The winter solstice has come and gone once more and Newgrange hits the headlines. I visited Newgrange last month, and sadly Knowth was (again) closed to me as it had been on my visit in 2004. I hope to go back in summertime and see the wider landscape at some point.
Newgrange is one of Europe’s most iconic late Neolithic monuments. Dating to around 3,200 BC, it is the largest passage grave among a concentration of around 70 such monuments in the Boyne Valley, Co. Meath, situated between the other giant passage graves at Knowth and Dowth, and many smaller monuments on the north side of the valley and on the flood plain.
It is best conceptualised in popular literature as a ‘tomb’ excavated by M. J. O’Kelly for over a decade from 1962-75. There was a stone circle around the mound. The mound itself was huge and set on the hill at an angle, rather than across the top of a ridge, so that it faced south-east over the river valley.
Its perimeter had a white quartz facade that would have caught the sunlight. 97 kerb stones encircled it, brought a long distance by river transport. The entrance to the south-east had a decorated entrance stone.
Its drystone corbelled cross-shaped chamber is linked to the edge of the mound by a 19m-long single passage. A distinctive roof box allows mid-winter sun to enter the chamber in the early morning. Each recess had large stone basins that may have been used to contain the remains of the dead.
The relationship between the time of midwinter, celestial bodies, the topography of the site and the choice of materials and architecture, makes for a neat cosmological interpretation of Newgrange as a pillar between the real world and an otherworldly realm and possibly a link to concepts of annual cosmological regeneration linked to the passage of the sun.
It is into this structure that cremation ceremonies may have played a key part. Not only were traces of the cremated dead found in the chamber at Newgrange, but also the materials associated with the cremated dead might have defined a social elite or at least people afforded a special identity in life. Beads of bone and chalk, pendants and polished stone balls as well as phalli attest possible links to fertility and regeneration.
In a recent review, Gabriel Cooney identifies cremation as a major, if varied, medium of the disposal of the dead in Neolithic Ireland and a possible link between the fiery destruction of houses and human bodies. Cremation is particularly associated with passage graves, although a range of different disposal methods seem to have been deployed contemporaneously in the life-history of monuments. For those afforded interment in passage graves, they might constitute the distinguished dead; a particular category of ancestor.
At Newgrange and other Boyne Valley passage graves, the interventions into the chamber in later centuries make it difficult to ascertain how important and how many cremation ceremonies were associated with this site. Cremation itself probably took place in the open air and at some sites like Fourknocks, evidently took place after a duration and when some human reamins were disarticulated.
It is possible, however, that passage graves were not ‘tombs’ in the modern sense of the term at – they were not permanent residences for the dead. Instead, they may have been temporary repositories for selected cremated elements of selected people.
It is even possible that the stone basins were key dimensions in this post-cremation treatment of the dead. Perhaps they were used to grind or at least mingle the cremated remains from discrete ceremonies taking place days, weeks, months or even years part. Allowing cremains to reside for a set duration within the tomb may have been the important thing, not their role as ossuaries. These association might have been key to allowing the spirits of the dead to be successfully transformed into ‘ancestors’ or other post-mortem identities.
Cooney makes many other key points, including the incorporated of the cremated dead into the composition of passage graves made a close interplay between building and using tombs and cremation ceremonies.
This leads us to a key question. If cremation in past societies involved many stages, perhaps involving temporary burial or exposure of corpses and then a cremation ceremony for many individuals, what stage did the ‘tombs’ perform? Might they have been required, not as repositories, but as places for a final, restricted rite of passage for the spirits of the select dead into an ancestral state or afterlife realm?
We may never have an answer, but there is a possibility that we need to look at the issue the other way around. Is it possible that Newgrange not only needed the midwinter sunlight, but also the regular addition of the cremated dead? Did the monument need the ceremonies and practices associated with their transformation to ‘feed’ or ‘energise’ it for the societies that used, and perhaps relied upon, it?
Was Newgrange a crematorium, an ossuary for the cremated dead, or a ‘cremation engine’, through which cremains were the fuel for ceremonies linked to the regeneration of the living, the dead and the cosmos?
Cooney, G. 2014. The role of cremation in mortuary practice in the Irish Neolithic, in I. Kuijt, C.P. Quinn and G. Cooney (eds) Transformation by Fire: The Archaeology of Cremation in Cultural Context, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, pp. 189-206.