Armchair Archaeology: Dronehenge and Aerial Archaeology

Published: 01 May 2020

Welcome to the third edition of Armchair Archaeology! In this series we look at the famous and the less well-known sites in the Boyne Valley. Since the current restrictions mean we cannot go out and explore in person, let Boyne Valley Tourism take you on a virtual tour of some of our favourite sites. Today we'll be looking at amazing discoveries of 2018.

The archaeology of the Boyne Valley has long captured the imaginations of both experts and the public alike, from early medieval writers, through the work of antiquarians such as William Wilde (father of Oscar Wilde), to the excavations of the great sites of Newgrange and Knowth in the 1960s-1990s. In the summer of 2018 the Boyne Valley once again captured the attention and indeed the imagination of not only an Irish audience, but a truly global one.

The summer of 2018 was a very hot and dry one, and the arid conditions produced an unexpected result in the Irish countryside. Marks appeared in the crops in dried-out fields, showing where past humans had disturbed the soil in the past. This disturbed ground retained water ever so slightly better than natural soil and resulted in a slightly lusher or darker crops above the archaeological features. When viewed from the air, the marks became apparent.

(Fig. 1: Photo by Anthony Murphy/Mythical Ireland)

The first great discovery of the summer, one which immediately captured people’s attention, was detected on the northern bank of the Boyne, in a field immediately south west of the ridge of Newgrange. Aerial photographer Anthony Murphy of Mythical Ireland, was out one evening in July flying his drone-mounted camera when he noticed some interesting marks in a field south of the passage tomb, down near the river bank. Along with his colleague and fellow photographer Ken Williams of Shadows and Stones Photography, Murphy observed intriguing circular marks in the crop. The images he produced (Fig. 1) are exceptional in their crispness and clarity, and it is believed this is a henge, a type of circular enclosure used for assemblies. The composition and clarity of this henge is remarkable, c.150m in diameter.

The images of what was soon nicknamed ‘Dronehenge’ went viral across the world, as news outlets covered the remarkable discovery (see below for a seelction of news articles). Murphy even featured in a TV piece on Channel 4’s Hidden Britain by Drone: Heatwave Special (presenter Tony Robinson admitted they were cheating a little bit by going to Ireland to see the best cropmark feature!) and has since then written a book about his experiences

(Fig. 2: Photo by National Monuments Service)

More aerial discoveries followed as drones buzzed across the Boyne Valley, joined by an airplane survey by the National Monuments Service (Fig 2) which identified twenty-two previously unknown monuments! 

Marks in another crop, outlining the prehistoric barrow cemetery at Deenes near Duleek (Fig. 3), were photographed by Noel Meehan of Copter View. In some cases new monuments were discovered and are to be added to the national register, in other cases monuments that had only been visible through geophysical survey or historical record became apparent to the naked eye.

(Fig. 3: Photo by Noel Meehan/Copter View)

More archaeological sites appeared much later, when Google Earth updated their satellite imagery to include photos taken in July 2018. As a result, hundreds of new sites were identified by archaeologists and interested members of the public (Fig 4), with many added to the Sites and Monuments Record of the National Monuments Service.

(Fig. 4: Photo by Google Earth/ Site first reported by Dr Ciarán McDonnell)

We don't know exactly what Dronehenge was used for; was it a temple for ancient rituals? Or perhaps an assembly site for gatherings related to the ancient tombs of Brú na Bóinne. Archaeologists will certainly be kept busy studying this and other sites for years to come!

We will return to 2018, aka the ‘Summer of Archaeology’, soon for Armchair Archaeology. The Boyne Valley is one of the richest heritage landscapes in Europe, if not the world, and welcomes thousands of visitors every year to the monuments of Newgrange and Knowth, accessible through the newly-refurbished Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre.

 A selection of the international coverage may be seen here.

For more information keep up to date with the Boyne Valley newsletter.

Please note: the unauthorised use of drones is not permitted at National Monuments. See OPW for details.

We hope you've enjoyed this article on the wonderful Brú na Bóinne landscape. Stay tuned for many more, and in the meantime stay home and stay safe.