During my adventure to Ireland, I was fortunate enough to be able visit one of, if not the most important Neolithic site in Europe – Newgrange burial chamber, the most famous structure within the Brú na Bóinne complex. Having stood for over 5200 years and containing the highest concentration of Neolithic art in Europe this ancient wonder actually predates Stonehenge in England, in its original form by 200 years, but its present form by a massive 500 years and predates the Great Pyramid of Giza by roughly 700 years. Needless to say…. It’s old.
The structure itself is massive, with the mound being 85 meters in diameter, and 13 meters high, and through the ornate stone door is a 19 meter long passageway (about a third of the way into the centre of the structure), which leads to a chamber with a corbelled roof and three smaller chambers, with each of these having a large “basin stone” where the bones of the dead may have been deposited during prehistoric times. In fact, the bones of three dogs were found within the chamber, along with a huge number of unburnt human bone fragments. The mound is ringed by 97 large kerbstones, some of which are engraved with multiple intricate symbols. Like many passage tombs, on the morning of the winter solstice, the passage is illuminated for around 17 minutes by the sun’s rays, through a ‘roofbox’ above the passage entrance hitting the floor of the inner chamber. Today this occurs around 4 minutes after sunrise, but calculations based on the precession of the earth show that 5000 years ago, first light would have hit the back wall of the chamber upon which a beautiful triskelion is carved. Around the structure, there is a circle of standing stones of which 12 survive out of a possible 35-ish, but most archaeologists suggest these were added later during the Bronze age.
Due to there being no written documentation regarding the building of Newgrange, its true purpose is unknown, but the area is littered with clues. Archaeologists classified Newgrange as a passage tomb, however, it is now recognised as so much more, with the term ancient temple now being a more fitting classification with it being identified as a centre of astrological, spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance, similar to the giant cathedrals of today. Many archaeologists believe the monument had religious significance either as place of worship for an astronomically based faith, or a “cult of the dead”. Archaeologist Michael J. O’Kelly believed Newgrange, along with the hundreds of other passage tombs built in Ireland at the time showed evidence for a religion that venerated the dead as one of its core principals. He believed that this “cult of the dead” was just one form of European Neolithic religion, and that other monuments displayed evidence for different beliefs that were solar-orientated rather than ancestor-orientated. Theories about its purpose from studies in other fields expertise offer alternative interpretations of its functions which principally centre around mythology, astronomy, engineering and geometry. It’s speculated the sun played a large importance to the Neolithic people, with one idea being that the chamber was designed for ritualistically capturing the sun rays on the shortest day of the year during the solstice which may have signalled the long, dark days would finally start to get longer again. This view is strengthened by the discovery of alignments in Knowth, Dowth and the Lough Crew Cairns leading to the interpretation of these monuments as astronomical or calendrical devices. There are also theories surrounding the connection to sun light and the cycles of rebirth and renewal, thought by some to be represented in the circular, swirling artwork.
Some astounding prehistoric finds at the location include seven ‘marbles’, four pendants, 2 beads, a used flint flake, a bone chisel and fragments of bone pins and points. Many more were found but have over the years have either been removed and went missing or are held in private collections. However, some of these were recorded and are typical of Neolithic Irish passage grave assemblages. In addition to prehistoric finds, Roman jewellery including 2 gold torcs, a golden chain and 2 rings (which are now held in the British museum) a number of Roman coins have been found, with the first recorded find in 1699 and were still being found as late as the 1960s.
Newgrange was constructed using only primitive tools, by a farming community that prospered within the Boyne Valley. Geological analysis indicates the thousands of pebbles and rocks that make up the cairn together would weigh about 200,000 tonnes. Many were brought from the nearby Boyne river, however most of the 547 slabs that make up the inner passage may have been brought from sites around 5km away, as well as the rocky beach at Clogherhead, County Louth around 20km away. The façade and entrance were built with white quartz cobblestones from the Wicklow Mountains 50km south of the site – however they were originally discovered on the floor of the site, so it is unknown if the current reconstruction is accurate, with some believing they would have been used as a glittering walkway. The dark, rounded granodiorite cobbles are from the Mourne Mountains 50km to the north, which given transport at the time would have been a phenomenal undertaking. It’s believed these stones were transported to Newgrange by sea, then up the river Boyne fastened to the underside of boats at low tide. None of the structural slabs were quarried, this is shown by them being weathered naturally so must have been collected then transported – making the process even more difficult by having to actually find the right slabs. The mound itself is built of alternating layers of earth and stones with grass growing on top, and what is remarkable about this construction is that the ancient people here used sand from nearby beaches and the river Boyne to fill any gaps, meaning even over 5000 years later, despite the unrelenting rain of Ireland the passage is still watertight, something which the builders of my secondary school weren’t even able to manage.
Newgrange itself is in such a beautiful location, wherever you look there are satellite tombs dotted here and there, and multiple reconstructed and original tombs to explore around the Knowth area of the Brú na Bóinne complex, with incredible, inspiring rock art at every turn. The place just feels like it’s filled with energy and magic and really shows we do not give the ancients and our ancestors enough credit for the incredible structures they created and the things they achieved. I do wonder if they had any idea, over 5000 years later they’d have a random 30 yr. old goth bumbling round with a camera completely overwhelmed by their achievements, or if they contemplated that 5000 years later they’d even still be standing. Along with my own images of the site as it currently looks, I’ve included an image taken of Newgrange as it looked before restoration and clearing in the 1800s.