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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The art of Newgrange

Newgrange is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Ireland. It is 600 years older than the Giza Pyramids of Egypt and 1000 years older than Stonehenge.  The mound is kidney shaped and measures 103 metres in diameter and 13 metres high. Rediscovered in 1699, it lay unprotected and open to the abuses of people and wild animals until it was partially excavated in from 1962 to 1965 by Professor Michael J. O’Kelly. The initial purpose of this excavation was to stabilise the parts of the mound that were in danger and to repair the damage so that the public could continue visiting it. But the work became more extensive and one third of it was fully excavated.  It was O’Kelly who first discovered the secret of the Roofbox after he had cleared the opening of soil and debris.  He was the first in modern times to witness the spectacle of the rays of the sun penetrate into the passage  on the morning of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.

The sunlight in the passage on December 21st

At a glance, Newgrange is a most magnificent mound, faced with white quartz stones and river washed granite boulders but on closer inspection it opens up a doorway to Stone Age life and some of its most hidden secrets. The sheer dedication and attention to detail of that community has left us in awe of their intelligence. For the mound had to be planned years in advance of building it, so that the passage was lined up with total accuracy so that the sunlight would creep up the passage at exactly the right time. The passage had to be created on an incline to allow the light to enter the roofbox and reach all the way to the chamber almost half way inside the mound.
            The chamber itself is a clever piece of engineering with a roof covering it that has not allowed a single drop of rainwater in since its erection. This was made possible overlapping large slabs in gradually decreasing circles to create a domed effect roof. Each slab was placed a slight angle allowing rainwater to safely drain off it into the mound. If these slabs had been placed on top of each other without any cushioning they would have cracked under the weight of the ones above. To solve this layer of smaller stones were placed between the heavier slabs to allow for settling without any damage having been done.
The corbelled roof.
There are 97 kerbstones surrounding the mound but only a few of these are decorated. The principal ones are K1, the entrance stone and K52, the one directly opposite at the back. Designs such as spirals, lozenges and zigzags, have baffled people who have tried to decipher their meanings. From an artistic point of view, these designs are abstract and often geometric, not unlike the ones seen in artwork from this era on the Iberian Peninsula (possibly where these people originated from).

Kerbstone 52
Similar designs are also found on the orthostats that line the passage, and in the chambers that complete its cruciform shape. The cremated remains were placed on stone basins in these chambers possibly lying in wait for the sunlight to penetrate the tomb on the morning of the winter solstice.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Newgrange in modern Ireland

To me the most wonderful examples of Irish art are the passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth. Built over 5,000 years ago, they are museums of neolithic art work and engineering. The people who began these projects were so committed that they were prepared to give their lives to the building of these monuments that they would never see completed. What was their function and why were they abandoned so soon after their completion?
 We know that they were used to house the cremated remains of the dead but we do not know how many or few were interred. What we do know is that about one hundred years later Newgrange had lost all its visual impact and was only seen as a grassy hill on the landscape. It lay in that state until 1699 when by chance a local farmer sent his workmen to the mound to collect stone to build a road. By sheer chance as the men began to dig they came upon the highly decorated entrance stone. Had they started from any other point they probably would have destroyed the mound before they would have realised what they had come upon. The result was that the road material had to be taken from somewhere else and that Newgrange was saved. Or was it? Because it was now open for all to enter its sacredness was compromised. Animals sheltered inside the tomb and some of the cremated remains were lost. Eighteenth century graffiti artists engraved their names and date on the precious stonework and these are still visible today. Newgrange remained in that state until Michael J O'Kelly, an archaeologist from Cork gave thirteen summers to excavating part of the mound. His work resulted in stabilising the passage and chamber and opening up the roof box to allow the rays of the sunrise during the winter solstice to penetrate the mound. But a decision had to be made to redesign the front of the mound to allow access by steps so as not to damage the entrance stone. Some people disagree with that decision but if this had not been done it would now be closed to the public.
Knowth has an even more interesting history. The Celts dug trenches behind its kerbstones, damaged them and shortened the passages, the Christians dug tunnels (souterrains) to hide from the Vikings, and the Normans built forts on top of it. It too became a grassy hill on the landscape until Professor George Eogan began its excavation about 50 years ago. What is there today is a fully excavated and reconstructed passage tomb secured for the future with the use of modern materials and supports.
Have we compromised these sacred sites? Do the benefits of having them preserved for our future children outweigh the intervention? I believe so.
Today people are arguing that the proposed Slane bypass could threaten the status of Brú na Bóinne as a Unesco world heritage site. The road will be 3.5km away from Newgrange and I fail to see how this could impact on the mound or its sister tombs. The proposed bridge will only be a dot on the landscape in front of Knowth. When these tombs were first build the areas around them were covered in dense forests. Surely a few well places trees could block out a view of a modern bridge. On the other hand one of the most exciting images is the view of Newgrange from the road as you drive towards the heritage centre. I would quite like to be able to see Knowth from a bridge in the distance.
But the most serious side of all of this is the human cost. "There are 22 white crosses set on the wall on the Mill Hill which represent the number of people killed on the roads in Slane over the last 40 years. The last fatality was in 2001 when a two-year-old child was killed. A truck crushed him to death when it mounted his mother’s car while she was stopped at traffic lights on the Mill Hill. "(Bypass Slane campaign)

To be continued 

Left. Knowth under excavation. Right Newgrange

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lock Rings

These must be my favourite of all Bronze Age jewellery.  At a glance they look simple and easily made but they are probably the most intricate pieces from this era. They are made of tiny rings of gold wire which have been soldered together to form cone shapes. The wire had to be cut from thin sheets of gold and possibly drawn through holes that decreased in size on a metal plate to make them uniform and thin.
   These are plates used by jewellers today to pull wire through to get different gauges.

When the wire was formed it was twisted onto a stick such as the one in the picture below, but the stick used for making lock rings was tapered.

Each of these rings were cut and soldered at the seams. They were then placed on top of each other in order of size and soldered to the ones above and below. The solder residue was cleaned off the outside of the ornaments so much so that the technique used is only evident when you examine the inside of these amazing creations. Look at the picture of the lock rings and see how thin the wire is and how many individual strands went into creating these hair ornaments.
Jewellers today would not be able to recreate these by hand without years of practice and plenty of ruined work along the way.
Who has that time? Although, Bronze age man lived only 30 to 40 years.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


These small rounded sheets of gold were often found in pairs.  They usually had two small holes in the centre which suggests that they may have been sewn on to something such as cloth.  They are known to be made earlier than the lunula and I wonder if the off cuts of these inspired the design of the crescent shaped neck ornament.  The sun-disc is decorated with a cross-shape motif created with the use of repousse.  This is a technique where the metal is worked from the back of the object, creating a raised design on the front.  A punch and hammer is used to press out the metal after it has been annealed (the process of heating the metal to make it soft enough to work on). Annealing is repeated often as metal becomes brittle as it is worked.
The above picture shows modern repousse work.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Lunula

Bronze age metalworkers were amazing craftsmen. The skills that they acquired with primitive tools would challenge today’s jewellers. The Lunula is an early piece of Bronze age jewellery, worn on the neck. It was made from gold that was found in the streams of the Wicklow hills. Nuggets of gold were melted together, flattened and cut into half moon shapes. They were then decorated by a technique called incision, which involves cutting into the design from the front (like engraving). The designs were on the horns (the parts worn closest to the back of the neck). At the ends of the horns the lunula has two paddles. These are twisted pieces of flat metal whose function was to secure the lunula on the neck. Lunulae continued to be made without any change in design for about 500 years. The word lunula means little moon.