4/10 Landmark Term Paper Due

David Wagner 2007/04/07 19:41

The Construction of Newgrange

This paper puts forward an alternative hypothesis, with Newgrange as an example, of the organization of labor, or rather the lack of organization, needed to build megalithic passage graves* in late neolithic Ireland. The structures we see today are the accumulated result of decades or centuries of the memorial customs of the people of the late neolithic. http://knowth.com

  1. Families erect standing stones in memory of their departed, but do not mark the location of remains.
  2. A caretaker directs the placement of standing stones at a community's memorial site.
  3. Visitors leave cairn stones to pay respects.

These simple rules are sufficient to explain the construction of megalithic passage graves in Ireland during the late neolithic. Complex labor organization was not necessary to build Newgrange, but may very well have arisen later, after the principal structure had been erected.1)

*Although the terms passage graves or passage tombs are the traditional terms used throughout this text, they are not the most accurate. “The term 'passage graves' is on its way out. Even when used for burials that would not have been the original purpose – any more than a cathedral is a tomb.”2) Perhaps passage memorial mound is more fitting with this hypothesis. The number of human remains found at these megalithic sites represent only a small portion of the populations who built them3) with no clear indication how those interred at these sites differed from the rest of the community, nor when their remains were placed there.4)


http://www.itraveluk.co.uk/maps/ireland.htmlhttp://knowth.com/newgrange-directions.htm Newgrange is located in Ireland, near the village of Donore, Co. Meath, at a bend in the river Boyne known as the Bend of the Boyne. Like other passage graves in the area, it was constructed about five thousand years ago by the late neolithic inhabitants. Though these agricultural residents may have used draft animals and boats to transport some construction materials5), most of Newgrange is made of rock common to the area.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the monument, besides its sheer scale, is the way the passage was precisely oriented to allow only the light from the rising winter solstice sun to penetrate into the passage. Though the very earth has gradually shifted its orientation so less of this light reaches into the central chamber recesses, Newgrange was built so rays from the rising solstice sun would illuminate the central chamber 19 meters into the mound after passing through a covered slit in the ceiling of the passage installed just for this purpose.

Scope of Work

Plan and Section of Newgrange, O'Kelly, http://knowth.com/newgrange-plans.htm, Sunrise light path hilighted by the author. Newgrange is constructed of about 450 large stone slabs including 43 Passage orthostats 1.5m avg. height; one of the largest stones is a ten-tonne roof slab 4m×1.8m×0.5m. This main structure is covered by about 200,000 tonnes of regular cairn stone to form an enormous pile of rocks about 80m in diameter and 11m-15m above the original hilltop on which it stands.

Conventional analysis attempts to explain how these passage mounds could be constructed using neolithic technology and modern industrial work practices. The existence of a master architect or master builder is assumed, someone with a plan or vision for the finished construction and the implied deadline of the lifetime of this architect. These estimates focus on calculating time needed for a full-time workforce to build the entire mound from bare ground to its present extent. While Herity estimates construction took as little ten years using a workforce drawn from a population of 4,000,6) O'Kelly considers a more plausible local population of 1,200 to supply the full-time labor needed to build Newgrange in 30 years7).

However, radiocarbon dating is not inconsistent with far slower progress.8) Profiles of the cairn show clearly how it was built up in stages9) and how it took many decades, perhaps centuries for the mound to reach its finished size, shape, and orientation.

Further evidence the finished form was not planned in advance comes from analysis of the site preparation prior to construction, or rather the lack of preparation. Newgrange was built directly on top of the existing ground surface and there is no evidence the site was graded at all prior to construction. The orthostats comprising the main structure were placed into sockets cut through the turf so that they, and the floor of the passage they enclose, follow the natural contour of the land. It would have been obvious from the start how the ground drops off beneath the sight line from the central chamber's location to the ridge over which the winter solstice sun rises. To maintain this sight line for the entire present length of the passage, either digging the central chamber down into the hill, or better, building the floor of the passage up to a shallower slope would have been simple solutions had the present length been planned in advance. Instead, the elaborate roof-box detail unique to Newgrange10), was needed to allow winter solstice light to penetrate the mound.

Perhaps the most telling evidence against the use of modern organizational techniques was (literally) unearthed during the extensive excavation and renovation of Newgrange. Rather than patterns indicating orderly, sequential construction according to a unifying plan, what the researchers found was variety. Some of the slabs were carved before placement, some after. Some are decorated on their visible faces, some on their hidden sides, some on both, and some are not decorated at all. Although a few stones were obviously carved by the same person or team and most of the decoration shares a unifying theme, most of the stones have their own unique styles and appear to be carved by artists of varying skill levels. In addition, many of the designs are in varying states of completeness, from partial preliminary sketches, to complete sketches with some deeper carving done, to more complete works with some or all of the final surface dressing applied. If the designs bore more similarity from stone to stone, one could postulate an overworked artist unable to keep up the pace necessary to carve each rock as quickly as new ones were brought to the site. But a more plausible explanation is that most of the decoration was done individually, at different times during construction, by people of varying skill, an explanation at odds with strict supervision of construction by a master architect.

But it is not necessary to posit the existence of a master builder to determine beforehand the final shape and size of a complex structure. From http://www.esf.edu/efb/turner/termite/termhome.htmMany termite mounds are, from the point of view of a termite, enormous structures of staggering complexity. The mounds built by Macrotermes michaelseni, for example, are sophisticated structures designed to regulate the environment of the nest located a meter or two below.11) These mounds are not built to a plan under the supervision of a master builder; it is unlikely a single termite can even perceive the structure as a whole. Rather, these mounds are constructed (and continuously renovated to adapt to changing conditions) by a host of workers following a fairly small set of simple behavioral patterns. In this case, the termites' behavior is predetermined primarily by genetic coding.

Humans inherit behavioral patterns socially, allowing for quicker and often rational behavioral adaptations to changes in circumstance. Many traditions are altered, sometimes gradually and incrementally, sometimes suddenly and discontinuously, to fit present conditions. But the general pattern of behavior necessary to construct passage mounds such as the one at Newgrange are not all that different from present funerary practices, an indication this kind of behavior may be carried on over many generations and result in structures beyond the scope of any individual.

Newgrange as Memorial

Adding a carved standing stone to an existing pattern to memorialize the dead is a practice common to this day. Though in modern times these memorials usually also mark the locations of the remains of the deceased, to the neolithic people of the Boyne valley the location dead body was of less importance. In addition, in some cultures visitors often leave a stone when visiting a memorial. Both of these traditions are practiced in modern Ireland, though memorials now mark the location of the remains of the deceased and only a few visitors still leave small pebbles at these gravestones.12)

From www.citiesofthedead.net/archives/feature_photo/, accessed 2007-04-06 From http://www.personal.ceu.hu/students/97/Roman_Zakharii/pidhajtsi.htm on 2007-04-07 http://www.arlingtoncemetery.org/images/ANC_surroundings/PAGES/image39.html

That Newgrange was visited frequently is indicated by how the passage orthostats had all leaned inward from their original upright positions, an orientation often assumed by retaining walls at the edges of heavily trafficked roads and paths.

If a stable population of 1,200 around Newgrange had a good life expectancy of perhaps forty years, the community would suffer about thirty deaths each year. At this rate, the 550 or so large stones of the monument could have been amassed and assembled within two decades. The 200,000 tonnes of the covering cairn would require much more time. Cairn stones average about 10 kg13), and it would take the entire population more than 16,000 trips to bring them up one at a time. Even spread out over 1,000 years, every community member would need to maintain an average of one stone every three weeks, over 16 stones each year, more than 600 stones in a lifetime. That's a lot of rocks for the dead. But whether carted up by work gangs over twenty years or carried up to Newgrange individually over centuries, it's still a lot of rocks.

Proposed Construction Sequence

About 5,000 years ago, the members of a community selected a suitable location for a memorial, a place set aside to mourn and to remembertheir dead. They selected or assigned a family (or perhaps an individual) to take care of the memorial, built a traditional house nearby for these caretakers to inhabit, and laid out the initial extent of what was to become the inner chamber and passage.

Over the next few decades, as community members passed on, their families hauled a large stone to the site in a funeral procession. This stone may have been preselected and perhaps even decorated by the deceased, or it may have been selected and carved by survivors post-mortem. In either case, the memorial stone, its selection, decoration, transportation, and placement, can be understood as serving the living, as a ritual to aid the process of mourning.14) In addition to the large stones marking the deceased, mourners and other visitors were expected to leave a cairn stone at the site to mark their presence.

Once at the site of the passage tomb, the caretakers considered the size and shape of each memorial stone and selected the best location for it in the growing structure. Suitable slabs became orthostats, roof slabs or corbels in the primary structure, and more blocky boulders were erected to form the partial great circle or were set as kerbstones when it became necessary to limit the spread of the cairn. Mourners placed cairn stones, at first on the ground near memorial stones significant to them and then on the mound accumulating around the monument. This growing mound formed a ramp, convenient for placing large stones in the roof.15) But as time went by, suitable large memorial stones become harder to find and only cairn stones were brought up by funeral processions and other visitors.

Periodically, every few decades, the accumulated cairn became unstable and started to slip. The caretakers, assisted by mourners and other visitors, stabilized the mound with cut turves, revetments, and other means. In some passage mounds a more catastrophic failure required substantial repairs. The passage may have needed to be rebuilt, perhaps in a different orientation.16)

  1. Site Selection and Orientation
  2. Inner Circle and Passage Filled with Orthostats
  3. Cairn Rises around the Main Structure
  4. Roof Built
  5. Cairn Grows, being Repaired, Renovated, and Reconstructed as Necessary

Some time after after initial construction, perhaps a few centuries later, the community around Newgrange extensively renovated the passage mound. In addition to adding a circle of standing stones, they refaced the entrance with quartzite and basalt quarried from outside the immediate area, and Newgrange as we know it now was then complete. However, a few centuries later, about a thousand years after construction began and shortly after 2000 B.C. the Boyne culture disappeared17), the monument fell into disrepair and it, too was lost for almost three thousand years.

Newgrange as Tourist Trap

photograph by Alan Betson, http://knowth.com/winter-solstice.htm After being renovated yet again in the 1970s, Newgrange now attracts 200,000 visitors every year, enough to double the mass of the monument in only a century if each tourist brought a cairn stone up from the river. The way the passage orthostats had leaned inward indicates a great deal of traffic into the mound for the thousand years the monument saw general use, so tourism to Newgrange is probably not a modern phenomenon. It certainly inspired awe then as it does today, and likely attracted vistors from outside the immediate community. The extensive renovation long after completion of the structure included the addition of a facade of quartz and granite. These contrasting materials were likely arranged in a striking pattern as is common decoration on individual stones but unlike the random arrangement visible today.18)

Thus did the inheritors of Newgrange turn the face of the monument into a billboard clearly visible from the river below. For what reason might they have done this other than to beckon passers-by to come up, preferably bearing yet another stone to place upon the pile?


  • Michael J. O'Kelly, Newgrange Archeology, Art, and Legend, Thames and Judson Ltd, London, 1983.
  • Michael J. O'Kelly, Early Ireland, Cambridge Universtiy Press, 1989.
  • Michael Herity, Irish Passage Graves, Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1975.
1) Paul K. Wason, John Templeton Foundation, Radnor, Pennsylvania, http://knowth.com/neolithic-religion-status.htm
2) , 4) Desmond Johnston, April 2004, http://knowth.com/ireland-prehistory.htm
3) O'Kelly, Early Ireland, pg. 124
5) O'Kelly, Newgrange, pg. 117
6) Herity, pg. 39
7) O'Kelly, Newgrange, pg. 117-118.
8) O'Kelly, Newgrange, pg. 87 Fig 12, Appendix H pg. 230-231
9) O'Kelly, Newgrange, pg. 85, ”…the mound had a layered structure consisting of stones interspersed with layers of turves.” and pg. 118, ”…there are at least three very thin soil horizons in the mound which are not layers of transported turves but represent stadia in the progress of the work, stoppages of perhaps no more than a very few years duration, but long enough for a slight vegetation cover to develop on the stones.”
10) O'Kelly, Newgrange, pg. 93-94
11) Scott Turner's termite research: mounds as organs of extended physiology, http://www.esf.edu/efb/turner/termite/termhome.htm, accessed 2007-04-06
12) Ironically, this decline may be due in part to criminalization of the practice because of excessive accumulation of such stones in graveyards. ”…placing pebbles and all other materials on and around the grave is strictly prohibited”—Instructions for Lease of Burial Plot(s) at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery “The parents of a girl who died from a heart complication have been told they cannot put pebbles on her grave.”—http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/gloucestershire/4656731.stm
13) Herity, pg. 29: 20cmx20cmx10cm x2.65g/cm ≈ 10kg
14) There may also be spiritual services for the dead, but these are not necessary for these funerary practices to continue among the living.
15) O'Kelly, Newgrange, pg. 119.
16) There is some evidence the present Newgrange is at least the second version of a mound on this site (O'Kelly,Newgrange,pg.72.), and Stonehenge was rebuilt at least half a dozen times in three main phases. http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/server/show/ConWebDoc.1914
17) Herity, pg. 151. Also, pg. 155, ”— the climate was almost three degrees Celsius warmer all year round before the serious deterioration of the end of the second millennium B.C. set in —”
18) O'Kelly, Newgrange, p. 72-73, 110

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