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Peering Back in Time
Newgrange (County Meath, Ireland)
Member Name: LovesTravel
Newgrange (County Meath, Ireland)
Advantages: Awe-inspiring monuments from the Neolithic era
Disadvantages: Guided tours provide too little time for exploring the monuments and their surrounding landscape
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.
Summary: The monuments of the Brú na Bóinne touch the human soul, the human mind, and the human heart.
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