Newgrange is one of Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions, welcoming around 200,000 visitors every year. For most Irish people however, Newgrange is a place we learn about during countless history lessons but never actually bother to visit. Having explored it ourselves last year, we can guarantee that it’s worth the trip into the heart of the country. And if those history lessons seem like a long distant memory, here’s a quick – and much less boring – refresher. If you don’t want to jump in a car and get down (or up, or across!) to Meath after hearing the fascinating history of the place, then you never will!
What is Newgrange?
The exact answer to that question is something historians and archaeologists are still trying to figure out. What they can agree on however is that it is a prehistoric monument dating from around 3200BC (making it older than its UK counterpart Stonehenge as well as the Pyramids of Egypt). It’s the biggest, most complex, and most complete structure by far of the Boyne Valley, or Bru na Boinne, a region in the midlands of Ireland that is peppered with prehistoric monuments for miles in all directions. Newgrange stands more or less in the centre of the valley.
The site of Newgrange itself consits of a large circular mound made from layers of stones and earth, covered with soil and bordered with stones on the outside edge again. From the outside it doesn’t look quite as impressive as other ancient monuments around the world – in fact, it could even pass for a modern, environmentally friendly bungalow! The inside however is full of architectural and archaeological wonders. At some point along the course of history, the structure was sealed up and seemingly untouched for a long time, until antiquarians became curious in the 17th century and began to investigate it more closely. A series of archaeological excavations were conducted in the following centuries, until in the 1970s it was reconstructed and later opened as a visitor attraction.
The structure measures 80 metres in diameter, 6 metres in height and is estimated to weigh around 200,000 tonnes. The materials used in its construction come from various surrounding regions such as Clogherhead and the shores of the river Boyne. Over 500 large slab stones were used in the construction; stones which are extremely heavy and would have been transported from a considerable distance. All things considered, it’s no wonder Newgrange is considered to be the most important historical monument in Ireland and one of the most important ancient structures in all of Europe.
It doesn’t take an expert to realise that in 3200 BC, construction machinery didn’t exactly exist. In fact, in Ireland at that time metal had not even been discovered yet. Historians estimate that given the size of the structure, the materials used and the techniques available at the time, Newgrange would have taken around 30 years to construct using a workforce of 300 men!
Thanks to some expert geological studies, we know that the materials were all gathered from the surrounding landscape; that includes over 500 huge stones to make up the interior and kerb stones that surround the structure outside. All of the stones were found to be weathered, i.e they were naturally present in the landscape and not quarried. That means the people who built it went out searching – most likely on foot – for suitable stones, then somehow dragged them uphill to the site where they decided to build Newgrange – why they chose that particular site and how they managed to drag hundreds of heavy stones up there is still a mystery, although experts have speculated that they located them along the beach at Clogherhead, dragged them by boat along the coast and up the river Boyne, then dragged them uphill to the site.
Many experts believe that the chambers and the passage that links them were put in place before the rest of the construction took place. The positions of the kerb stones would have been marked out at this point too, as well as the supporting stones that line the inside of the passage. The passage, chamber and roof were all made by placing similar stone slabs together – without the use of mortar. 17 slabs make up the roof of the passage, which leads to a central chamber which has three additional chambers leading off it. The central chamber forms the dome shape of the structure thanks to an innovative (for that time) corbelled roof. Flat stones are placed in concentric rising circles to keep out moisture, making a cone shape of sorts. To this day, the roof has not needed any repair work whatsoever and has not seen one drop of water pass through it – now that’s solid construction!
The rest of the stones have been packed together with sea sand and burned earth to keep out rain and the ravages of Irish weather, and the top surface of the passage roof has some carved grooves, obviously to make rainwater travel downwards and outwards from the roof. Once all of the stones were in place (including the surrounding kerbstones which have been placed equal distances from each other and rise to an equal height all the way around), earth would have been piled on top. The kerbstones curve inwards at the entrance to the passage, which was a common design element in ancient Irish tombs structures, to allow easy access – although a large stone slab was used to block off the entrance when the structure was not in use.
The most sophisticated and mystical aspect of Newgrange’s construction, however, is its alignment. The builders and architects of the structure were clearly highly experienced and intelligent; not only were they able to plan and create such a construction using only their minds and hands; they were also able to calculate the exact position for the entrance so that during sunrise on the winter solstice every year, a glowing beam of sunlight would shine directly through the entrance right into the central chamber. It’s all too much to be just a coincidence, don’t you think? Especially when you consider that three other, smaller sites in the area form an exact straight line with Newgrange.
What was Newgrange used for?
It’s obvious that Newgrange was constructed for a very specific reason. But what was it? All the evidence points towards it being a passage tomb, or at the very least, a significant religious site for ancient societies. Excavations have revealed deposits of both human and animal bones in the passage, some of which had been cremated. The human bones came from at least two (and possibly up to 5) different people, but as they were not intact skeletons and were scattered throughout the chamber, no other facts can be accurately established. It is entirely likely that the animal remains were purely coincidental, i.e rabbits, foxes etc. at various points throughout the centuries found their way into the tomb somehow and were unable to escape again. Neolithic items were also found in the tomb including pendants, stone tools, bone pins etc.
Newgrange was probably used as an important ceremonial site too. At one point timber circles were built on either side of the tomb consisting of five concentric rows of pits with wooden posts on the outer row. Burnt animal remains have been found in the pits suggesting ritual animal sacrifice. The astronomical alignment of the structure also has some obvious importance. It’s a common belief that the sun was a significant element of neolithic religious beliefs, and that worshipping the dead was also extremely important – both elements fit in very well with Newgrange as a whole when the winter solstice alignment and the interior chambers containing human remains are taken into account.
Over time Newgrange somehow made its way into Irish mythology. It is mentioned in medieval folklore as being the abode of the Tuatha de Dannan (a supernaturally gifted group of people thought to be the gods and goddesses of Ireland before Christianity) and the burial place of the kings of Tara. Medieval Ireland seemed quite convinced that the god Dagda lived in the valley with his wife Boann and son Oengus, and had built is specifically for his family. However, legend has it that Oengus tricked his father into giving him the land for the rest of eternity.
The artwork of Newgrange
The most impressive aspect of a visit to Newgrange is the spectacular sight of sunlight hitting the central chamber, revealing the intricate stone carvings all along the stones and walls inside. The artwork varies widely – some is deeply and steadily carved into the stone, while some is lightly engraved and almost invisible unless you look closely. There are also distinct differences in the style and skill level of the engravers. The carvings are all typical neolithic in design, with different patterns located in various different places; circles, spirals, arcs, dotted circles, u-shapes, chevrons, and line patterns can all be seen.
The most impressive carving can be seen on the huge entrance stone to the tomb, which measures 10 feet x 4 feet and weighs approximately 5 tonnes! It is covered front and back with triskeles (triple spirals in a triangle formation), double spirals, and single spirals. By decorating the stone with circular shapes, the engraver managed to create an optical illusion of sorts, making the stone look much bigger than it actually is. Although the triskele design is the most widely recognised, Newgrange in fact has more chevron and lozenge patterns. Many are also surprised to hear that the artwork at the nearby Knowth passage tomb is actually much more intricate and more beautiful!
Although its entirely possible that the carvings were just art for art’s sake, many historians believe that they were in fact symbolic, especially since they often appear in places not visible to the eye, i.e the underside of stones. Some think the particular grouping of different shapes together are abstract portraits of gods or significant leaders of society. Spirals in particular are a regular feature of neolithic art and their meaning has had much discussion – possibilities include spirals being symbols for water, fertility, life or the afterlife, and a symbol for the nobility, among varied other suggestions.
What happened to Newgrange?
By the late Neolithic period, Newgrange was seemingly no longer in use, with a huge stone slab closing up the entrance. It’s not known why the ancient societies of Ireland stopped using it; perhaps they just moved on from those religious beliefs, or maybe there was more practical reasons – too many people in a growing society putting the tomb at risk of damage, and so on. By 2000 BC the site was slowly falling into disrepair with ‘beaker people’ – a later neolithic society who got their name from the beaker shaped pottery they made – squatting on its edges. Various generations would have done the same thing, largely ignoring or possibly indirectly damaging the ancient passage tomb, letting it become overgrown.
In 1142, land ownership systems had made their way to Ireland, and the land around the site came into the ownership of Cistercian Abbey of Mellifont. Back then farms were referred to as ‘granges’, so it was given the somewhat uninspiring title of ‘the new grange’, which became shortened to Newgrange eventually. By 1688 it was in the hands of a landowner called Charles Campbell. By then, the tomb looked like little more than a mound of earth, so he instructed his labourers to dig it up and collect the stones underneath. The labourers soon discovered the entrance to the tomb with its magnificently decorated kerb stone, so Campbell brought in a Welsh antiquarian who was staying in the area, Edward Lhwyd, to investigate further. When neolithic objects and human remains were found inside, interest in the tomb skyrocketed among antiquarians, with each one having their own theory about its function and construction. Some were a little bit far fetched to say the least; one account states that Newgrange had been built by the ancient Egyptians!
By 1882 Newgrange and the surrounding ancient monuments had been taken under the control of the state, and a conservation plan was put in place to repair damage caused to the monument over the years. Once complete, archaeologists conducted a series of studies and found out all of what we now know about its construction and use. Further restoration was then undertaken, including adding the white quartzite stones and cobbles to the exterior wall of the tomb, something which caused a lot of controversy as there was no evidence to prove that this was their original location. Many now agree that these stones were in fact laid out on the ground outside the entrance to form a plaza of sorts.
The final discovery came in 1967, when Prof. M.J. O’Kelly observed the illumination of the chamber during the winter solstice sunrise and puzzled out the astronomical alignment of the structure. This sparked intense interest from people all over Ireland and the world, and was the catalyst that made Newgrange the top visitor attraction it is now. Even today, there are still huge waiting lists to see the illumination event every year. Just 50 names are randomly chosen from a lottery of 30,000 (yes, that’s thirty thousand people!) to be in the tomb before sunrise to see the spectacular lighting up. If you’re feeling lucky, you can add your name to the list over at http://www.newgrange.com/solstice-lottery.htm . Good luck!