Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Eschewing the little people, one archaeologist dismissed folklore about Newgrange, folklore that later proved true

The earliest antiquarians who visited, documented, sketched and spoke about Newgrange sometimes get a hard time from the modern academic establishment. The writings of Lhwyd and Molyneux and Pownall and Vallancey are all criticised for one reason or another (poor Charles Vallancey is largely ridiculed, perhaps because he referred to Newgrange as a Mithraic temple). All of the early antiquarian accounts of the monument are valuable for one reason or another. Some of them have captured aspects of the monument that have disappeared since they wrote. Without the tools and techniques of modern archaeology, all of them were poking around in the dark, so to speak. They couldn't have known the true age of Newgrange,  nor could they have appreciated the skills of the artists and builders who created it, those whom they all too often referred to as barbarous.

Newgrange in its pre-excavation days.

The New Grange book.
However, Dr. Glyn Daniel, lecturer in archaeology at Cambridge University and editor of the academic journal Antiquity, perhaps should have known better. In 1964, Daniel's book 'New Grange and the Bend of the Boyne' was published by Thames & Hudson. It had been a collaborative effort with University College Cork professor of archaeology, Sean P. Ó Ríordáin. Sadly, Ó Ríordáin had passed away in 1957 in his early fifties, when the pair were only half way through completion of the book. Daniel was the General Editor of the 'Ancient Peoples and Places' series of books, under which the New Grange title was published. It was to become the largest single study of the Newgrange monument since George Coffey's 1912 book, and would be the last before Professor Michael J. O'Kelly's excavations at Newgrange revealed so many of its secrets.

One of the shortcomings of the Daniel/Ó Ríordáin book is that it fails to deal in any substantial terms with the mythical history of the Newgrange monument or indeed its counterparts in the Bend of the Boyne. Except for one passage in which he relates that New Grange might be an English corruption of An Uamh Greine (the cave of Grainne), Daniel does not discuss the ancient names of Newgrange, or its import in the early texts, as O'Kelly later did in his own work on Newgrange. Failing to acknowledge the earlier Irish names of Newgrange, and its mythology and associated stories, Daniel falls into a trap – he assumes the folklore about the site to be utter fantasy, and dismisses it as such:

"It is natural that impressive monuments like New Grange and Stonehenge should be visited a great deal by the general public and should themselves have attracted a folklore based on imagination, half-forgotten history, unappreciated archaeology and the sort of nonsense that luxuriates in the lunatic fringes of serious archaeology."(1)

And in that foregoing paragraph, Daniel was just setting himself up for a fall.

"The visitor to New Grange and Dowth will not be surprised to be told that these monuments were built by and were the homes of 'the little people' or to be asked their connection with the Druids."

One should always be careful about dismissing the fairy folk – even if one is a leading archaeologist and "expert" of the times!

But the following is perhaps indicative of the perhaps excessively arrogant attitude of Daniel in dealing with a monument such as Newgrange and in his rush to dismiss the folklore, he dismissed also notions about the site that would later transpire to be based in truth:

The entrance kerb stone at Newgrange (K1).

"A coloured calendar current in Ireland in 1960 had in it a good photograph of the decorated stone at the entrance to New Grange; this was accompanied by an account which needs quoting almost in toto as an example of the jumble of nonsense and wishful thinking indulged in by those who prefer the pleasures of the irrational and the joys of unreason to the hard thinking that archaeology demands.'The entrance in the east was originally triangular,' says this description, 'but is now changed for easy entrance, formerly it was necessary to crawl in and progress was retarded by interference, stones compelling the neophyte to stoop and stumble. The rays of the rising sun at certain times of the year penetrate the opening and rest on a remarkable triple spiral carving in the central chamber. Like the Great Pyramid of Gizeh in Egypt the New Grange Temple was originally covered with a layer of white quartz and was a brilliant object of Light for a considerable distance. Nuda, first king of Tuatha de Danann in Ireland, and his Master Magician, are said to have officiated here in the very, very old days. Artemidoros the Ephesian stated: "To Sacred Ierne of the Hibernians men go to learn more of the Mysteries of Samothrace."'

Two very important statements in this 1960 calendar demonstrate that there were enduring traditions about Newgrange that were fascinating and even compelling (and certainly worthy of at least some investigation) – one that the sun shone into the chamber during the year and the other that it was once covered with white quartz. Understandably, Daniel could not have known about the existence of quartz, given that the O'Kelly excavations at Newgrange had just begun when the Daniel/Ó Ríordáin book was published, but there was at least one possible reference to this feature in mythology – the "white-topped brugh" was said to have been "brilliant to approach".(2) If he had been a bit more familiar with some of the mythology of Newgrange, he might not have been so quick to shrug it off.

But Daniel certainly should not have been so dismissive in relation to the solar alignment – especially as it had been previously suggested by the likes of Solar Physics Observatory director Sir Norman Lockyer in 1909, and W.Y. Evans-Wentz in The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries in 1911.(3)

Within three years or so of the publication of the Daniel/Ó Ríordáin book, Professor Michael O'Kelly would stand in the chamber of Newgrange and become the first person in the modern era (and perhaps since the Bronze Age) to witness the winter solstice sunlight streaming into its inner chamber, illuminating (by reflected light) the triskele or triple spiral in the chamber. During his excavations at the famous monument, O'Kelly would uncover a significant layer of quartz beneath the cairn spill material – quartz that he would later demonstrate through repeated experiment that actually fronted the monument. In other words, at the very least Newgrange had a white quartz facade, and it is not such a huge leap of imagination to envision the possibility that the cairn was once covered with this bright stone.

The Newgrange triple spiral (triskele) in the chamber

One wonders what Daniel made of O'Kelly's revelations, and how it might have altered his thinking in relation to folklore. Folk memory is a very powerful thing. This might have been demonstrated in the case of the story in the locality of Newgrange suggesting that the Morning Star (Venus) shone into the chamber of the monument once every eight years, as recorded by Joseph Campbell in his 1959 book 'The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology"(4) Then there was the folklore collected in 1938 that suggested the Tuatha Dé Danann had built Newgrange using stones brought from the Mourne Mountains, another apparently wild and imaginative claim that had some basis in reality.

Even in the claim that "Nuda" officiated at Newgrange, the calendar was not too far off the mark. In the early texts, Newgrange is associated in particular with Elcmar, Dagda and Oengus. Dagda was chief of the gods, a kind of Tuatha Dé king, so to speak, and Elcmar was described as a "magician" and "original master of Brug na Bóinne".(5)

Unfortunately, I can only challenge Mr. Daniel posthumously, and as he is not here to defend himself, I must not take undue licence in criticising him for these shortcomings. I am glad that this diminution of folklore is not ubiquitous among modern archaeologists. As mentioned above, Michael O'Kelly outlined the mythical importance of Newgrange, and seemed to hold great reverence for the possibility that it was "a house of the dead and as an abode of spirits" which, he said, was a concept not contradicted by the findings of the excavation. O'Kelly felt that a connection between the archaeological evidence and the early literature was to be found in the older and "more genuine tradition".(6)

Daniel allowed only one statement in the 1960 calendar to stand: "It is at least true in this strange wild-cat account we have just quoted, that New Grange might well be described as belonging to 'the very, very old days'."

"It is our object in this book," he continued, "not only to describe the great tombs in the Bend of the Boyne but to set them in what appears to us their true prehistoric context, as far as the limitations of archaeology allow, eschewing the little people and Artemidoros".

One eschews the daoine sídhe at one's peril! Never dismiss the folklore...

(1) Ó Ríordáin, Sean P., and Daniel, Glyn (1964), New Grange and the Bend of the Boyne, Thames and Hudson, p.19.
(2) Murphy, Anthony (2012), Newgrange – Monument to Immortality, Liffey Press, p.114.
(3) Ibid, p.170.
(4) Campbell (1991) [1959], pp.430-1.
(5) MacKillop, James (1998), Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford University Press, p.177.
(6) O'Kelly, Michael J. (1998) [1982], Newgrange: Archaeology, Art & Legend, Thames and Hudson, p.47.