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The discovery of the Dowth causeway


Exciting new discoveries in the Boyne Valley area by archaeologists could help to shed new light on some very ancient mysteries. One of the most exciting revelations has been the discovery of what appears to be a routeway or causeway on LiDAR imagery which appears to connect the Dowth passage-tomb with the nearby giant henge (Site Q) and the now-destroyed Cloghalea stone circle.

The previously-unknown feature appears in special LiDAR imagery (Light Detection And Ranging), which is specialised remote sensing technology that uses laser light to scan the landscape. LiDAR imagery of the Boyne area has revealed a number of previously unknown possible monuments and other features.

Dowth causeway revealed in LiDAR image
The extent of the Dowth causeway is revealed in this LiDAR image. Click on image to see larger version. © Davis, Megarry, Brady, Lewis et al / INSTAR programme 2010  

The Dowth routeway is a feature which appears to lead away from the giant Site Q henge monument, in the northeast towards the now-destroyed Cloghalea stone circle, and from the southwest towards Dowth passage-tomb. At this stage, without archaeological digging, it is not possible to tell whether the feature is indeed ancient, or perhaps some sort of landscape feature incorporated into the estate of Dowth Hall, where the henge monument is situated. However, Stephen Davis of the UCD School of Archaeology recently revealed at a seminar in Slane to Mythical Ireland's Anthony Murphy that the feature seems to run "under" Dowth Hall, suggesting it might have been already there when the mansion was built.

There are good reasons to be excited about the age and origin of this curious feature. Firstly, if it is some sort of prehistoric avenue or causeway, it would be only the second such feature to be discovered in the Boyne Valley, after the famous Newgrange Cursus. And even at that, it seems to be a much bigger and more extensive structure than the cursus. There is some suggestion that the Dowth causeway is a raised routeway, while the Newgrange cursus is cut into the landscape. But secondly, just as fascinatingly, the causeway appears to run through Site Q, the Dowth Henge, leading away from both its entrances.

Dowth causeway revealed in LiDAR image
The Dowth Henge (Site Q), with modern trackway running through from southwest to northeast. Image: © Caroline Kavanagh  

The supposed entrances of Site Q have long been the subject of debate and controversy. Archaeologist Geraldine Stout has argued that the northeastern entrance was not an original feature of the henge. She wrote, "A slight rise and a definite fall to the exterior along this opening in line with the bank make it highly probable that this opening is not contemporary with the construction of the enclosure". (See Island of the Setting Sun (2008), p.92).

However, Ronald Hicks, Professor of Anthropology at Ball State University, Indiana, maintains that, "It [the northeast gap] appears to have been micked about in some ways. This is very evident on the aerial photos. But that doesn't necessarily mean that there wasn't an entrance there originally." (Ibid, p.95)

Recent geophysical investigation of the henge have not helped to definitively answer the question, it was revealed at the seminar in Slane. "The jury is still out," Stephen Davis told the gathering.

The two gaps appear to line up with Summer Solstice sunrise, an alignment first witnessed and photographed by Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore in June 2000 (ibid., chapter 5). Ronald Hicks had written a paper in 1985 suggesting that the axis and entrances of the Dowth henge corresponded to the summer solstice sunrise / winter solstice sunset line.

Dowth henge Site Q summer sunrise
Summer sunrise at the Dowth Henge  

If the Dowth causeway turns out to be a prehistoric construction, contemporary with the Dowth Henge, this would be significant, because of the fact that it appears to lead away from the northeastern entrance of the henge. If that entrance did not exist in prehistory, why would the northeastern section of the causeway start there? The alignment of the henge entrances towards the northeast appears to coincide with Summer Solstice sunrise. This was investigated and photographed by Murphy and Moore in 2000. The photo on left shows the sunrise in the north east photographed from just outside the henge looking along the axis of the two entrances. See more about the alignment on this page.

Archaeologists also revealed at the Slane seminar that their geophysical investigation of Site Q revealed the possibility of post holes in the interior of the monument. Many henges have been found to have contained large circles of posts, so if this is the case at Dowth Site Q it would be very interesting.

The date of the Dowth causeway will remain uncertain for now. The fact remains that this newly-redisocered causeway cannot be assumed to be an ancient feature, for the moment at least, until further investigation by archaeologists. It is a very tantalising discovery nonetheless. It is just one of a number of new features in the Boyne landscape which are getting archaeologists all excited.

Another is what appears to be a "double ditched possible cursus monument", leading northwest away from Dowth passage-tomb towards Ballyboy lake. See image below:

Dowth causeway revealed in LiDAR image
The possible double ditched cursus which runs northeast from Dowth towards Ballyboy lake. Click for larger image. © Davis, Megarry, Brady, Lewis et al /INSTAR programme 2010
For more information on some of the exciting new revelations and imagery from the Boyne Valley, see this document. See more about the Slane seminar on 'Recent Archaeological Research in the Boyne Valley' at this link. For a full programme from the seminar, see this file.
All information and photos, except where otherwise stated, copyright, © Anthony Murphy, 1999-2015
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