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Imagine yourself transplanted 4000 years in time to an ancient Irish landscape. You are poling a small boat up the River Boyne, and high on a hill in the near distance you see the sunlight dancing off the white quartz and granite facade of what is already a time-honored and mysterious monument--the huge passage tomb of Newgrange. Even now, in the early 21st century, one cannot approach this sacred site without being moved by the power and discipline its creation required. Four thousand years ago, the sight of it, gleaming from its high place above the river, would have struck awe in the hearts and minds of all who saw it. Then as now, the monuments of the Brú na Bóinne, the Palace of the Boyne, have possessed the power to overwhelm visitors.
Constructed in stages over several centuries between 3200 and 2700 B.C.E., Newgrange, together with two other enormous passage tombs designated as Knowth and Dowth, form the nucleus of a ceremonial and cemetery complex that is older than either the pyramids of Egypt or Stonehenge. If you share my passion for 'seeking the stones' of the ancient world, then this destination is a must for your list. Everything known about these monuments suggests that they were always associated with some form of magic: Their original purpose was tied to the magic of the afterworld and astronomy--in particular, the winter solstice. They later became a focus of Celtic paganism in tales of gods, goddesses, warriors, and tragic love. And according to the myths and legends that flourished in Christian Ireland, they were connected with fairies and were regarded as cemeteries of the High-Kings of Tara, indeed the High-Kings of Ireland itself.
For modern visitors, like Himself and Yours Truly, the Brú na Bóinne offers a tangible link to the distant past. The international importance of that link is so great that the complex has been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site. In acknowledgment of its importance to Ireland's historic and cultural identity, it has also been designated as a Duchas (heritage) site.
Access to the Brú na Bóinne complex is carefully limited and managed through the Visitor Centre located near Donore in County Meath, less than an hour's drive north of Dublin. Centre personnel greet all visitors and provide basic information about the availability of tours and other activities. Fees are relatively modest and include a variety of options--including fees for the Centre itself, for Newgrange, for Knowth, or for both Newgrange and Knowth. Special rates are available for groups, seniors, children, students, and families. We were lucky to visit Brú na Bóinne on a weekday in May, before the summer crowds arrived. But be warned, during high-traffic seasons, visitors should arrive early in the day. Otherwise, they risk long waits for the limited spaces available or they may miss out altogether. This warning holds true particularly for those hoping to visit Newgrange.
Once itineraries have been chosen and fees paid, visitors are encouraged to wander through the Centre's exhibits and view an orientation film. This facility is attractive and informative on many levels, and an onsite gift/book shop and cafeteria are also available. The gift shop includes a selection of higher quality merchandise than one is accustomed to finding at a remote historical monument. The assembly point for tour buses to Newgrange and Knowth are a short walk from the Centre along a path that leads across the Boyne.
Modern excavations at and restoration of the Newgrange tumulus occurred between 1962 and 1975, with the site opening to the public shortly thereafter. The Newgrange mound stands 11 meters high and is 85 meters in diameter at its widest point. The base of the mound is surrounded by 97 immense kerbstones, some of which are highly decorated with geometric and spiral markings and well as with 'cup marks.' At first glance, the structure's most striking feature is its facade, formed of white quartz stones interspersed with small round boulders of dark granite. The facade extends almost half way around the mound's circumference.
At the entrance to the 19-meter-long passage leading into the heart of the Newgrange mound is an elaborately carved 'Entrance Stone,' which features a triple spiral design. The triple spiral is unique to Newgrange and has come to symbolize not only this site, but all of Ireland's historic and prehistoric monuments protected under a government agency known as the Duchas, or the Heritage Service.
The Newgrange passage is lined on both sides with large standing stones, some with carvings. The passage leads to a 'burial' chamber that is protected by a high corbelled roof formed by overlapping layers of large stones. This roof was so well designed and constructed that it has kept the chamber dry and intact for more than 5000 years. All three alcoves extending from the main chamber contain large stone basins that were undoubtedly used for ceremonial purposes in the ancient past. As is usual in Irish passage tombs, the alcove to the right of the entrance is the most elaborate. This one contains a rare combination of two stone basins, one inside the other, and overhung by an intricately decorated roof stone. The foremost or rear alcove includes a carving that is a simpler version of the triple spiral found on the Entrance Stone.
Another key feature of Newgrange is the so-called 'Roof-Box,' a lintel-like opening above the entrance. Looking southeast along the passage from the central chamber on the morning of the Winter Solstice, one can see the rays of the rising sun caught by the box and following the passage. The result--even today, despite a minute shift in the Earth's alignment with the Sun--is a relatively bright illumination of the central chamber, with the Sun's rays ultimately coming to rest on the stone basin in the chamber's rear alcove. One can only imagine what such an event must have meant to Neolithic worshipers at Newgrange.
Other striking features at Newgrange include the 12 remaining stones of a great circle that once surrounded the mound. The circle must once have had a diameter of more than 100 meters. Markers indicating the location of a smaller passage tomb, now largely eroded or otherwise destroyed, and of a variety of smaller landmarks are found around the perimeter of the mound. Unfortunately, given the hour allocated for each tour, offers visitors too little to explore and appreciate these collateral monuments.
Excavated concurrently with Newgrange, the Knowth tumulus is 12 meters high and 95 meters in diameter at its widest point. Unlike Newgrange, however, it contains two passages. The Knowth passages point east and west--almost meeting at the center of the mound. Each of the two passages is roughly twice the length of the one at Newgrange. The western passage (more than 34 meters long) ends in a square chamber, whereas the eastern passage (more than 40 meters long), as at Newgrange, ends in a central chamber with three alcoves. Visitors are not permitted to explore the passages at Knowth, but they are allowed to enter a specially designed room near the entrance of the eastern passage and gaze down the lighted passageway. Tour guides use the small room to explain the construction of Knowth and to illustrate various aspects of its excavation.
The base of the Knowth mound is surrounded by 127 kerbstones that are, on the whole, more elaborately carved and more exciting to explore than most of those found at Newgrange. Moreover, the great mound at Knowth is the central feature of an ancient tomb complex that includes 18 satellite mounds--plus a scattering of other relics, ranging from a Neolithic timber circle (circa 2500 B.C.E.) reconstructed on the basis of excavated postholes to the remains of a Norman stone structure with oratory built atop the mound. A few of the smaller satellite mounds are believed to pre-date the large central mound.
Perhaps because of the complexity of the site, Knowth has been less completely restored than Newgrange. Moreover, because much of the hour allowed for the tour is not spent inside the structure, there is more time to explore the outside. From the site of the Norman oratory on the mound's summit, weather permitting, it's even possible to glimpse Newgrange to the southeast.
Dowth, the third great passage tomb at Brú na Bóinne, is comparable in size (15 meters high and 85 meters in diameter) and age to Newgrange and Knowth, but is not currently open to public tours. Like Knowth, Dowth has two passageways--though both face in a westerly direction. In general Dowth is less well preserved than the other two tumuli, and it has been more abused by both man and the elements. Of the three mounds, Dowth is located nearest to the Visitor Centre, and it seems to be accessible to foot traffic--at least on an occasional basis. Its passages are closed to the public.
Brú na Bóinne is a must-see attraction for anyone with a fascination for ancient stone monuments built by human hands. Indeed, these tumuli overlooking the Boyne Valley in Ireland are among the most ancient manmade structures to survive into the present, and they apparently served our ancestors as temples and scientific instruments, as well as cemeteries. The construction of these enduring monuments is testimony to the ingenuity of our forebears and confirms their passion for responding to the natural and supernatural realms in which they dwelt.
I'd never heard of Newgrange before I went there. Which may explain why I was totally blown away.
I first visited in 1999, when I was over in Ireland staying with my husband's family. It was a chilly, damp day in April when they suggested we might like to see an area known as Brú na Bóinne - in English, "the dwelling place of the Boyne". This turned out to be a collection of prehistoric sites in County Meath, located in a wide meander of the River Boyne about an hour's drive north of Dublin. The most famous of these antiquities is Newgrange, a megalithic "passage tomb" richly decorated with ancient works of art. (Although there is much debate over whether Newgrange was more than just a tomb - more about that later.)
We headed for the visitor center, which lies between the towns of Slane and Doghedra, near the village of Donore, and found that it was well signposted from a few miles out - or, being Ireland, I should say a few km out - and easy to find. It was easy to park in the ample car park. (Admittedly it was only shoulder-season but we have returned in the peak of summer and still found a space easily). I understand that there is also a bus to the visitor center from Droghedra, which connects with the Droghedra-Dublin service, but I haven't used it.
The visitor centre is on the south side of the River Boyne, and the gateway to the Brú na Bóinne sites; there is no direct access to the sites and visitor numbers are tightly controlled, so if you are visiting during peak season, you should get there early to avoid missing out. As far as I know, it's not possible to book for a future date (except, in the case of Newgrange, around the winter solstice - more about that later) and it's first come, first served on the day.
On approaching the entrance, we learnt that there are three dominant sites in the area: Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. It was not (and still is not as far as I know) possible for the public to visit Dowth, and we discovered that Knowth was only open during the summer months of May to October. Fortunately, Newgrange was open all year round, and we were advised that we should allow around two hours for our visit. Access to the visitor center as well as the tour was included in the very reasonable, pre-Euro, admission price of £4. A cheaper option allowing access to the visitor center only was also available. I have checked current prices and the Newgrange tour is now around 6 Euros per adult.
We were lucky and were informed that a group was leaving for Newgrange imminently. We were directed outside to a suspension bridge across the river and followed the path down to a waiting tour bus. Each tour group comprises a maximum of 24 visitors so that the site does not become overcrowded, and we were relieved to find that our group was actually slightly fewer in number than this.
After a very short drive through the green, gently undulating landscape, we got our first glimpse of Newgrange: a huge grassy mound faced with brilliant white quartz glinting in the low afternoon sun. Another tour group was inside, so we had the opportunity to wander around the monument at our leisure before it would be our turn.
From the outside, Newgrange appears to be just an 11m high grassy mound, faced with quartz stone. It covers over an acre and apparently is constructed from more than 200, 000 tons of stone and earth. Around the edge lie 97 kerbstones, many of which are decorated with carved motifs such as multiple-spirals, concentric circles, and symbols interpreted as the sun and the moon. These huge stones, or "megaliths", are about chest height (I'm nearly 1.8m / 6ft tall) and more than 2m wide.
We walked around the perimeter before coming to a halt again at the front entrance. Newgrange is strategically situated at the top of a raised ridge and we had a clear view all around across miles of patchwork farmland, sparsely punctuated by trees. Other mounds in the distance hinted at archaeological remains yet to be excavated, much like the area surrounding England's most famous megalithic structure, Stonehenge.
At the front of the mound are twelve standing stones, the remnants of what may have been an arc or possibly a complete circle of stones surrounding the mound. The entrance stone itself is very elaborately carved, featuring the well known "tri-spiral" design, which I had always assumed was Celtic in origin, but obviously was actually from this more distant era. Newgrange was built more than 5,000 years ago, during the Neolithic (New Stone) Age - which makes it older than the Egyptian Pyramids.
Finally it was time for us to go inside. We mounted one of the two sets of wooden steps over the kerbstones to the left and right of the entrance stone, and followed a sloping wooden platform on the other side down into the passage entrance. Incidentally, between the wooden steps the white façade of quartz stone has been cut away to allow this access, so if you see any photos of this area, it has a dark background rather than white - which I thought was a bit of a shame, but I imagine that it would be impossible to have any volume of visitors without it.
We had to stoop to enter through the low doorway, but were able to straighten up as we made our way along the narrow passage, lined by now-upright megaliths. As we shuffled along the dirt floor, it was impossible not to brush against the stones, some bearing the by-now familiar carved symbols, visible with the modern addition of low-level electric lighting. The passage extended for about 20m into the mound, before opening into a small chamber branching off in three directions, in a cruciform shape. Here the ceiling height was highest, with a corbelled roof above which has remained watertight for more than 5000 years - hence the title of this review! Each of the short branches contained a large stone basin in which cremated remains and grave goods were found when Newgrange was originally excavated.
If this wasn't impressive enough, the thing that makes Newgrange really remarkable, though, is its astronomical orientation: it is aligned to the winter solstice sunrise. While we squeezed together at the end of the passage, our tour guide turned out the electric lights, plunging us into pitch darkness; there is a slight bend to the passage and light does not penetrate that far back from the entrance. However, on the morning of the winter solstice, when the sun rises over the horizon, a shaft of light enters through a slit opening, the "roofbox", over the doorway and creeps up the passage to brightly illuminate the chamber for a few minutes, before once again retreating. This effect was recreated using electric light for us, but there are some lucky people who get to see the actual phenomenon for themselves: the custodians of Newgrange hold a lottery each year for 50 pairs of tickets for the four days around the winter solstice when this occurs. You can apply at the Brú na Bóinne visitor center or online. We have had our names down since that first visit, but unfortunately we have never been lucky enough to be drawn.
When we returned to the visitor center, we found that we could have been more prepared if we had spent some time reading the exhibits before taking the tour bus, and I would recommend this to get the most out of your visit. There is a full-scale replica of the Newgrange chamber and an explanation of the archaeological digs including an audio-visual presentation in several languages. Best of all, there is a wide viewing platform where you can look across the river to gain an appreciation of the overall setting. There are also the obligatory toilets and a coffee shop.
It's hard to convey what an amazing experience a visit to Newgrange is. You will forget any pre-conceived ideas you may have about "primitive" stone-age peoples - Newgrange proves that this was a highly evolved society. I wonder how many of our modern day Cathedrals and important monuments will stand the test of aeons of time. Who were these people? Why did they die out and why do we know so little about them? Was Newgrange really only a tomb or does its intricate construction and amazing astronomical alignment hint that it had a more profound significance? Penetration by light so vividly symbolises fertility, the end of winter and the coming of new life that it would be easy to believe that it played a wider part in society. Also, I was intrigued by the cruciform nature of the chamber - that shape so strongly associated nowadays with Christianity. You may find that you leave with more questions than answers and there is a healthy ongoing academic debate as to the true nature of the place. We will probably never know for sure.
More information about the history of Newgrange and up-to-date opening times / admission prices can be found at:
www.knowth.com/ which includes further links for the really keen.
I can't recommend a visit highly enough.
Newgrange. Already five hundred years old when the pyramids were constructed. Older than Stonehenge and covering a greater area. This 5,500 year-old massive chambered mound is part of a huge neolithic complex in the Boyne Valley, Meath, Ireland, about 45 minutes drive north west of Dublin. To the west is large mound of Knowth, surrounded by smaller mounds, and on the east is the still to be excavated mound of Dowth. In this 7.8sq km (3sq mi) area of the Boyne valley are grouped more than 30 prehistoric monuments : standing stones, barrows, and enclosures. Many things make this complex, known as Brú na Bóinne, different. The size and number of the mounds, the sheer number of intricate and unique patterns carved in the huge stones, the tall corbelled chamber roof. But most of all because of what happens at Solstice - the shortest day of the year. On that morning (and the two mornings before and after it) the sun rising over the opposite edge of the valley shines through a slot above Newgrange's entrance and lights a molten gold path that inches its way along the chamber entrance tunnel into the chamber itself. The chamber glows with gold light so bright that you can see clearly and then it inches out, like the tide on a beach, retreating down the passageway until once again the chamber is dark. Newgrange was originally built about 3500 BC and today is in a much restored form. It consists of a vast stone and turf mound about 85m (280ft) in diameter and 13.5m (44ft) high, containing a passage leading to a chamber. Outside the base, 12 out of the original estimated 38 large boulders up to 2.4m (8ft) high form a ring of about 104m (340ft) in diameter. The stone circle was built about 1000 years later than the original structure, dating probably from the Beaker period. This ring of stones is almost unique in Great Britain and Ireland. When you stand in the chamber you cannot see the entrance. The passageway has a bend. The chamber is
completely without light. The floor of the chamber is some two metres above the ground level of the entrance. It is at the level of the slot above the doorway. By kneeling and putting ones cheek on the floor at the rear of the chamber can you see the slot, some nineteen metres distant. Visitors are welcome to enter the chamber in a small groups organised by the new visitor centre. I first come to Newgrange some seven or eight years ago and was amazed and moved by it. I found that one could register to go on waiting list to be in the chamber at Solstice. In October 1999 I received the invitation to attend on Wednesday 22 December 1999, the day after the Solstice. I booked flight tickets and a hotel via the internet, arranging to arrive on the Monday. Monday was bright and clear and there was a great view of the sunrise as we flew into Dublin. On arriving I couldn't wait to visit Newgrange again and went there straight away. I was surprised to find the new Brú na Bóinne visitor centre, which is excellent, and booked a tour. It was windy and raining hard and there was only a handful of visitors in the bus that shuttles you to the mound. The guide did an excellent job of explaining the mound, and what had been found during excavations. The roof slot had been a mystery to the archaeologists, although local people (through some folk memory) had said the sun lit the chamber at certain times of the year. It was only in the late '60s that modern eyes witnessed the phenomenon. On Wednesday I had to be at Newgrange at 08:30. But driving there in the dark there was no glimmer of light in the sky. It was raining and thick clouds covered the horizon, no stars, no moon. We waited outside the mound until 08:45, the rain got heavier. We then went into the chamber, there were 18 people, plus the guide. She tried to cheer us with tales of similar mornings in the past when the clouds had lifted at the last minute. The lights
were turned out and we waiting in complete darkness. A pale watery grey light made a faint beam along the floor as the sun rose behind the clouds. It was daylight, not the bright beam of sunlight that we had been waiting for. A real disappointment. But it was an honour to be allowed in the chamber for dawn. I wonder how many times in the past centuries wise people or leaders had stood waiting for the sun. Being a sun worshipper in Ireland requires a great deal of faith. Throughout this account I have called Newgrange a mound. Usually it is called a burial mound or tomb. No one knows what it was built for, how it was used or what it means. It is true that human remains were found there. But from only five or six people. Christian cathedrals often have burials in them, but that doesn't mean they were built as tombs. My own feeling now is that its primary purpose was not to be a tomb. The site was built some five thousand five hundred years ago and used for centuries. It's meaning many have changed over the millennia. But we will never now know and we can never prove its meaning. There is no doubt it is a special place. Newgrange is easy to visit from Dublin and is an absolute must for those interested in prehistory. You will be amazed and uplifted. Wrap up warm and take waterproofs and sensible shoes.