5,500-year-old passage tomb at Dowth is ‘find of a lifetime’

Archaeologists uncover burial chambers on historic Brú na Bóinne heritage site

Archeologists with the agri-technology company Devenish and UCD School of Archeology have unearthed a significant passage tomb cemetery beside Dowth Hall in Co Meath. Video: Bryan O'Brien

a
 

A 5,500-year-old passage tomb uncovered at Dowth Hall in the heart of the Brú na Bóinne World Heritage site in Co Meath is “the most significant megalithic find in Ireland in the last 50 years”, archaeologists believe.

The ancient burial chamber, believed to be about 40m in diameter and half the size of nearby Newgrange, was discovered during archaeological investigations by the agri-technology company Devenish and UCD school of archaeology.

Brú na Bóinne is the area within the bend of the river Boyne that contains one of the world’s most important prehistoric landscapes. Dowth Hall and lands were acquired by Devenish in 2013.

To date, two burial chambers have been discovered within the western part of the main passage tomb, over which a large stone cairn was raised.

Archaeologists working on the site since May last year say the six kerbstones identified so far would have formed part of a ring of stones that followed the cairn perimeter.

One kerbstone is heavily decorated with Neolithic carvings and represents “one of the most impressive discoveries of megalithic art in Ireland for decades”, the archaeologists said.

‘Very exciting’

Devenish’s lead architect for the project, Dr Clíodhna Ní Lionáin, said that for the archaeologists involved in the discovery, it was “very exciting” and “truly the find of a lifetime”.

She said the the team was working on the theory that the tomb could have been one of the earliest ones constructed in the area. “It’s a bit smaller than the more well-known monuments like Newgrange and Knowth. It’s around half the size of Newgrange but we think it might have been slightly earlier,” she said.

“But of course we need to do further investigation and try to find material that we can date fairly precisely to be sure of that theory.”

Dr Ní Lionáin said the people who built the tombs would probably have been “the children or grandchildren or great grandchildren of some of the first farmers in Ireland”.

“In terms of designing these monuments, they were really good architects, engineers and also astronomers, because we often get alignments on various different solstices. And we can also see from what the art we have here they were amazing artists as well. Even though we don’t know what this art means, everyone who comes here is struck by this art.”

Megalithic find

Dr Steve Davis, of the UCD school of archaeology, said it was “the most significant” megalithic find in Ireland in the last 50 years.

He said the spate of archaeological discoveries in Brú na Bóinne in recent weeks “highlights what a globally significant place this is”. A number of other significant archaeological sites were discovered at Brú na Bóinne just last Friday during a Government-commissioned aerial survey of the heritage site.

A planning application to renovate Dowth Hall, one of the most important protected structures in the Brú na Bóinne area, was lodged by Dr Owen Brennan, executive chairman of Devenish, and his wife, Prof Alice Stanton, in 2016.

The 18th-century house on the 430-acre estate will become the Brennan family home and they have said it will also be used as a venue for “stimulating discussion on sustainable agriculture and promoting human and environmental health”.

‘Hugely valuable’

Dr Brennan said Devenish had invested in the farm at Dowth because of its fertile soil, its location beside the Boyne and its beautiful landscape.

“It is hugely valuable, and indeed core to our company’s science-based ethos, that we preserve and protect this major heritage site for future generations.”

Alice Stanton, Minister for Heritage Josepha Madigan, Owen Brennan and Clíodhna Ní Lionáin, at Dowth Hall, Co Meath. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Alice Stanton, Minister for Heritage Josepha Madigan, Owen Brennan and Clíodhna Ní Lionáin, at Dowth Hall, Co Meath. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Minister for Heritage Josepha Madigan visited the site on Monday and said that “to know that this historic site will be preserved for future generations to see, understand and cherish is positive in every respect”.

Dowth Hall and its lands will be open to the public on occasions throughout the year, including during Heritage Week, which runs from August 18th to 26th.

a