In terms of architectural form and alignment, the gigantic passage tomb at Newgrange, Brú na Bóinne, is arguably the finest example of its type in north-west Europe. The monument was built c. 3300 BC to house the cremated and inhumed remains of the dead. It was additionally designed to capture direct sunlight at winter solstice sunrise and to channel this into the burial chamber via the roof-box located above the entrance door—an accomplishment unparalleled anywhere else in the Neolithic world of that time.

Megalithic tomb traditions

For context, burial tombs built in Ireland during the Neolithic mainly fall into three distinct categories. The court tombs (414) broadly date from 3700–3570 BC and are trapezoidal in plan, with an unroofed forecourt at the broader end of a long barrow. The roofed, segmented burial gallery on the tomb’s long axis contained the inhumed and cremated remains of the dead. Portal tombs (191) have a short chamber formed by two portal stones, two side stones and a back stone. The characteristic roof stone slopes from the front towards the rear of the monument. The available evidence indicates that these monuments saw repeated episodes of inhumed burials c. 3800–3200 BC. Passage tombs (221) have their burial chambers set at the end of an access passage within a round covering cairn delimited by an enclosing earthfast kerb of contiguous stones. The predominant burial rite was cremation, but the presence of unburnt bone (including from children, and the skulls and long bones from adults) is also evident. While the earliest passage tombs date back to

at least 3600 BC, the developed examples mostly date from 3300– 2900 BC and are later in the Neolithic building sequence. Tantalisingly, some unopened hilltop cairns may yet prove to be passage tombs, thereby increasing the above total.

Developed passage tombs are architecturally elaborate, exhibit extraordinary embellishment (with engraved or picked art in many cases) and have a general preference for elevated siting, especially on the summits of some prominent hills and mountains. Where there is spatial overlap between the three types, passage tombs

Top: Newgrange passage tomb, aligned on winter solstice sunrise. The 85m-diameter round mound is kerbed and contains a cruciform burial chamber with a 19m-long passage. Above: Dowth (south tomb) passage tomb, aligned on winter solstice sunset. The 85m-diameter round mound has two tombs, one of which (the north tomb) is cruciform in shape. The kerb and many of the structural stones bear megalithic art.