Lonely Planet Newgrange: Ireland's Ancient East
I have been involved in heritage tourism for over thirty years since I first worked as a volunteer at the City of David Excavations in Jerusalem and later as an official guide to Rome and the Vatican and have been bringing groups of visitors and scholars to Newgrange for many years.
Newgrange gets its name from a monastic farm established by the Cistercian monks during the 12th century but the great tomb itself was built in the Neolithic or New Stone Age sometime between 3,370 and 2,920 BC while the area has been settled for over 7,000 years. It remained in use in different forms into the later Bronze Age and remained sacred for still longer. Gold artefacts and coins from the first to the fourth centuries AD may have been brought by pilgrims from the Roman Empire seeking to placate Irish Gods.
ancient Irish deity found at TaraIn Irish mythology it was known as Brú Na Bóinne, the home of the God Dagda and his wife Bóinne (the river Boyne), and later the burial place of the pagan kings of Tara. Newgrange and its surrounding tombs of Knowth and Dowth are one of only three world heritage sites in Ireland and can rightly claim to be Ireland’s answer to the Valley of the Kings.
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Great Stone Circle
Dating to the early Bronze Age, the Great Stone Circle surrounding Newgrange is the largest of its kind in Ireland although its significance was only discovered by chance in the 1980s. Once consisting of thirty-five to thirty-eight standing stones, although only twelve now survive, and originally measuring 105m in diameter, the circle is believed to have acted as an astronomical calendar, the shadows dividing the year into times of planting and times of harvest.
The decorated kerbstones built into the outside of the great passage tomb are part of a tradition of Neolithic art which spanned over 1000 years and stretched along the coast of western Europe from Spain to the Orkney Islands. Between them the tombs of Knowth, Dowth and Newgrange contain the greatest concentration of passage tomb art in Western Europe but other concentrations are found in Western Iberia and in Brittany.
The meaning of this complex array of abstract symbols including spirals, lozenges and triangles is unknown but the appearance of these symbols on the exterior of tomb is unique to Ireland. The most magnificent of these enigmatic megaliths is found at the entrance to passage, perhaps forming a symbolic barrier between the living and the dead, while a second highly decorated stone is found diametrically opposite, perhaps marking a “symbolic exit” on the opposite side of the tomb.
Having passed the entrance stone, visitors duck down into the passage, a tunnel of stone 19m long which leads into the heart of the mound. The passage is marked with some of the most beautifully executed Neolilithic art anywhere in the world. Individual decorated stones alternate with undecorated. Just before one reaches the inner chamber one is confronted with one of the most famous and accomplished pieces of Neolithic art in Ireland; a triple spiral framed by triple lines in a chevron pattern.
The Inner Chamber
The entrance passage terminates in a corbelled cruciform-shaped chamber over six metres high. The three recesses in the inner chamber are heavily decorated and once all of them contained large stone basins containing human remains although the basin in the central recess was shattered by a Connaught peasant who had dreamt that treasure was buried behind it.
This recess also contains what Dr Geraldine Stout, the foremost authority on Newgrange, has described as the “most exquisite carving to be found in the entire corpus of European Megalithic art”, the triple spiral known once only illuminate on the shortest day of the year. The chamber itself remained hidden for millennia after the tomb went out of use and was only rediscovered in 1699 by Charles Campbell, a territorial beneficiary of the Williamite victory at the Battle of the Boyne.
The Winter Solstice Event
Newgrange is justifiably famous for the astronomical alignment that occurs here at dawn on the winter solstice on the 21st of December. For 17 minutes of magic, the light of the rising sun, funnelled through a light-box constructed by its Neolithic builders, illuminates the passage and inner chamber, revealing one of the most extra-ordinary prehistoric art galleries in the world and marking the transition between the cold and death of winter and the rebirth of spring. Visitors to the mound at other times of the year can gain entry to the inner chamber and witness an inspiring recreation of this singular event in the heart of this great tomb.