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!
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).