Newgrange ‘renowned for all the wrong reasons’

Archaeologist disputes theory accurate capturing of winter solstice was 5,000 years old

Newgrange may be Ireland’s match for Stonehenge, but it has gained international renown for “all the wrong reasons”, according to a former State archaeologist.

The theory that our Stone Age ancestors designed the passage tomb to capture the rising sun during the winter solstice is a "50-year-old construct" rather than accurate reconstruction of a 5,000 year-old practice, Michael Gibbons.

Mr Gibbons, who formerly worked for the Office of Public Works (OPW), is co-author of a paper that argues its real significance is as an Iron Age “Hiberno-Roman cult site”.

The paper published in archaeological journal Emania notes that the mound may have had an enclosure or "barrow" on top, and that significant discoveries of Roman material inside and outside from the late 17th century point to a ritual significance.


‘Irish elite’

The paper suggests it may have been an Iron Age burial site dedicated to an “Irish elite” with links to Roman Britain.

It takes issue with Prof Michael O’Kelly’s contention that the tomb was largely unaltered from the Neolithic period some 5,000 years ago.

Mr Gibbons was a student of the late Prof O’Kelly, who undertook the original excavations and reconstruction of the site in the Boyne Valley in Co Meath in the 1960s.

“When Prof O’Kelly revealed his new Newgrange tomb for the first time at a lecture 40 years ago, it did not get support,” Mr Gibbons recalls.

“Too polite to speak, we said nothing, but it must have dawned on everyone there afterwards that it constituted a monumental mistake,” he says.

‘Solstice phenomenon’

Newgrange has been the subject of much archaeological debate since Prof O’Kelly made the first observation of the mid-winter “solstice phenomenon” at Newgrange in 1967.

However, Dr Robert Hensey, author of the recently published First Light: the Origins of Newgrange, has defended his work and has disputed the claim that the "roof box" is only 50 years old.

The box’s “elevation” during reconstruction work was due to the fact that orthostats or upright stones in the tomb’s outer passage required straightening, he said.

Dr Hensey said that he would agree that there was significant Iron Age activity, and said that Prof O’Kelly placed “less stress” on this period. Dr Hensey will be attending the winter solstice at Newgrange today on behalf of the OPW.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times