Newgrange-A View from the Platform

By Cooney, Gabriel | Antiquity, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Newgrange-A View from the Platform

Cooney, Gabriel, Antiquity


It was in Antiquity that the late M.J. O'Kelly (1979) first presented a detailed discussion of the restoration of Newgrange. Debate on this issue has focused on the decision by the Office of Public Works to build a reinforced concrete retaining wall inside the kerb to keep the restored material in place, using mortar and metal pins to affix quartz and granite to the face of the concrete over the kerb in the vicinity of the entrance. This was intended to present what O'Kelly believed would have been the original drum-shaped mound and the dry-built appearance of the quartz and granite wall (1979: 209: Figure 1).

In a recent critical evaluation of O'Kelly's restoration, Palle Eriksen (2004) argues that the monument may have been built in a number of stages, that the mound would have been dome-shaped and hence there never was a vertical revetment wall placed on top of the kerb. In the vicinity of the entrance, rather than a vertical wall composed of quartz and granite standing on the kerb, it may have been either laid on the face of a less steeply sloping mound or as a deposit on the ground in front of the monument.

By way of complementing Eriksen's remarks this contribution places the reconstruction work in a wider context, offers a different interpretation of the stratigraphic sequence and the role of the quartz/granite layer at Newgrange and comments on the consequences of the quartz wall for archaeological and public interpretation of Newgrange. The use of the term 'passage tomb' rather than 'passage grave' has become standard in Ireland (see de Valera & O Nuallain 1972: xiii) and this is used here. While not the focus of this debate the discussion below is based on a recognition of the range and depth of symbolic value that quartz would have held for people in the Neolithic (e.g. Cooney 2000a: 176-8).

Restoring ancient monuments

Whatever view one takes of the reconstruction of Newgrange by O'Kelly, it should be seen as the culmination of an interest in experimental archaeology that was a hallmark of his archaeological career. This is seen for example in his work demonstrating by experiment the effectiveness of hot stone technology both in heating water to boil meat and in roasting meat at prehistoric burnt mounds or fulacht fiadha (O'Kelly 1954; Coles 1979:129-30). His interest in restoration can also be traced to his early training in engineering and architecture (Evans 1981: xxwi). It should come as no surprise then that he turned to an engineering colleague, J. Fogarty, to provide the expertise in the behaviour of mounded loose materials for the argument that the revetment wall at Newgrange would have been about 3m in height from the top of the kerb on which it rested and that it had an inward batter of 30cm (O'Kelly 1979: 207; see also O'Kelly & Fogarty 1981). To test this idea, a full-size experiment was carried out which involved the excavation of a 2m wide trench out from the kerb. A revetment was then constructed on top of the kerb from the larger pieces of quartz and granite that had been uncovered in the excavation as the basal layer above topsoil stripped of its sod (O'Kelly 1979: 208; O'Kelly 1982: 73). This interest in experimental work can also be seen in his account of the discovery of the alignment of Newgrange on sunrise at the mid-winter solstice (O'Kelly 1982: 123-5).

The excavation at Newgrange was undertaken with the specific remit of informing a programme of conservation and restoration by the Office of Public Works (O'Kelly 1982: 10-11). Although not explicitly stated in such terms, O'Kelly's work at Newgrange can also be seen as reflecting a belief in the value of an empirical, processual approach; hypothesis testing followed by re-evaluation. That O'Kelly was aware of the resonance between his approach and contemporary developments in archaeological theory is captured by his use of the phrase the 'new archaeology' of Newgrange (O'Kelly 1982: 73) in referring to the restoration of the mound as drum-like in shape. …

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