During the summer of 2018, Ireland was subjected to unusually severe weather. While the island typically experiences moderate temperatures and lots of rain, this particular season actually brought about drought. But although the heat and lack of precipitation may have caused worry among the country’s farmers, they provided just the right conditions for historians to discover something special.
On July 10 of that year, Anthony Murphy and Ken Williams sent their drones hovering over Brú na Bóinne in the country’s east. This area is home to some spectacular ancient monuments – arguably the most famous of which is Newgrange. And owing to the Brú na Bóinne region’s historical significance, UNESCO awarded it World Heritage Site status in 1993.
Today, evidence of Brú na Bóinne’s past can be seen in the remains of tombs, stoneworks and henges. A henge is a sort of ancient modification to the land that consists of a circular bank and a trench. And such ditches were actually dug out within the earth berm – suggesting, then, that they weren’t created for protective purposes.
Yet while people are thought to have inhabited Brú na Bóinne for 6,000 years or so – perhaps even longer – the structures seen in the area today are thought to have been erected around 1,000 years after humans first settled there. This would mean that the remains’ origins date back to the Neolithic era of Irish history.
The Neolithic era is best characterized as the concluding stages of the Stone Age. In Ireland, then, this period is said to have lasted from 4,000 B.C. up until around 2,500 B.C. And it’s thought that farming practices first started to develop on the island during this time.
Furthermore, some of the Neolithic constructions found in Brú na Bóinne date to as far back as the 35th century B.C. – making them older than even the pyramids of ancient Egypt. And just as with the pyramids, these Irish monuments suggest that the people who built them had a sophisticated grasp of mathematics.
The clearest indication of this ability is perhaps seen at the Newgrange monument. Newgrange is an elaborate tomb comprised of a broadly circular structure that encloses approximately an acre of land. There, a central alley lined with stone leads into a series of underground rooms.
And during the annual winter solstice, beams of sunlight travel through a passage in Newgrange to light up its interior. Nowadays, this event occurs some four minutes after the sun appears over the horizon; experts have calculated, however, that when the monument had been first built, the chamber would have been illuminated precisely at sunrise.
This in turn indicates that the people who designed Newgrange had quite astute understandings of both astronomy and math. It seems, too, that some individuals chose to demonstrate their artistic talents at the site, as Newgrange is also home to a variety of stone carvings that have been shaped in a number of different patterns.
But Newgrange certainly isn’t the only attraction to be found at Brú na Bóinne. You see, the area also plays home to the Neolithic monuments known as Dowth and Knowth. Like Newgrange, these two sites were both seemingly designed with sophisticated astronomical factors in mind, and the pair are also known today for their works of art.
In fact, the Brú na Bóinne region as a whole is said to possess one of the most extensive collections of Western European prehistoric stone art. And this shouldn’t be surprising given that there are around 90 other monuments in the area besides Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth.
Thanks to the ample evidence of its rich history, then, Brú na Bóinne has been a focus of contemporary archaeological works since 1960. In that year, a tomb within an area known as Townleyhall was first scrutinized. And although the monument turned out to be a relatively modest construction, it nonetheless seemingly sparked a great deal more archaeological interest in the region.
Indeed, over the subsequent decades, a series of additional archaeological probes have been undertaken throughout Brú na Bóinne. Numerous discoveries have been recorded in the process, too, with historians subsequently attempting to make sense of them all. And in more recent times, the works have been extended to even the edges of the area.
Yet although Brú na Bóinne has already told us a little about life in Neolithic Ireland, there are nonetheless still aspects of the period that remain obscure – meaning further study is necessary. And any new discoveries in the region may just help in this regard.
Journalist Anthony Murphy has certainly proven keen to investigate Brú na Bóinne. In fact, such is his passion for the region’s history that he frequently sends a drone up into the skies there – hoping, perhaps, to observe something new that may yet reveal more of the past.
And during July 2018, Murphy felt particularly compelled to investigate the lands of Brú na Bóinne. At the time, Ireland and the neighboring British mainland were experiencing unusually high temperatures and low rainfall. Plant growth was thus suffering under these harsh conditions, although there was at least one consequent benefit.
You see, hot and dry weather is actually extremely conducive to allowing so-called crop marks to stand out. Visible from above, crop marks are lines or patterns in the ground that indicate a construction has been buried beneath. As archaeologist Louise Barker explained to Wired magazine in 2018, “It’s like a painting that comes out into the fieldscapes.”
Certain prehistoric constructions – such as henges – would have been defined by man-made channels dug into the ground. And while these ditches would have been plugged up as the centuries passed, some of them may still retain extra nutrients and moisture upon which plant life depends.
And in extremely hot and arid conditions, plants will take their necessary nutrients from deeper underground than usual – meaning those that are positioned above nutrient-rich trenches will grow better than those that are not. Yes, while some flora will stay healthier and verdant, other examples will wilt and wither.
Furthermore, it appears that this is exactly what came to pass in the U.K. during the summer of 2018. In an area called Langstone in southern Wales, you see, an ancient farm was revealed by crop marks in the ground. And though it wasn’t initially clear when the farm had been in operation, the find was nonetheless significant.
Certainly, archaeologist Louise Barker seemed to be thrilled by the discovery. “We’re seeing new things with all of these crop marks,” she told Wired in the wake of the find. “We probably haven’t seen anything like this since the 1970s – the last time there was a really, really dry summer like this.”
When Anthony Murphy caught wind of new archaeological finds in Britain, then, he reasoned that the heatwave engulfing Ireland may reveal interesting etchings in the ground, too. So, over the course of a couple of days, he sent his drone over Brú na Bóinne.
“I was flying my drone over the Boyne Valley, as I do on regular occasions,” Murphy later wrote on his website Mythical Ireland. “I had it in the back of my mind that some previously unrecorded archaeological sites had been revealed due to the drought conditions in Britain – but I hadn’t the faintest expectation that I would find anything new.”
So, on July 9, 2018, Murphy sent his drone up to the sky in order to survey the ground below. By the end of this relatively short flight, however, he wouldn’t have much to show for his efforts beyond a small number of photographs. Indeed, on this occasion, his aerial survey had discovered little of particular interest.
Yet Murphy’s instincts told him that he needed to try again. “Something was nagging at me [the day after the first attempt],” he wrote on his website. “My own thoughts were niggling at me. ‘I will have to go out and fly again tonight,’ I said to myself. Gut feelings and all that. I knew it was important.”
On July 10, then, Murphy prepared to send his drone skyward once again. But just before he could actually do so, his friend Ken Williams suddenly showed up. Williams had actually been photographing Newgrange using his own drone, and the two men ultimately decided to work together.
Murphy was first to send up his drone, with Williams following suit shortly after. And the two machines were both fixed above a location with a series of intriguing features – although nothing earth-shattering. After some time, though, the power in Murphy’s drone began to fade, and so he landed it to swap batteries.
Then, with the drone ready to go once again, Murphy decided to send it towards a different area. And as he directed his airborne device in this particular direction, he noticed something strange. Beneath his drone, there appeared to be a circle etched into the ground.
Intrigued, Murphy lowered the altitude of his machine in order to get a better view of what lay below. And as a result, a series of other circles aside from the one he had initially sighted came into focus. This time, it transpired that Murphy’s drone had caught sight of something truly significant.
Murphy subsequently alerted Williams to his find, leading his companion to send over his own drone to the area. Careful not to crash their devices into each other, the two men set their drones to hover above the site, where they spent up to 15 minutes snapping photographs. And soon the pair were noting some additional features that they hadn’t previously spotted.
“Immediately to the west of the new henge was what appeared to be another large enclosure, and in the far northeast of the field [there were] some more circles,” Murphy later recalled on his website. “And close to the lake and trees – just to the north of them – [there was] a mottled landscape of dark and bright features.”
All in all, the two men were aware that they had managed to capture images of something significant. As a result, then, the pair both grounded their drones and subsequently sent out the photos of the markings to the archaeological community. And in turn, these people appeared to be just as enthusiastic about the discovery as Murphy and Williams were themselves.
In fact, Steve Davis, an archaeologist from University College Dublin, has implied that the find is potentially momentous. “This is internationally significant, and we now need to figure out what it means,” he told the BBC in 2018. “It has some characteristics that we’ve never seen before – for example, the very odd double-ditch sections that make up its circumference.”
“It’s one of a series of large monuments near Newgrange,” Davis continued. “We don’t know what the henges are for, but it’s thought [that] they were meeting places. The confusing thing is why there are so many [henges] in one area. Nowhere else in the world has so many in one spot.”
And fellow archaeologist Dr. Geraldine Stout gave her own opinion on the matter to the Irish Independent in 2018. She told the newspaper, “I think there was a whole series of facilities built for the pilgrims coming to Newgrange in prehistory. Generally, we believe these henge monuments were built up to 500 years after the main use of Newgrange.”
Meanwhile, according to World Heritage Ireland, the warm conditions of summer 2018 brought about further discoveries. It seems, for instance, that the crop marks noted by Murphy and Williams were not the only ones to be recorded. During that period, you see, Ireland’s National Monuments Service decided to conduct a survey of its own from above Brú na Bóinne.
What’s more, the pictures taken as part of this National Monuments Service search revealed features that had formerly been missed, while some added details were also acquired relating to established sites across Brú na Bóinne. Perhaps, then, the otherwise severe Irish climate conditions of 2018 were something of an archaeological blessing.
At the very least, the plethora of visual data gathered during the prolonged dry spell seems set to keep the experts at the National Monuments Service busy with analysis for years to come. Already, the new aerial images of Brú na Bóinne have proved essential in both identifying new features in the area and gleaning fresh insights. And while there is naturally still some mystery about the region and its history, things may now prove a little clearer.
The sheer significance of Murphy’s discovery has not been lost on him, either. “In all honesty, it’s going to take some time to process this,” he wrote on his website. “Archaeologists are calling it a once-in-a-lifetime find.”
Murphy added, “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be involved in a revelation of this magnitude in the Boyne Valley – right there in the UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been under so much scrutiny from archaeologists for decades. Never in a million years would I have even thought it possible.”