The Tumulus of Dowth, Co. Meath.
The Dowth sepulchral mound corresponds closely to
in dimensions; it is about 47 feet high, and measures 280 feet
in diameter. Round the base is a belt of large stones as at
Newgrange; but it has no retaining wall. A double circle
of stones appears to have surrounded the cairn. Of
these the greater number lie buried; for in summertime
their position, particularly after a long continuance
of sunny weather, is shown by the remarkably dry and
withered appearance of the grass above them.
Of the internal arrangement of this great tumulus,
little was known beyond the fact that it was different
from that of the monument last described, inasmuch as,
instead of one great gallery leading directly towards
the centre of the pile, there appeared here the remains
of two passages in a very ruinous state, and completely
stopped up, neither of which, however, seemed to have
conducted towards a grand central chamber. The
Committee of Antiquities of the Royal Irish Academy
having, in the course of the autumn of 1847, obtained
permission from the trustees of the Netterville Charity,
the proprietors of the Dowth estate, to explore the
interior of the tumulus, the work was commenced and
carried on at considerable cost, under the immediate
direction of Mr. Frith, one of the county surveyors.
Unfortunately no official record of the work done has
been kept, and the only account of it is a brief one
by Sir Wm. Wilde. Commenting on this,
Mr. George Coffey says:
'The mound was so pulled about by the explorers,
and the work carried out with such doubtful wisdom,
that the Committee seem to have had a not unnatural
shrinking from publicity.'
From the difficulty of sinking a shaft among the loose,
dry stones of which this hill, like that of Newgrange,
is entirely composed, the plan was adopted of making
an open cutting from the base of the mound towards its
centre, in order to arrive at the great central chamber
which was supposed to exist. The first discovery was
that of a cruciform chamber upon the western side,
formed of stones of great size, every way similar to
those at Newgrange, and exhibiting the same style of decoration.
A rude sarcophagus, bearing a striking
resemblance to that belonging to the east recess at
Newgrange, was found in the centre. It had been
broken into several pieces, but the fragments were
all recovered and placed together, so as to afford a
perfect idea of the original form. In clearing away
the rubbish with which the chamber was nearly filled,
the workmen discovered a large quantity of the bones
of animals in a half-burned state, mixed with small
shells. A pin of bronze and two small knives of iron
were also picked up.
With respect to instruments
of iron being found in a monument of so early a date,
we may observe that, in the Annals of Ulster
there occurs a record of this mound, as well as of
several others in the neighbourhood, having been
searched by the Northmen of Dublin as early as A.D. 862:
'On one occasion that the three kings,
Amlaff, Imar, and Ainsle, were plundering the territory
of Flann, the son of Coaing.'
It is an interesting fact that the knives are similar
in every respect to a number discovered, together with
a quantity of other objects, in the bog of Lagore, near
Dunshaughlin, and which there is reason to refer to a period
between the ninth and the beginning of the eleventh centuries.
Upon the chamber being cleared out, a passage 27 feet in length
was discovered, the sides of which incline considerably, leading in a westerly direction
towards the side of the mound, and composed, like the similar
passage at Newgrange, of enormous stones placed edgeways,
and covered in with large flags.
The chamber, though of
inferior size to that of Newgrange, is constructed so nearly
upon the same plan, that a description of the one might
almost serve for that of the other. It is 9 feet by 7 feet
and 11 feet high. There are three recesses between 5 and 6
feet deep; these, however, do not contain basins. The south
recess leads into a double set of chambers, one extending
south and the other west. A single stone 8 feet
long forms the floor of the south passage, in the centre
of which is a shallow oval 'apparently rubbed down
with some rude tool.' A huge stone, in height 9 feet
in breadth 8 feet, placed between the north and east
recesses, is remarkable for the singular character of its
carving. A portion of the work upon this stone bears
a resemblance to Ogam writing.
Another sepulchral chamber, of a quadrangular form,
portions of which show a great variety of carving, among
which the cross, a symbol which neither in the old nor
the new world can be considered as peculiar to Christianity,
is conspicuous, has been discovered upon the
southern side of the mound. Here, as elsewhere, during
the course of excavation, the workmen unearthed vast
quantities of bones, half-burned, many of which proved
to be human;
'several unburned bones of horses, pigs,
deer, and birds, portions of the heads of the short-horned
variety of the ox, and the head of a fox.'
They also found a star-shaped amulet of stone, a ring
of jet, several beads, and some bones fashioned like pins.
Among the stones of the upper portion of the cairn were
discovered a number of globular balls of stone, the size
of small eggs, which Sir W. Wilde supposed probably to have
been sling stones. Further excavations under the direction of the
Board of Works (1885) led to other discoveries. An opening
was made on the north side of the known entrance
that 'led to a passage which terminated at either end by
circular cells carefully roofed with corbelling stones';
and, where it met the entrance to the originally known
chamber, a flight of steps was discovered. This and
the character of the work, which is microlithic, indicate
the portion of the underground passages and chambers
to be a much later addition.
Among the trees between the mound of Dowth and
the mansion are two smaller tumuli. One of these is
open from the top; it contains a corbel-roofed chamber
10 feet in diameter and 8 feet high; round it are five
cells constructed of small flags set upright. A little to
the east of the house is a fine specimen of the ancient
military encampment or rath, one of the largest in Ireland.
Tumulus at Knowth.
The other great tumulus (Knowth
) of the Boyne group
has probably never been entered since the time, as
the Annalists tell us, it was plundered and doubtlessly
much injured by the Danes.
It is nearly 7OO feet in circumference, and between 40
and 50 feet in height. For many years it has served
as a convenient quarry for builders of houses and
repairers of roads. That it could be explored at little
cost is certain, as, owing to the denudation it has suffered,
the passage or gallery leading to its chamber has, in
part, been laid bare. Its circle or circles are not
altogether obliterated ; and here and there some portions
remain which show that the work, though less massive
than that of Newgrange, was at least as striking as anything to be found in Dowth, or in connection with the
remains at Loughcrew, or others occurring in the western
districts of Ireland.
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