Door to the underworld

Newgrange was a hallowed place for centuries after its Neolithic builders abandoned it, and Romans regarded it as a cult centre…

Newgrange was a hallowed place for centuries after its Neolithic builders abandoned it, and Romans regarded it as a cult centre connected to the underworld, writes Dick Ahlstrom

The Newgrange passage grave was an important centre for its Neolithic builders, but its significance persisted for thousands of years. It was still being used as a cult centre in late Roman times as a place with links to the underworld.

Built 5,000 years ago, Newgrange is best known for its associations with the winter solstice, when the sun reaches its lowest point on the southern horizon. People would have crowded into the far end of the passage grave early this morning to mark the solstice, although this year it will occur at 20 minutes past midnight tomorrow morning.

The monument was in its heyday during the Neolithic and into the Bronze age, but then it seems to have fallen out of regular use until the third to fourth centuries AD, states the National Museum's head of collections, Mr Raghnall Ó Floinn.


"There was no evidence that the tomb was entered after the Bronze Age," he says. Yet there is lots of evidence of a later importance, given the amount of late Roman material deposited there between 350 and 450AD.

"The most likely explanation was that the site was used as a cult site in the third and fourth century AD," explains Ó Floinn. "What we have here is an unusual Irish reflection of a later Roman temple or cult site."

It was common at that time for visitors to Roman temples on the Continent to leave small tokens and written petitions. These were offerings in support of prayers or sometimes curses being requested of the gods, says Ó Floinn. The gold, silver and lead left at these sites also sometimes bore Latin letters.

The Newgrange monument had long fallen into disrepair and its importance was hidden for many centuries. Then in 1699 the farmer who owned the land uncovered the passage grave entrance when taking stones for road building.

This rekindled interest in the site and from then until the mid-19th century many finds of jewellery and precious metals were made, says Ó Floinn.

Most of the finds were made at the base of a pillar described in the 1600s as standing atop the centre of the Newgrange monument. The most important was a gold hoard including two rings, two bracelets and a chain, artifacts now held at the British Museum, he explained.

Other finds were made at the base of the standing stones which ring the monument.

"The standing stones and the pillar stone acted as a focus for the monument," states Ó Floinn.

The finds diminished until the late 1960s when Prof MJ O'Kelly led a detailed archeological study of the monument. His team found 50 to 60 objects including Roman coins, beads, pins, fragments of bracelets, pieces of torc, a bone comb and an Iron Age horse's bit.

"These were presumably offerings made at the site. They were deposited as tokens, they are personal gifts people would have left behind."

Two particularly interesting discoveries by O'Kelly's team were a pair of medals issued by the Emperor Constantine II and designed to be worn around the neck. "They are believed to be gifts given by the emperor to important people, officials or military men," says Ó Floinn.

Another important find was half of a small leaf-shaped bronze plaque marked with an ogham inscription, "If it does date to this period it would be one of the earliest ogham inscriptions not carved on pillar stone and tying in with he fact these inscribed plaques are known from Roman sites," says Ó Floinn.

"The question is were the depositors Irish or Roman." Were they tourists from Rome or elsewhere coming to an important religious site or returning Irish mercenaries who had picked up Roman customs while abroad.

There is ample evidence for a mixing of cultures both at the Newgrange site but also in the general region, says Ó Floinn. "I think it reflects a population that has a certain amount of intermarriage of Irish and British families."

The record of artifacts comes to an abrupt halt by about 450AD, perhaps as a result of the spread of Christianity. St Patrick is said to have arrived here from Britain in 432AD, and also reports being able to speak to some of his own countrymen after arriving.

The passage tomb leading underneath the Newgrange mound may well have encouraged assumptions about the monument providing an entrance to the underworld. "What you might have is an archaeological reflection of that," says Ó Floinn.

But not in doubt is the enduring importance vested in this site from the time of its construction 5,000 years ago. While other Neolithic monuments were later occupied, Newgrange always remained separate. No body actually dared to live in it as they did at Knowth and Dowth," says Ó Floinn. "Newgrange was obviously seen as a place apart."