5,500-year-old tomb in Meath the ‘find of a lifetime’

The Dowth Hall passage tomb cemetery. To date, a large passage tomb about 40m in diameter with two burial chambers in its western part, as well as a further two possible satellite tombs, have been discovered at the site.

By Louise Walsh

A 5,500-year-old passage tomb, described as the ‘find of a lifetime’ was only discovered because of stringent planning laws.

One of the richest tapestries of archaeology in Ireland, the Boyne Valley is the gift that just kept giving this summer, with three separate discoveries to send experts worldwide into an excited tizzy.

Thousands will flock to see a significant Neolithic passage tomb cemetery, unearthed during works at Dowth Hall in Co Meath and revealed to the world in July.

A kerbstone at the site is heavily decorated with Neolithic carvings and represents one of the most impressive discoveries of megalithic art in Ireland in decades.

Meanwhile, we have the sun to thank for revealing crop marks which showed an apparent henge that dates back to 2,900 BC.

And as all this was going on, the first archaeology dig at Newgrange in 30 years uncovered an ancient processional way to the site.

The discovery at Dowth is still attracting international attention with requests from camera crews and media for interviews arriving daily.

The archaeological gem was found during an excavation undertaken by Devenish in partnership with University College Dublin (UCD) School of Archaeology, as part of the restoration and redevelopment of Dowth Hall.

To date, a large passage tomb about 40m in diameter with two burial chambers in its western part, as well as a further two possible satellite tombs, have been discovered, The six kerbstones that have been identified so far would have formed part of a ring of stones that followed the perimeter of the large passage tomb.

One kerbstone is heavily decorated with Neolithic carvings and represents one of the most impressive discoveries of megalithic art in Ireland for decades.

Clíodhna Ní Lionáin: ‘I don’t think I’ll ever beat this discovery in my time as an archaeologist.’

Clíodhna Ní Lionáin, who described the tomb as ‘the find of a lifetime,’ is Devenish’s project archaeologist for Dowth Hall.

It’s quite an unusual position to be resident archaeologist for a private landowner but Devenish and the Brennan family made the decision to employ a full-time archaeologist because the estate has a number of upstanding monuments and they felt a duty of guardianship as stewards of the land,” said Dr Ní Lionáin.

“Originally, I was brought in to monitor and protect the condition of existing monuments and to collaborate with UCD School of Archaeology in their ongoing research, including two seasons of a research dig in another part of the estate.”

Prior to applying for planning permission to renovate and restore Dowth Hall, Devenish brought together an expert team, including Dr Ní Lionáin, Steve Davis of UCD, and Mullarkey Pedersen conservation architects, who, over two years, developed a pre-planning document for the house.

We always thought that, when the house was built in the 18th century, it may have disturbed a passage tomb as we found megalithic art not too far away,” said Dr Ní Lionáin.

“However, a geophysical survey around the house didn’t show up anything particularly significant and it was only during the initial excavations we detected something very special.

“It turns out that the 18th century builders had dug a hole in the centre of a large passage tomb, where they built the house using some of the stone from this prehistoric monument.”

Excavations were long and began last summer but were kept under wraps until the full extent of the find was revealed.

“Our initial work focussed on removing the layers of 18th century soil and building rubble that concealed the remains of the tomb,” said Dr Ní Lionáin.

“It’s only really since June that we have been investigating the prehistoric layers of this passage tomb, which may originally have been about half the size of Newgrange and Knowth.”

Dr Ní Lionáin said experts could only surmise the reason the Boyne Valley was so rich in these passage tombs.

There is definitely a concentration here and the Neolithic farmers could obviously afford the time and resources to build these structures, 5,500 years ago,” she said.

“These middle Neolithic tombs were communal burial sites, but continued to be a focus for ritual activity long after, into the Bronze Age and Iron Age.”

She explained that the impressive kerbstone took weeks to uncover.

“We found the upper left hand side first and it took a couple of weeks to excavate through the layers of soil to expose it,” she said.

“It’s a stunning piece of art that in different light at different times shows even more features. You never get tired of looking at this kerbstone.

“I don’t think I’ll ever beat this discovery in my time as an archaeologist.”

She pointed out that the site would probably never have been discovered if the decision to restore Dowth Hall had not been taken, as well as stringent local planning laws.

“The geophysical survey didn’t detect it and it wouldn’t have shown up as a crop mark because of all the stone infill covering it,” she said.

“Excavation was the only way to find it.”

As Dowth Hall is located in an area of high archaeological potential, Meath County Council included a condition on the planning permission that stipulated the presence of an archaeologist during all ground-works.

“This find really shows how well the planning permission process can work in discovering and protecting our archaeological heritage,” said Dr Ní Lionáin.

Her colleague on the dig, Claire Ryan, who worked for many years as a tour guide at Newgrange, said that being involved in a find of this magnitude was “pretty spectacular”.

“I worked around Newgrange, not knowing what was hidden nearby,” she said. “It just shows that no matter how long you spend excavating the Boyne Valley, there is still so much more to be uncovered.

“The significance of this site will really only emerge down the line and a chance to work here is pretty amazing.”

Tickets for guided tours around the new excavations at Dowth during heritage week were snapped up almost immediately, which “delighted” owner and executive chairman of Devenish, Owen Brennan.

Owners Owen Brennan and Alice Stanton: ‘We are keen to share our archaeological finds with the wider community.’

“The monuments here, created by some of Ireland’s first farmers capture our imaginations and those of our visitors to the Devenish lands of Dowth.

“We are keen to share our archaeological finds with the wider community and National Heritage Week has provided the perfect opportunity for use to invite people to come to see the megalithic finds of this excavation.”

Dr Davis of the UCD School of Archaeology said: “This is the most significant megalithic find in Ireland in the last 50 years, since the excavation of Knowth.

The spate of archaeological discoveries in Brú na Bóinne in recent weeks highlights what a globally significant place this is.

As Dowth was unveiled to the media, the first excavations at nearby Newgrange were underway after a geophysical survey showed the “most definite, complex and ordered feature ever seen in a geophysical survey in Ireland”, according to noted medieval expert and archaeologist Matthew Stout, who led the dig alongside his wife and Brú na Bóinne expert Geraldine.

The survey suggested numerous large pits, forming two parallel sets extending more than 75m, indicating an ancient processional way to Newgrange that was ritual in nature.

Material from a small part of the site has now been sent for dating and as the four-week dig ended, it was summed up by Mr Stout as “the most impressive geophysical underground site that I’ve ever seen and most difficult site that I’ve ever worked on”.

This dig was to be the focus of photographs by historian and author Anthony Murphy, before he stumbled on another remarkable discovery — crop marks exposing a possible henge, which have since been recorded by the National Monuments Service Anthony had flown his drone the previous evening to take pictures of the excavations by the Stouts, but did not realise that the crop marks lay waiting to be discovered — if his drone had turned around 180 degrees.

It was another of a number of buried archaeological sites, which appeared as crop marks because of the extremely dry weather.

“It was an incredible, strange and wonderful month for the Boyne Valley,” said the historian, who has written a number of books on the area.

“I spent such a long time writing, researching and photographing the area that this discovery was like a reward for all my hard work — and it was worth it.

“Something told me to go back out again the next night. I didn’t expect to find anything new but I did maybe think I’d see some new features of an existing monument.

“It was on the second flight that I saw the broken circular feature and I shouted to a friend, Ken Williams, who had joined me.

‘The monuments, created by some of Ireland’s first farmers capture our imaginations and those of our visitors,’ says Owen Brennan.

“There were two outer circles of dots which appeared to be giant post holes to support wooden timber posts.

“It looks like what we found was a likely henge dating to 2,900 BC — some 200 years after Newgrange.

At 175m, it seems to have been a ceremonial structure which held huge crowds of visitors.

Throughout the remarkable discoveries, there was one noted visitor to the Boyne Valley to assess and admire what had been found — since he began excavations at nearby Knowth 50 years ago.

Esteemed professor George Eogan remarked on the Stout excavations: “It’s not totally a surprise to find a new site here as Brú na Bóinne is a crucially important archaeological site.

“This was preliminary work. What is exciting is that it appears a new form of structure has emerged of a henge monument or pathway.

“It also appears this very large site may have been used as a ritual site.”

Prof Eogan added that he has worked at Brú na Bóinne in excavation or in research every year since 1960 and never tires of finding out more about it.

The discoveries at the Unesco heritage site do reveal one thing for certain — though millennia old, Brú na Bóinne still has many more secrets to reveal across an area heaving with mystery.

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

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