The Art of Building a Passage Grave

Faculty Guest Blogger: Pamela M. Parsons

Pamela M. Parsons: 5000 years ago, a Neolithic people gathered near a river in what is now Newgrange, Ireland, for the purpose of burying their kinsmen. Through great effort and ingenuity, they built a megalithic stone tomb which, for ritual purposes now unknown, was oriented to receive the rays of the winter solstice sun—the shortest day of the year, which would illuminate its interior chamber. The Newgrange passage grave is one of the best known of the many similar megalithic structures still being discovered within this ancient burial ground and throughout northern Europe.


Newgrange; passage tomb site view from southeast, Newgrange, Ireland, ca. 3200 BCE


Passage grave with covering tumulus, Knowth, Ireland, ca. 3000 B.C.E.

Marywood art students may recall their introduction to stone age art in Art History I. This fall an art professor tasked her students with experiencing the process of creating Paleolithic-inspired cave art using paint made from natural and raw materials, or with employing Neolithic building techniques to construct model prehistoric structures. She then took this same project to a younger group of homeschoolers to see what they could do: working cooperatively, six boys built their own version of the Newgrange passage grave. Their model measured approximately four feet in diameter by two feet high. The eldest boy made and edited an informative video that documented the ninety-minute process (college students please check it out).

To begin, the boys divided their labors according to their own inclinations and age. The youngest collected stones, sand and mud, along a nearby riverbank. On a level site overlooking the water, the older boys worked with their guest instructor to mark out the circumference and floor plan using small pebbles as guides. Through trial and error, the kids found that certain shapes and weights of stone would best serve different structural functions. They learned to support standing stone slabs with backfill. They innovated: a couple of the boys began drawing on rocks intended for the interior chamber. They used the charred end of a burned stick to draw pictures. One child added a plastic toy figurine—serendipitously proportionate to the scaled model grave. The width of the post and lintel passage itself–the covered walkway into the mound–was intentionally built wide enough to allow a cell phone to pass through and photograph the interior space once completed. To span the width of the interior chamber, courses of flat stone were laid, each layer closing the opening further until the final stone bridged what small opening remained. Amazingly, the resulting photos revealed a true corbelled dome as one that closely resembles the actual grave interior in Ireland (image search and compare!). The boys completed the exterior tumulus policing each other to use care as they molded loamy earth to cover and seal the stony armature. A few evenly spaced green leaves inserted into the resulting rounded mound served as final embellishment.

Months later, the boys have maintained their passage grave undisturbed; it has its own structural strength as well as the respect of its young builders.

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