Friday, December 20, 2013

Home of the Winter Solstice

Sunlight can only enter the tumulus chamber
for 20 minutes on midwinter day 
by Arthur Russell

The Neolithic tumulus of Newgrange on the northern bank of the River Boyne in Ireland has become a place of pilgrimage at this time if year for people who want to witness the phenomenon of the Winter Solstice sunrise as it sends a thin shaft of sunlight right to the back of the chamber deep within the circular mound, which was constructed over 5000 years ago by the earliest dwellers of the Boyne Valley. It is the only time of year that this happens and represents an impressive logistical and technical achievement for the society that created it.

The Newgrange tumulus structure predates the Giza pyramids in Egypt by 500 years; Stonehenge on the sister island of Great Britain by a millennium. It bears witness to a level of building prowess as well as astronomical awareness which is truly amazing. 

The unique “Solstice effect” is created by the precise alignment of the rising sun on the shortest day of the year with the back of the chamber and the window box over the entrance to the 19 metre passage which joins the chamber to the outside world. 

The passage is lined by a series of large stones which weigh several tons each. The mound is encircled by a series of huge kerbstones, most with distinctive carvings. Each stone that makes up the monument had to be dragged for many kilometers to be finally put in place; this at a time when only man and horse power was available to perform such tasks. It is also speculated that the several stones in the structure which did not originate from the local area had to be transported by boat from sites along the east coast of Ireland, via the Boyne estuary. It is estimated that the building project must have taken a huge commitment in terms of time and labour from the society who devised, planned and built it. It is thought the work was done over a prolonged period involving at least 2 but possibly more generations of that society. This indicates a peaceful and stable society who had the peace and freedom to see such a complex project through from beginning to end. 

Outside, the base of the mound
is retained by 97 large stones,
lying horizontally, many of which
have beautifully carved designs:
spirals, lozenges, zigzags, and other
ancient symbols. The huge stone at
the entrance is the most famous of
all; especially the carvings of a
triple spiral, double spirals,
concentric semi-circles, and lozenges
similar to those found at Gavrinis.

Above the entrance is a 'roof-box', which precisely aligns with the rising sun at the winter solstice so that the rays touch the ground at the very centre of the tomb for about 20 minutes. Many of the upright stones along the walls of the 19 metres (62ft) passage, which follows the rise of the hill, are also richly decorated. The cruciform chamber inside the mound measures 6.5 x 6.2m, has three recesses, and is topped by a magnificent corbelled roof reaching to a height of 6m above the floor. In the recesses are three massive stone basins that presumably had some ritual purpose.

The distinctive trifoliate carving in the chamber
which symbolizes life, death and eternity
The Newgrange monument raises many questions that can never be satisfactorily answered.

Did it and the nearby satellite sites at Knowth and Dowth have a purely religious focus? Or was the focus on sun worship. i.e was Newgrange a monument of light?

Another theory is that its main focus was ancestor worship?
The reasoning for this is that the tumulus was designed to be a complex repository for the cremated remains of the great and the good of Neolithic society that were found in the huge stone basins in the chamber when it was discovered? Or was it a curious mixture of all three?

What is certain is that 5000 years ago there was a relatively sophisticated society living in the Boyne Valley who had the knowledge and ability to read the skies above them, who were able to follow through to make such impressive constructions using Stone Age technology.

Who were these people who lived on a remote island in north western Europe which had not so long emerged from the Ice Age - and what became of them?

The likelihood is that they and their culture continued to exist and evolve over the aeons; but had to accept and absorb the impositions of later influxes and invasions of tribes from Europe, who brought their own beliefs and technology to help form what eventually evolved into what was to become the ancient Gaelic culture which preceded Christianity when it arrived in the 5th century AD. This probably explains why the monuments fell into disuse, and out of memory until they were rediscovered in more recent centuries.

The passage entrance kerbstone (with distinctive carvings);
along with the window box through which sunlight enters
the chamber on mid-winter day.
The tumulus was “lost” after the Neolithic era, though the nearby site of Rossnaree was reputed to be the burial place for a succession of Irish High Kings until early Christian times; a fact which spawned its own share of myths and legends centred on the same area located on the bend of the river Boyne. Newgrange lived on in folklore until it was accidentally discovered by the landowner of the site in 1699 AD. It quickly became an object of interest to antiquarians some of whom conducted superficial excavations and who could only guess at its role and purpose.

An extensive excavation was initiated under the guidance of Professor M J O’Kelly which started in 1962 and finished in 1975. This comprehensive study yielded much valuable information that allowed academics to reach significant conclusions on the purpose of the complex. Despite this, the monument retains its aura of mystery which will probably never be completely deciphered. Also as part of the investigative work, the site was developed so that it could be opened to the public in the site now called “Brú na Bóinne” (The Boyne Centre). It is one of the main tourist sites in Ireland which hosts streams of visitors every year in its excellent interpretive centre which endeavors to explain the Newgrange and Boyne valley phenomenon. Every year at Solstice time, crowds gather to be present as the sun emerges over the high ground to the east. The sunlight is reflected off the white quartz façade which has been rebuilt around the main entrance. A lucky few visitors, who are chosen by lottery months before; are allowed to enter the chamber to witness the yearly miracle of sunlight shining into the chamber.

How the Newgrange monument works

Archaeologists believe that the chamber at the end of the passage was designed to be a place for a ritualistic “capturing of the sun” or “sun temple” on the shortest day of the year. The object is to mark the lowest point or “turning” of the year; and to anticipate the gradual return of the sun as deepest Winter slowly turns to Spring.  From now on days are set to get longer, nights get shorter. Only on these 2-3 shortest days of the year, and for a period of less than 20 minutes on those mornings, starting at 8.50 GMT; does a thin shaft of sunlight come through the window-box over the entrance to the tumulus, and penetrate to the base of the back wall of the stony chamber.  This illuminates the entire chamber with a light, which many describe as “magical”.

The Newgrange tumulus.
Foreground - the River Boyne
The chamber contains large dish shaped rocks in which deposits of burnt and unburnt bones were found when the tumulus was discovered in 1699. Analysis and carbon dating of surviving remnants established that these dated from 3200 BC, predating Egypt’s Pyramids by half a millennium.

The Winter Sun shines into this resting place for the dead at a time when the forces of darkness and death in nature are considered to be at their strongest. The precise alignment with the winter solstice sunrise at Newgrange is further strengthened by the discovery of similar sun alignments in the nearby Neolithic sites of Knowth and Dowth; as well as the Loughcrew cairns, 30 kilometers to the northwest. Loughcrew actually predates the Boyne Valley site by several centuries. While the cairns there are much simpler structures, this suggests that the Boyne Valley complex probably represents a steady development and evolution of knowledge and building prowess in a society which made careful study of the sun’s changes throughout the year and wanted to honour the unfailing cycle of decline and recovery which these changes represented.

We can never really be sure of what was in the minds of the creators of Newgrange and similar Neolithic sites in Ireland, Britain and Continental Europe, as they built these awesome monuments to life, death and resurrection.

Inevitably Newgrange will forever keep its secrets; while this and future generations will continue to wonder about them.

Solstice place, cave of Death
Sun's abode on darkest day
Passing aeons
 have never changed
The yearly tryst
 to light your walls

The world in death looks back in mourning
Looks out expectant
 to new Spring dawning
No Resurrection without a birth

A Christmas pledge in lightened tomb?

Newgrange and its associated Neolithic sites of Knowth and Dowth in the Boyne valley are now a UNESCO World Heritage site called Bru na Bóinne, which shares many characteristics with similar but much smaller Neolithic sites in Orkney (Maeshowe), Wales (Bryn Celli Ddu), and Brittany in France (Gavrinis).

Note - Newgrange gets its modern name from the fact that by 1142 AD, the site had become part of the nearby Cistercian Mellifont Abbey farm. Such farms were known as “granges”. By the 14th century the site was known as the 'New Grange'. In early Irish mythology, Newgrange was not only considered the burial place of the prehistoric kings of Tara, but also the home of a race of Irish supernatural beings, known as 'Tuatha de Danann' : the people of the goddess Danu. Newgrange was also considered in preChristian times to be the house of the patriarchal god Dagda.

Arthur Russell, author of this post; is a native of Co Meath, Ireland. He is author of the Historic fiction book ‘Morgallion’ which was published in April 2012. ‘Morgallion’ tells the story of Cormac MacLochlainn and his exploits during the invasion of Ireland by Edward Bruce, brother of King Robert of Scotland, in 1314.

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1 comment:

  1. I also think it's fascinating that one of the other mounds in the Boyne complex, Dowth 'darkness', has a similar alignment in is focused on the setting sun at Midwinter Solstice. This is the same at Stonehenge, which is aligned to Midwinter Sunset, while the timber monument at nearby Durrington Walls is aligned on Midwinter solstice sunrise. I wonder if one was to bring new 'life' to the dead and the living community, and the other to take spirits of the recently departed 'into the West' which was the Land of the Dead or the Otherworld in many cultures. I have actually written about the Stonehenge complex and its alignments on the Winter Solstice at


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