Newgrange: Learning about the Prehistoric Past, Today

On a hill in Northern Ireland, in County Meath, overlooking the River Boyne, near the coast of the Irish Sea, sits Newgrange, a prehistoric structure dating to the New Stone-Age. It attracts some 200,000 visitors from around the world each year. Archeologists have formally designated the structure at Newgrange, Ireland as a "passage tomb," but many scholars speculate the site may have primarily been built to serve as a temple. Little is known about the ancient, mysterious Neolithic civilization who constructed Newgrange. Others characterize the site's designers and builders as having been part of "a wealthy farming community." One thing is certain; the structure at Newgrange resonates with some part the human spirit, opening a tangible connection into the distant past like few other places on Earth, drawing us to the Irish countryside en masse with the hope to connect with prehistory.

View of an Ancient Place

Approaching Newgrange, one sees a rounded, earthen mound, ringed by ancient granite stones arranged horizontally around the perimeter. Some of these "kerbstones" are carved with intricate designs; two of them - one in front, one in back - are intricately carved sculptures, viewed by some as priceless art in their own right. Estimates of the amount of material used to construct Newgrange put the number at some 200,000 tons of earth and stone. A distinctive, yet out-of-place white wall of quartz hugs the front of the mound and is situated in front of the kerbstones. This structure was installed between the late 1960s and the early 1970s as a means of protecting the ancient tomb. Many have criticized the addition of the quartz wall, arguing it is intrusive and greatly detracts from the historical accuracy of Newgrange. Entering the tomb itself, one is enveloped in stone. The structure is entirely solid rock save for a 19-meter passageway (62 feet) that measures just under one-meter wide (three feet). The passageway rises in height as one walks further in, opening into a 5.2-meter-long (17 feet), cross-shaped burial chamber with a dome-like, arching roof whose center measures 6 meters (20 feet) high.

What We Know About Those Who Built Newgrange

Although advances in modern science in the last several decades, especially in fields such as paleontology, biology, archaeology and even paleoneurology, have allowed us to peer into and even authentically recreate large portions of humanity's past, we will likely never precisely know the people who built the passage tomb at Newgrange, Ireland. It's a near-certainty we'll never put names or faces to the designers or builders of this ancient site in Ireland. Newgrange itself, however, reveals a lot about who these people were. Radiocarbon dating of the site suggests it was built circa 3200 B.C., making the tomb at Newgrange over five millennia old.

Regardless of whether Newgrange is in indeed the oldest structure in the world (it could, in the least, certainly vie for that title), at more than 5,000 years old, it is older than both the ancient pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge in England. The people who built Newgrange may have been pagans; they may have been limited to the stone tools, weapons and building equipment characteristic of their age; they may have been primitive in the sense they lived in prehistoric times; they may have been superstitious; but one thing they apparently were not is uncivilized. Neither were they oblivious to astronomy, architecture or science. Newgrange is, in fact, testament to a civilization with a sophisticated understanding the Earth's movement around the sun and of how the two celestial bodies, in concert with the moon, align with the changing seasons.

Unlocking the Mysteries of Newgrange: The Winter Solstice

Tourists will hear the term "winter solstice" many times at Newgrange. Ireland weather, while temperate and mild in modern times, with a year-round average temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit, was likely different five millennia ago. Whatever the case, one can't help suspecting there was a sense of reverence for Earth's coldest season among the engineers and builders as they designed and constructed Newgrange. Winter solstice - Dec. 21 in the northern hemisphere - is the day of the year when the tilt of the Earth's axis puts the North Pole at its farthest angle relative to the sun. Although the Earth's orbit actually reaches its shortest distance from the sun on Dec. 21, winter solstice marks the official first day of winter; it is also marks the day with the most hours of night. Interestingly, after Dec. 21, the hours of daylight begin to slowly, but steadily increase until, at summer solstice on June 21, they reach their maximum and again begin the steady decline toward winter.

A Shrine to Winter

The true wonder of the Newgrange tomb comes once yearly during winter solstice. Ancient engineers designed a small opening above the entranceway - called a roof box - which is perfectly aligned with the sun during winter solstice. On the first day of winter, as the sun moves across the sky, a beam of sunlight creeps toward the roof box at the entranceway of Newgrange. Winter solstice, at the precise moment it occurs, brings that shaft of sunlight into perfect focus on the roof box. Light floods in, beaming through the passageway and blazing into the burial chamber. The effect actually lasts for five days, beginning two days before solstice on Dec. 19 and ending two days after on Dec. 23. The man who discovered the roof box, Michael Kelly, was also the first to experience the Newgrange winter solstice effect. Kelly would later write that the sunlight pouring into the structure was so bright he didn't need a lantern to see. Kelly could, in fact, see the very top of the burial chamber roof.

Based on the structure's precise alignment with the winter solstice sun, some have speculated Newgrange was more temple than tomb. People believe that it was a celebration of the transition from the darkest time of year into a time of light and renewal. We'll probably never know for certain what the designers and builders intended when they constructed Newgrange nor how the structure was actually used during its some 1,000 years in service. One thing is without question though; even after 5,000 years, we are still fascinated and enthralled by Newgrange. Winter solstice brings a new group into the chamber each year, a select few who win the right to experience the chamber's solstice effect firsthand through a Newgrange lottery. The names of fifty winners are drawn each year - 10 for each day of the solstice effect. These lucky few are allowed to stand in the chamber during the solstice effect and experience the true majesty of this structure; it's a magic that has weathered 5,000 years of time, stretching down through the millennia to connect us with our human ancestry and with the Earth itself.

Despite a lack of physical evidence that Newgrange was primarily designed and used as an actual tomb, human and animal remains have been uncovered there. The remains of two human burials and three human cremations have been discovered at Newgrange during excavation work. Whether this site was used as a tomb, as a temple, or whether it was constructed as some sort of elaborate, ancient-world calendar, there's no denying its pull on the human imagination. Rarely can one step foot into a structure boasting over 5,000 years of history. That such a marvel could even survive the millennia is nothing short of miraculous.

If you you're planning a trip Ireland, Newgrange should most certainly be on your list of destinations. Don't expect to visit this ancient passage tomb via your own vehicle, though. The isolated site can only be accessed through the Bru na Boinne Visitor Centre, Ireland.

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