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Tombs of the Gods
Liam de Paor on the Boyne Valley

The Boyne is Ireland's Valley of the Kings. Where the river swings to the south from its eastward course, in an ample bend between Slane and Oldbridge, it embraces a group of huge mounds.

These, for the early Irish were the burial tumuli in which lay the lords and ladies of that mysterious people, the Tuatha De Danann. In pre Christian times, the Tuatha De were not merely nobles, but were the great gods.

But long before stories were first told of Aengus, of Buidi, of Boinn, of Morrigan and of the other Tuatha De, the mounds were there, weathering slowly down in the rains of summer, the frosts of more than two thousand winters. When the Egyptian chancellor Imhotep planned the first pyramid at Saqqara for his master Djoser, it would seem that there were already some mounds in the bend of the Boyne, perhaps several centuries old.

They have been objects of curiosity and wonder for a long time. Visitors from the Roman empire came to the Boyne and left offerings. In Viking times it was known that there were passages and chambers inside some of the mounds; they were entered and searched, presumably in the hope of finding hidden valuables. Ninth-century Irish people found their way into one of the chambers of the great Knowth tumulus and scratched their names on the stones of its structure. Then the openings that had been made into the mounds silted up again and disappeared from view under grass, trees and scrub.

Yet at the end of the seventeenth century the entrance to the tumulus at Newgrange, in the middle of the group, was discovered or rediscovered by workmen drawing stones for a local landowner. Edward Lhwyd, Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, on a visit to Ireland, happened to pass by on his way north from Dublin. He visited Newgrange and had a plan made of its inner structure, which he published in 1699 with a description. He concluded that it was a barbarous monument of the ancient Irish.

And so it was, in a way. But it was a great deal more ancient than he dreamed of, and, as for its barbarous. Well, it wasn't built by Greeks or Romans; but it was a mightily and skilfully planned work of a society that could command organisation, skill, art and whatever quality it is that impels people to work together with determined enthusiasm to create a monument that will defy time.

Since Lhwyd reported on Newgrange nearly three hundred years ago people have investigated the megalithic mounds intensively and have found out a great deal about them. They are called "megalithic" ("big-stone") monuments because of the use of huge stones in the architecture of their inner, and sometimes of their peripheral, structures. The Boyne mounds are tombs, of the passage type. An inner megalithic chamber is approached, under the mass of the tumulus, by a megalithic passage, and a megalithic revetment retains the material of the round mound. The Boyne group is indeed a cemetery, of great antiquity.

Professor George Eogan of UCD has devoted a large part of his working life to the study in the field of the monuments of the Boyne. His labour came honourably at the end (so far) of quite a long line of researchers into our island's past. While Professor O'Kelly worked, down the road, on the excavation of a large part of the well known tumulus at Newgrange, Professor Eogan was excavating a whole cemetery at Knowth. Professor O'Kelly of UCC died some years ago, but left in process of publication a volume in the Thames and Hudson series, "New Aspects of Antiquity", which was entitled when it posthumously appeared, Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend.

Thirteen volumes in that series are now available. The purpose of the series is to enable some of the world's leading archaeologists to present their own discoveries, in Europe, the Near East, the Americas and the Pacific, Africa and Farther Asia. The general editor is Colin Renfrew, who has published major works on early Aegean civilisation and other matters.

Professor Eogan in this beautifully-produced book does several things. He describes his own research; he provides us with a guide to the Boyne monuments; he discusses the civilisation which produced them; and he offers views and analysis of the remarkable art which is one of the most striking features of the cemeteries along the river.

Some parts of this exposition are concerned with technicalities which will be of interest chiefly to other archaeologists. But the Boyne Valley is one of our major tourist areas, visited annually by very large numbers of Irish people as well as people from elsewhere. Newgrange must be one of the best known as well as one of the most intriguing monuments in the country.

Knowth is not so well known. It remained sealed under its grassy mantle until Dr Eogan began his work more than twenty years ago. There is in fact a whole cluster of passage-tombs as well as the great mound which in itself covers an acre and a half of ground. The work has gone on since 1962 and it will be some time yet before the public can be admitted as they are now to the restored Newgrange. But when that day comes, there will be not one but two sites ­ which can claim to be among the most remarkable evidence of the culture of Stone Age Europe.

Under the great tumulus, Dr Eogan found two separate passages, leading their way in from opposite ends of the same axis. His account of the discovery is graphic.

"At last I was convinced that the entrance had been found. As the time was 6.30 p.m. and the day's work was about to stop, I came out, delighted but speculating as to how far the parallel sided passage might extend

We soon set out on our hands and knees to investigate. It proved to be a thrilling, if also rather worrying, experience. About 10m. from the entrance, we had to crawl under an orthostat that had partly fallen inward. Next it was necessary to wriggle through a pool of muddy water on the floor beneath a couple of leaning orthostats Eventually the roof began to rise in height and we could almost stand upright. Nearly all the orthostats appeared to be decorated, and the whole structure was much more impressive. At one point a stone basin lay in the passage. Then, coming to a stone sill, we illuminated the orthostat on its inner right side and beheld what seemed to be an anthropomorphic figure with tow large, staring eyes. This ghostly guardian suggested that we were approaching the inner sanctum"

This book is produced to the high standard of this series and is itself a monument to Irish work of today and to Irish work of five thousand years ago.

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