It’s the Winter Solstice! After today, the days get progressively longer and we’ve seen the darkest part of the season pass. What better time to take a look at one of Ireland’s most impressive ancient monuments, Newgrange. Every year on the solstices, the passage inside this megalithic tomb is illuminated by the dawning sun in the most remarkable feat of pre-Christian engineering in the country.

 

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Newgrange is located in the Boyne Valley in County Meath, Ireland. It was built by farmers of the Stone Age. It is 93 yards in diameter and 15 yards high. It takes up an area of about one acre. The passage in the tomb is 21 yards and leads into a chamber. This chamber has three alcoves. This passage and the Chamber line up with the sun as it rises on the Winter Solstice. There are 97 large stones with megalithic art that surround the tomb. The entrance stone is the most ornate. To access Newgrange, you most visit the Brú na Bóinne Visitors Centre.

Constructed 5,200 years ago, Newgrange is older than the Great Pyramids of Giza as well as Stonehenge. Newgrange is designated a World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, as are Knowth and Dowth which are similar mounds. The site was used with ritual significance well into the Iron age. There have been Roman coins found there and other Roman gold jewelry.

 

THE PURPOSE OF NEWGRANGE

 

Newgrange and the surrounding countryside in County Meath. (Macmillan Media / Tourism Ireland)

Newgrange and the surrounding countryside in County Meath. (Macmillan Media / Tourism Ireland)

 

Archaeologists have classified Newgrange as a passage tomb. However, it is now believed that Newgrange was more than that. It is more like an ancient temple. It has a religious and ceremonial importance. There have been various debates as to its original purpose, either as a place of worship for a “cult of the dead” or for an astronomically-based faith. Michael J. O’Kelly an archeologist in the 1960s and 1970s through the mounds around Ireland were proof of megalithic religion. This is referred to as the “cult of the dead.” This would be a form of a European Neolithic religion and that other megalithic monuments displayed evidence for as well. These are different religious beliefs that were based on solar rather than on the ancestor.

In other fields of work, there have been other interpretations of the functions of Newgrange. Some speculate that Newgrange centered around astronomy, engineering, geometry, and mythology. The sun did play a very important part in the religion of the Neolithic people. Some believe the room was there for ritual capturing of the sun rays which would obviously occur on the shortest day of the year. This may have signaled the days were going to become longer again. This view is stronger when you consider the alignments of the Lough Crew Cairns, Dowth, and Knowth.

There were once 37 stones around Newgrange but now only 12 remain. Carbon dating shows the stone circle may have been added 1,000 years later during the Bronze Age. However, this is a disputed viewpoint. The carbon date is from a standing stone that intersects with a timber post with a later date. The question is if the stone was simply moved and reset. However, this research does imply that Newgrange had continued use over 1,000 years. Another question is why only partial remains of five bodies have been found there.

 

NEWGRANGE AT THE SOLSTICE

 

The interior of the Newgrange passage at the Winter Solstice is flooded with sunlight.

The interior of the Newgrange passage at the Winter Solstice is flooded with sunlight. (Brian Morrison / Fáilte Ireland)

 

One time each year on the Winter Solstice the sun shines directly along the long passage there which shines into the inner chamber revealing carvings that are inside. The triple spiral that is on a wall in the chamber is especially highlighted. This lasts 17 minutes. The light enters through an opening known as the roof box. This is directly above the main entryway. The solar alignments are a regular occurrence with passage graves but this one is one of few to have the roof box. When viewed today the sun hits 4 minutes after sunrise. Calculations based on the precession of the planet show that about 5,000 years ago, the first light would have hit exactly at sunrise. The solar alignment at Newgrange is very precise.

Newgrange is a part of Eather Mounds that are along the River Boyne. All of them together are referred to as the Brú na Bóinne. Knowth is the largest but there are as many as 35 other mounds at the location. Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre is how you access the mounds. There is no direct public access to Newgrange by the road unless it is around the Winter Solstice. If you are using your GPS, the destination you would put in is the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre.

 

THE SYMBOLISM OF NEWGRANGE

 

The entrance to Newgrange as it appeared in the 19th century, prior to excavation. Clearly visible is the megalithic entrance stone with ornate spiral patterns. (Wikimedia Commons)

The entrance to Newgrange as it appeared in the 19th century, prior to excavation. Clearly visible is the megalithic entrance stone with ornate spiral patterns. (Wikimedia Commons)

 

The intent of those who built Newgrange was to mark the beginning of the new year. It may have also served of a symbol of life over death. Many come to Newgrange for the Winter Solstice. They gather and wait for dawn just as the farmers did so many thousands of years ago. There is a such a demand to be in the chamber that there is a free annual lottery to get to be inside. The forms are at the visitor center. The event greatly depends upon sunshine and if it is overcast there is not much to see. It is, however, an extraordinary feeling to be there in the darkness like so many before.

The other two principal mounds at the site are Knowth which is the largest mound and Dowth, which has not been excavated. Digging at Knowth was revealed in the 1960s to be complicated and a site developed over multi-periods. There are 18 tombs that are around the one great mound in the center. At least 2 of these are older than the main mound. Knowth was a place for rituals until the beginning of the Bronze Age. There is a gap from there until what is referred to as the time of Christ. At this time the mound was changed into a dwelling that was fortified. Settlement continued. By the year 800 AD it was a residence of Northern Brega Kings. Eventually, one because of the High King of Ireland. These are important factors however the passage tomb is where the landmarks fame and mystery are.

Of the three mounds, Newgrange gets the most attention. Since the chamber was disturbed before it could be properly excavated and cataloged, it is not known how many bodies were originally laid to rest at Newgrange. Only five bodies have been discovered but it is believed to be much higher. Most of the bones were cremated, only small amounts were not burned. The chamber in Newgrange has been accessible in modern times since 1699. Before then it was just an overgrown mound like Dowth is today. Due to superstition and respect for the dead, it was undisturbed for centuries.

Within Celtic mythology Newgrange with was once known as Si An Bhru, was home to great Celtic gods, such as the Dagda Mor and Aongus his son. Newgrange was always thought of as a sacred place.

 

New Pottery and a New Age

 

New people and ideas reached Ireland in 2,000 B.C. This is called the Beaker period and is known by distinctive pottery. Stone tools were still used but were being replaced with metal work. When the Beaker people lived near the mound, Newgrange was in disuse. The entry was blocked and had collapsed. The monument was still a gathering place. Within the passage-tomb they constructed a massive wood hendge or pit. It was a circle of wood posts that was 300 feet in diameter and inside animals were cremated. It was a religious center similar to when it was used as a tomb.

 

The Newgrange Circles

 

Boulders that stand upright circle Newgrange. There may have been more that were moved long ago. The stone circle is thought to have astrological significance. This was the end of the building at Newgrange.

When the Celts came, Newgrange was transformed into a home for their deities. It was sought out by visits as recent as 400 AD. Offerings and jewelry have been recovered.

Once the Cistercians at Mellifont Abbey in 1142 were established, the land around the monument was acquired by their order. It became a farm of the abbey and the passage was granted its modern name.

Though the chamber was opened in 1699, it was not until the 1960s that the first major excavations occurred. After the excavation, the passage was straightened and enclosed by a second passage which is now not seen to relieve pressure. The white quartz was rebuilt using stone found at the site, with the measurements taken from a collapsed retaining wall.

 

Newgrange’s Artwork

 

There is artwork in the tomb. It has always interested those who have visited the site. The art is spirals, triangles, chevrons, and other parallel lines and arcs.

The stones are also laid out dramatically. Designs are carved deeply. The entry stone is known as a fine achievement in Neolithic European art. Knowth has an even larger collection of art which also has inscriptions. It is even on the stone that is not visible which was found during excavations. It may not have been intended for living people to see, and rather for the dead. There have been many interpretations of the tomb art. Some say it looks like maps of stars, maps of the afterworld, or even maps of the area. Some see it as a device for meditation or that the images were created after taking hallucinogens. Others say it is music. The most common theory is that it is forms of the changing seasons.

 

VISITING NEWGRANGE

 

The site is open to the public throughout the whole year. Knowth is open from May to October. You must visit the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre, and you will be brought to the site by bus. There is a limit to how many can visit each day and you should be prepared for long delays when it is the busy season. Visit newgrange.com for more info.

 

 

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