Boyne Valley Passage Graves

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The name "Brugh na Bóinne" (the Bend of the Boyne) refers to a small area of the valley of the River Boyne north of Dublin in County Meath in the eastern part of Ireland. It is one of Europe's most significant archaeological areas, containing evidence for human activity that has extended (with gaps) since about 4000 b.c. In all, twelve separate archaeological phases are represented at this location, with significant monuments and artifacts surviving for each.

One Boyne Valley phase, however, has produced more spectacular monuments than others: the phase characterized by megalithic passage tombs, which were built and used over a period during the Neolithic that extended from sometime before 3000 b.c. to 2500 b.c. or even later. As the name implies, passage tombs consist of a passage that led into a chamber. The principal structural elements of these tombs are large upright stones, called orthostats, that are roofed over with capstones. In some tombs the chamber is somewhat bottle-shaped, while others have a much more elaborate cruciform-shaped chamber. Burial was mainly confined to the chambers. The burial rite was cremation, and it was usual for a burial deposit to contain the remains of more than one individual. Successive burial also occurred. Sometimes grave goods accompanied the deposit. Grave goods were usually of a personal nature and consisted of beads of stone and bone, which were parts of necklaces, and bone pins that could have fastened cloaks. Tools or weapons were not included. The passage and chamber were covered by a circular cairn of smaller stones or by an earthen mound, often outlined by a curb of smaller upright stones.

Evidence for about forty passage tombs has been found at Brugh na Bóinne, with half of them occurring at Knowth. These tombs average 16 meters in diameter. But Brugh na Bóinne is especially known for the presence of three massive monuments that are among the largest known passage tombs, each covering about an acre of ground. These are found at Dowth, Knowth, and Newgrange. All have features of their location and structure in common. Each is located on an elevation, the mound is circular in shape, and the tombs and curbs were constructed from huge stones, hence the use of the term "megalithic" to describe them. The mound at Dowth is 85 meters in diameter and 15 meters high. It is the least well-preserved of the three great sites. In 1847 excavations at Dowth involved the digging of a large pit in the center that has never been filled in. The mound is delimited by a series of curbstones; there is evidence for about sixty. Further examples exist, but these are now covered by slip from the mound. Underneath the mound are two passage tombs, the entrance to both opening toward the west. The larger tomb is 12.5 meters long and has a cruciform chamber, but two small annexes open off the right-hand recess. The other chamber is 8.25 meters long and has a circular chamber from which a recess opens on the south side.

Knowth consists of a cemetery of twenty tombs, one being the massive mound that measures 95 by 80 meters and 11 meters high. The mound contains two tombs placed back to back, discovered in 1967 and 1968. The example that opens to the east is the larger and more complex. Its passage is nearly 40 meters long. The cruciform-plan chamber is 6 meters high and has a corbelled roof, in which flat stones were laid with each course progressively closer to the center, forming a beehive-shaped dome over the chamber. The west tomb is more than 34 meters long. Toward the inner end of Knowth West the passage bends to the right before expanding into a somewhat bottle-shaped chamber. Around the mound are 127 curbstones averaging 2 meters long. The grave goods were standard, beads of stone or pottery and bone pins, but one object, a flint macehead, stood apart from the others due to its elaborate geometric art and technique of manufacture. The site has also produced evidence for settlement predating the passage tomb.

Newgrange is a truly impressive monument consisting of a mound formed from loose stones, 85 meters in diameter and 11 meters high. Its chamber was discovered in 1699, so little has survived of its original contents. The passage at Newgrange, as at Knowth East, leads into a cruciform-plan chamber with a corbelled roof, 6 meters high. The tomb is 24 meters long, with its entrance on the southeastern side. A stone-lined slot above the entrance allows the rising sun on the shortest day of the year (21 December) to shine down the passage into the chamber. On the outside there is a surrounding circle of free-standing stones, the largest of which is about 2.5 meters high.

A remarkable feature of the Brugh na Bóinne passage tombs is the presence of designs engraved on many of the structural stones that form the passages and chambers. These are nonrepresentational and geometric forms with circles, spirals, and lozenges the most common motifs. Due to damage over centuries a number of the structural stones are missing, but on the evidence of what survives it may be that in total a thousand stones with art were used at Brugh na Bóinne. This is by far the largest number of decorated stones from any one place in Europe. This art can be looked on as part of ritual activities.

The Boyne Valley passage tombs constitute the largest and most spectacular of several major megalithic cemeteries in Ireland. Other concentrations of passage tombs are known from Lough Crew, also in County Meath, and from Carrowkeel and Carrowmore in County Sligo. While these cemeteries have similar general characteristics, each has specific features. Although the sites are called "cemeteries" due to their obvious mortuary role, it is also clear that Neolithic people visited and used these localities for a variety of ceremonial activities.

The magnitude of the major tombs suggests clearly that passage tomb society was wealthy, innovative, and economically stable. The economy was based on mixed farming. Indeed there must have been a substantial population in that area. This population would have included experts in different fields. Some had a knowledge of geology, as a particular type of rock with specific characteristics was chosen as the foremost structural element. These stones did not come from the immediate area; building the tombs required transporting large stones weighing several tons over some distance, an enormous undertaking. Achieving the actual construction of the tombs, futhermore, must have involved specialists, especially architects and engineers. For that time, around five thousand years ago, passage tomb society was probably the most advanced of any in Europe. Brugh na Bóinne was an integral part of this society; for several centuries it was a place where vibrant Late Stone Age society flourished and developed and even influenced areas abroad.

See alsoThe Megalithic World (vol. 1, part 4); Avebury (vol. 1, part 4); Stonehenge (vol. 2, part 5).


Eogan, George. Knowth and the Passage Tombs of Ireland. London: Thames and Hudson, 1986.

O'Kelly, Michael J. Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 1982.

George Eogan