ON THE eve of the winter solstice celebration, several leading Irish archaeologists have discovered that a controversial reconstruction of Newgrange passage tomb four decades ago led to the accidental detection of its key feature – the roof box.
The box, a 25cm-high opening which captures the dawning sunlight on the shortest days of the year, was only found during the rebuilding, according to a new book by Boyne Valley archaeologists Geraldine and Matthew Stout.
Ironically, the rebuild of the tomb by the late Prof MJ O’Kelly of University College Cork might never have been permitted under today’s archaeological standards.
The rebuild involved some “liberties” with several key features – including the roof box, the authors note. However, examination of drawings and records kept by the Prof O’Kelly shows a “transparency” in the nature of his decision-making.
Built 1,000 years before Stonehenge, Newgrange was rediscovered 300 years ago but its full significance was only identified by Prof O’Kelly from the early 1960s. “I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t take on this dig. I feel that it will probably be very dull,” Prof O’Kelly is quoted as telling a colleague in 1961.
In fact, it was anything but, and in 1967 he made the first observation of the mid-winter “solstice phenomenon” which would make Newgrange the best-known of all the world’s megalithic tombs due to its alignment, the authors noted.
This was after the dismantling and replacing of the box under Prof O’Kelly between 1964 and 1967, during which slight changes turned it into a “narrow passage”.
The quartz wall surrounding the passage tomb which was erected between 1967 and 1974 was also based on Prof O’Kelly’s interpretation, rather than documentary evidence, the authors note. One Danish archaeologist has even questioned whether a quartz wall ever existed.
However, Ms Stout told The Irish Times yesterday Prof O’Kelly’s pioneering achievements in Newgrange outweighed any questionable aspects of the reconstruction.
He had shown conviction and courage in convincing the British establishment that Newgrange was older than Stonehenge, she said.
She also said he would be “delighted ” to know that the solstice event could be broadcast internationally via a live internet web stream – as is occurring at the chamber in Co Meath tomorrow.
The Office of Public Works is collaborating with the International Year of Astronomy 2009 based at NUI Galway to transmit the event.
The illumination of the passage tomb depends on the weather, but is timed for 08.58 Greenwich mean time tomorrow. A live stream will be available free of charge on the Heritage Ireland website, www.heritageireland.ie and at www.astronomy2009.ie .