Winter Solstice at Newgrange, Co. Meath, Ireland

This morning I came across an article about the winter solstice celebration and event at Newgrange, in Ireland. I visited Newgrange two summers ago while I was taking a course at NUI Maynooth, and was absolutely enthralled with the location. Seeing the solstice there is at the top of my ‘Life List’ (the more positive counterpart of the Bucket List). In any case, below is the article about the winter solstice event at Newgrange, followed my an older blog post I wrote about a year ago, featuring the history, archaeology and preservation of the site at Newgrange, which is clearly a personal favorite. Enjoy!

image[2]

“For much of the last century, you could wander unannounced into Newgrange. You could even enter the tomb’s main passageway and chamber by getting the key from a local woman who acted as caretaker.

To say the State adopted a laissez-faire approach to the care and maintenance of western Europe’s most spectacular prehistoric monument is an understatement.

Even after the solar alignment was discovered, and as recently as the 1980’s, booking a place at the annual solstice event required little more than a politely worded letter to the Office of Public Works.

Visiting the site was something of a minority pursuit; not exactly the preserve of historians and archaeologists, but not high on the public’s radar either. Fast-forward to the present, and things have changed.

This year 30,000 people applied for one of the 50 places available to witness the solstice from inside the tomb. The site receives about 230,000 visitors a year, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the public’s appetite as the authorities limit the daily footfall for conservation reasons.

image[3]

Perhaps we’ve been slow to appreciate the site’s significance or maybe the increasing interest has something to do with the fall-off in traditional religious practice. Whatever the case, the monument’s solar alignment, first documented in 1967 by archaeologist Michael J O’Kelly, is now an established part of the Christmas calendar.

Archaeologists can be reluctant to talk about religion, but Newgrange is the manifestation of religious belief, says Prof Gabriel Cooney of UCD’s school of archaeology.

“At the heart of all religious systems is an understanding and celebration of the seasonal cycle of natural and human life – and that is what Newgrange does.

“Today, we celebrate that long-gone world and the achievement of Neolithic ancestors, who were able, through the alignment of the monument, to capture the turning of the year, the sense of renewal and rebirth, which is an idea at the heart of Christmas. We should not be surprised, then, that the monument has become central to Christmas celebrations,” he says.

Feat of engineering
Of course, you don’t have to be interested in the spiritual leanings of our Neolithic ancestors to appreciate the monumental feat of engineering at Newgrange. The tomb sits on top of an elongated ridge overlooking a large bend in the river Boyne. The structure supports about 200,000 tons of earth and stone within its fabric and was built some time around 3,100 BC – about 600 years before the pyramids and 1,000 years before Stonehenge.

The main passageway and dome are formed from the juxtaposition of huge megaliths, quarried in Clogher Head near Drogheda, 22km away, and most likely shipped there by sea and river, and then log-rolled into position.

The stones are held in place by their own weight, each countering the force of neighboring stones. With the help of sea sand and burnt soil to fill the gaps, they’they’ve kept the interior dry for 5,000 years.

The structure’s retaining wall is encircled with 97 stones, many decorated with spirals, triangles, concentric circles, arrangements of parallel lines and arcs. The most common motifs are lozenges and zig-zag chevrons. They may be Neolithic doodles, geographical maps or astronomical charts; nobody is certain.

The purpose of passage tombs such as Newgrange, and its sister sites in Knowth and Dowth, is still debated. The Neolithic era stretches from 10,000 BC to 2,000 BC, and is marked by the introduction of farming.

Farming societies
Prof Cooney says the building of monuments was one of the defining characteristics of early farming societies in western Europe. “Where passage tombs have not been disturbed and are archaeologically excavated, they have been found to contain the carefully placed, cremated bones of people,” he says. “Objects that were with the dead when they were cremated on a pyre were placed with the cremated bone. Hence the passage tombs can be seen as places where the dead from previous generations were remembered.

“The architecture and art that we find in the tombs combined to make these ancestral places of continuing importance to the living. It was central to their cosmology, their understanding of the world,” he says.

For more than 4,000 years, Newgrange lay hidden from the world until Scottish landowner Charles Campbell, who had inherited the land after the Battle of the Boyne, sent his labourers out looking for building stone in 1699. They uncovered the site, thinking at first it was a cave.

For many, the awe-inspiring feature is the structure’s solar orientation – only about 5 per cent of passage tombs are aligned to the cosmos. Because the floor of the burial chamber is two metres higher than the floor at the entrance, little or no light can reach the inner recesses for most of the year.

However, at dawn, from December 19th to 23rd, a narrow beam of light creeps slowly up along the tomb’s passageway, gradually entering the chamber and lighting on a triple spiral embossed stone at the back of the chamber.

As the sun rises higher in sky, the beam widens, illuminating the chamber. The event, which begins at 8.58am, lasts 17 minutes.

To ensure this alignment occurred, the tomb builders fitted the structure with a special roof box, located roughly 2.5m from the entrance. Excavators originally mistook this for some sort of false lintel.

Prof O’Kelly, who excavated and restored the site between 1962 and 1975, was the first to document the purpose of this roof box.

“I was literally astounded. The light began as a thin pencil and widened to a band of about six inches. There was so much light reflected from the floor that I could walk around inside without a lamp and avoid bumping off the stones. It was so bright I could see the roof 20ft above me,” he recounted at the time.

“I expected to hear a voice, or perhaps feel a cold hand resting on my shoulder, but there was silence. And then, after a few minutes, the shaft of light narrowed as the sun appeared to pass westward across the slit, and total darkness came once more.”

Prof Tom Ray, an astrophysicist in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, said the Earth’s orbital “wobble” has altered the timing of the solstice event.

“You now have to wait about 10 minutes after sunrise before the light enters the chamber, but in 3,100 BC it would have been perfectly aligned with the first rays of sunrise.”

The light beam is also about one to two metres shorter, barely reaching the back wall of the main chamber, in contrast to the original orientation, he said.

Prof Ray said the structure will again be perfectly aligned with the sunrise in about 5,000-6,000 years’ time.

Who knows if the structure will still be capturing sunrise on the darkest days of the year five millenniums from now or what future generations will make of this Neolithic salute to the heavens.”

Read the full article here.

Wakeman_Newgrange_tumulus_chamber_cross_section

And now, I thought I would share an older post I wrote about the history of Ireland’s Newgrange. I have been slowly attempting to relocate articles from my previous blog, so expect to see a bit more of this sort of thing in the future, when relevant new material surfaces. (This post also includes a fairly comprehensive description of the phases of development, excavation and construction of Newgrange – great for sourcing if you’re researching or writing a paper). Most of the photographs are my own.

282206_10151824419465023_462802282_n

This picture actually demonstrates my first ever view of Newgrange, taken from a smaller mound site just a few miles away. My excitement at seeing this sight was indescribable. As an undergraduate, I did a research project on the site of Newgrange for an Archaeological Methods course. Now, after having actually been to the site, I am revisiting the research I compiled for that project, and interspersing it with my own personal experiences upon visiting this ancient landmark.

Newgrange is a neolithic passage-tomb (or tumulus), in County Meath, Ireland, in close proximity to the River Boyne (making it part of the Brú na Bóinne complex). The mound is estimated to have been constructed between 3100 and 2900 BCE. In terms of its original usages, these are hard to determine due to the current preserved state of the mound, and the lack of material remains inside. The mound holds some association with the winter solstice (which I will discuss shortly), and also may have once held the remains of Ireland’s leaders. I will begin with more of the history and archaeology of the site, and will then discuss its presumed usages.

It is important to understand what’s going on underneath the mound that is so iconographic of Newgrange. The diagram to above demonstrates the structures beneath the earthen mound, specifically the long passage to the interior tomb, which itself is situated beneath a unique corbelled vault above the circular tomb. On each of the four sides of the interior, there are rock-cut chambers, presumably each tombs. I wasn’t allowed to take photographs inside the tomb, but here are some images I found online of what’s going on in the interior.

Knowth-roof

To the left is a shot of looking straight up at the ceiling, when standing right in the middle of the circular interior of Newgrange. What you’re looking at is the corbel-vaulted roof, that allows for thousands of pounds of earth to sit on top of this ancient tomb without crushing it. Really a brilliant breakthrough in Neolithic architectural technology, this tapered roof-design is entirely held together by the single, flat stone at the very top (center of the image), that puts pressure on all the others, thereby holding the entire structure in place. This architectural innovation is used again and again throughout architectural history, often referred to as the capstone or keystone.

This image shows the narrow passage that you have to walk through to get into the tomb. The picture actually makes it look very wide and illuminated, but in reality, you are in almost complete darkness, and there are some portions where you literally have to turn sideways and crouch down to squeeze between the walls. Claustrophobics out there, do not proceed.

newgrange

Another odd tidbit was that when walking through this passage, we had to take off our backpacks and carry them at our feet. One, because we simply wouldn’t have been able to squeeze between the tight areas with them on, and two because of the fear of destroying the intricate stone art by brushing up against it. You can kind of see how it opens up inside, revealing four separate chambers (presumably tombs).

Anyways, I’ve kind of started backwards here, inside out. So now we’ll take a look at the exterior of Newgrange. However, this can’t be discussed without a prior explanation of the site’s archaeological history.
350px-Bru_na_Boinne_Squire
The location of Newgrange was always known to those who lived in proximity of it (after all, its a huge mound). In the late seventeenth-century, the site was being used as a quarry due to its large number of stones (the same stones that now make up the white and grey retaining wall). Local Charles Campbell discovered the entrance to the tomb, and performed some rudimentary excavations at the site.
The first true archaeological excavation on the site didn’t take place until 1962 however, and was undertaken by Irish archaeologist Michael J. O’Kelly. O’Kelly is very often blamed for defacing this historic site, which I will discuss in length shortly. To the right is an image of what the site probably looked like to O’Kelly when he began excavation. O’Kelly set out to uncover as much information as possible regarding the builders of Newgrange, and its potential usages throughout history. What he discovered were several phases of construction and subsequent occupation.
before-excavation
PHASES OF CONSTRUCTION

 
Phase 0: A small earthen mound with interior passage tomb is constructed on the site of Newgrange in the Boyne valley (not the same mound or tomb that exists there currently).
Phase 1: The current tomb is constructed at the Newgrange site, covered with a small earthen mound resembling a tumulus. Probably would have looked something like the mound at Dowth, not far from Newgrange.
Phase 2: Both the passage to the tomb, and the mound itself are extended in length
Phase 3: An even larger earthen-mound is constructed that completely covers the passage and tomb beneath. At this point in time, this is the only tumulus of its kind in Ireland.

598642_10151824418470023_613358934_n

Phase 4: The earthen-mound is extended even further.
Along with the various phases of construction associated with Newgrange, there are also several prehistoric layers (each accompanied with a different phase of occupation of the site). In what is referred to as the quartz/granite layer, there was a predominance of angular white quartz and grey cobbles discovered. These are the same stones that now make up the wall around the mound. O’Kelley believed that the predominance of these stones indicated that they once formed a retaining wall surrounding the mound. This was in fact, not the case, but O’Kelley made the decision to build the wall. On one hand, the wall has become a famous iconic representation of this historic site. On the other, it has damaged Newgrange’s archaeological integrity.
538651_10151824420390023_795832952_n
Below the layer with the stone was what is referred to as the Earth/Stone Layer. A lot of archaeological material was discovered within this layer,  including multitudes of snail shells, animal bones, flint carvings, etc. This was a layer in which much human activity had taken place. Due to a large number of the animal bones having been from pigs, it is believed that a large amount of ceremonial pagan activity might have taken place during this occupation. However, this might also have something to do with the fact that the pig was a popular domesticated animal, whose population could replenish so fast that large numbers could be killed for subsistence purposes.
“The earth/stone layer was considered by O’Kelly to have been created and deposited by an ordinary domestic settlement due to the many postholes, pits, stone-set hearths and artefacts and the great amount of waste.” (Palle Eriksen)
Other archaeological materials discovered at the site include pottery sherds from the Beaker culture, a transient Germanic group dating between 2800 and 1800 BCE, as well as Roman coinage that can be dated between 320 and 337 CE.
There are many other features to the site, these including the megalithic stones surrounding the mound and a smaller mound just adjacent to Newgrange, but my knowledge of those is limited. Therefore, I’m going to continue with my own experience at the site.

550560_10151824421055023_1785859501_n

Walking around the site, it becomes very clear that many of the symbols inscribed onto the megalithic stones are strong influences upon Celtic art, and contemporary representations of it. To the right is an image of the threshold stone that sits in front of the entrance to the passage tomb. It is covered with Celtic spiral designs. Note the famous triple-spiral to the left. This stone actually represents the earliest usage of this popular art-historical symbol.
Anyways, back to my visit to the site. So, as I said before, we went into the small entrance to the passage, and then made our way down the tiny passage-way into the central tomb area. The passage and tomb were lighted artificially, for obvious reasons. Once everyone was inside, the tour guide turned off all the lights – and let me just say, I have never experienced darkness like that in my entire life. It was almost nerve-wracking  it was just sooo dark.
newsfile
Then, they showed us a reenactment of Newgrange’s solstice event. Basically, Newgrange’s construction was completed in such a way that on the mornings of the winter solstice, the light from the sun directly aligns with the small rectangular window above the tomb’s entrance (the “roof-box”). The ray of sun slowly creeps down the passage, and at its peak, illuminates the entire interior of the tomb. This demonstrates a complex understanding of the solar system and  architectural design. It was absolutely awesome to see in person.
Below is me, in front of Newgrange looking like a total nerd. But anyways, this side was absolutely fascinating – definitely one of my favorite of the many great sites we visited in Ireland.
Further Reading:
– Excellent article by Palle Eriksen: “The Great Mound of Newgrange: An Irish Multi-Period Mound Spanning from the Megalithic Tomb Period to the Early Bronze Age”
600302_10151824421520023_934377382_n
Advertisements

2 responses to “Winter Solstice at Newgrange, Co. Meath, Ireland

  1. Great post! See you tomorrow Fri 20Dec @Glebe house – Solstice Experience held by wise Elders and Healers of Ireland http://www.wintersolstice.ie – Sacredly holding the rebirth within…
    Solstice 2013 Timetable

    Solstice eve 20 December Friday@ Glebe House:
    • 18.30 – Arrivals & Tea
    • 19.00 – Body Waves

    • 20.30 –Opening space with Dolores (main hall)
    • 21.00 – Sweat Lodge/Dowth Drumming Circle+Sound healing

    • 00.00 Supper (cafeteria)
    • Large communal sleeping space (main hall)
    • Chatting space & Teas (cafeteria)

    • 7.00-‘Mythology of Newgrange’ by Anthony Murphy
    • 7:45- Sunrise procession to Newgrange
    • Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine ritual at Newgrange

    • 10:30 Breakfast (main hall)

    • 11:15 ‘Being spiritual warriors in the world today’ by Sifu Nicki Costello
    • 12.00 Closing space

    13.00 end/dance/clean-up/lifts

  2. Perfect example of the Celtic Art. Kind of reminds me of the Pictish stones in Scotland. I wonder what the meaning of the spiral was….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s