the microscope.

DiYxHQjXkAAQAEY Source: Nicky Ryan

There is a reasonable level of certainty that the greywacke – a type of dark sandstone – used in the construction of Newgrange was transported down the River Boyne from Clogherhead in Co Louth, something which wasn’t exactly an easy task in Ireland back in 3200BC.

Some of this stone at Dowth Hall was broken up during the construction of the 18h century building, making analysis that little bit easier. Professor George Sevastopulo at Trinity College Dublin, with funding from the Royal Irish Academy, will be taking a close look at the composition of the stones themselves to shed light on where they came from.

Once the excavation is complete – and Covid-19 has the final say there – the site will not be simply filled in, and the intention is to preserve the stunning findings made so far for future generations. Ní Lionáin explained more:

From Devenish’s point of view, and the people who will be living in the house – that’s Owen Brennan, the executive chairman, and Professor Alice Stanton – they are very cognisant that they are custodians and guardians of the site, rather than owners.
They want to ensure that there’s still public access and the site is visible. They don’t want it covered up and hidden for another 100 years.

Work is ongoing as to how the site can be incorporated in Dowth Hall’s renovation. This could include protecting the intricately decorated kerbstones in see-through cases, as well as potentially a glass walkway above the site, so that visitors can walk above the tomb and look down on it.

This is a long way off, and more discoveries could still be made at the site – more secrets could lie beneath those collapsed orthostats.

About the author:

Nicky Ryan

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