A carving from the chamber of Newgrange - wheat ear, salmon bones or fern frond?

A carving from the chamber of Newgrange - wheat ear, salmon bones or fern frond?

There is a beautiful but somewhat unusual carving on an upright stone inside the 5,000-year-old chamber of the Newgrange megalithic monument at Brú na Bóinne. There are several suggestions as to what it might represent. Anthony Murphy explores the theories.

This carving, on a stone in the chamber of Síd in Broga (Newgrange), is very interesting. We are told that Irish megalithic art is abstract and non-representational, and yet here we have a beautiful rendering that looks more like representational art than just an abstract emblem.

There are several theories as to what it might represent and each of them is significant to the lives of the people who built Newgrange.

A close-up view of the carving inside Newgrange. The letters are Victorian-era graffiti.


Salmon bones

One theory suggests that it represents the bones of a salmon. The salmon were an important food source since Mesolithic times, but even in the Neolithic when farming had taken hold and there likely was a food surplus to carry the population through the winter, the arrival of the winter run of salmon in the Boyne might have provided a bounty and an alternative food source at times when the provisions might have been dwindling. The myth of the Salmon of Knowledge says that it was caught at Linn Fiacc, or Fiacc's Pool, at Rosnaree, on the bend of the Boyne not far from Newgrange and close to Knowth.

Ear of wheat

Another theory suggests that the symbol represents an ear of wheat. Given that the builders of the great monuments were farmers, it might have been their symbolic representation in the chamber of light of the crop that they wished the sun god (Dagda) to bless or to aid in its growth during the coming year. Dagda was, according to tradition, the one who "looked after the crops and the harvest". 

His sun beam, flooding the chamber with warm, golden light, would have indirectly illuminated this pattern on a chamber stone between the left and end recesses. An old tradition in Ireland is to make a 'Cailleach",a special object owven from the last standing sheaf in a field at the end of the harvest. According to the National Museum of Ireland, it was believed that the Cailleach like a corn dolly celebrated retrieving your harvest and the grain from this was sown in the new year.

A Cailleach woven from the lsat sheaf of wheat. Image: Country Life Museum

Fern frond

The third theory suggests that the symbol represents a fern leaf. The young fern frond or crosier is curled up, like a spiral - a symbol that is ubiquitous at Brú na Bóinne. The presence of both spiral and fern leaf symbols in the chamber of Newgrange might suggest, symbolically, the hope that the young sun being born at winter solstice aids bountiful growth in the plant life of the valley during the coming year.

Bird feather

There is, of course, one final possibility – that the carving represents a bird's feather. I would love to be able to say that it looks like a swan's feather, not least because of the Cygnus Enigma, linking swan myths with swan stars and migratory bird patterns in the Bend of the Boyne. 

There is only one thing we can be sure about in relation to this mysterious symbol – and indeed all of the others contained in the megalithic art of Brú na Bóinne – and that is that there are lots of theories about their meanings, but no-one can be sure.

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1 comment

The fern leaf is probably the “signature” of the master carver who created the abstract carvings.

Mark Smithwick

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