Spirals and Mounds

It is difficult to say what Newgrange, in the Boyne Valley just outside Dublin, really is. It is definitely another one of those places where the intellect protests, the mind reels. In fact, we will have to resign ourselves for now and postpone any attempt at understanding it until the second part of the book. For now, let's be satisfied with simply accepting it as a tomb used numerous times over a long period, and try to get a basic idea of what we are dealing with. (Plate 2)

Around 3200 BC, a corridor about 30 meters long was built from enormous stone slabs on the steepest slope of a small natural hill. The structure, oriented toward the southwest, ends in three little alcoves. Additional slabs were placed on top of the corridor to isolate the interior from water, and then the whole thing was covered with a tumulus in the shape of a heart. The external walls of the tumulus are dry-stacked and incorporate blocks of white quartz, which make the structure gleam so as to be visible from many kilometers away. It is surrounded by what remains of a circle of megaliths. Many of the stones, both inside and out, are engraved with delicate spiral or diamond motifs.

Newgrange is the cardinal point of a sacred landscape that includes two other major complexes, Knowth and Dowth. Knowth, a kilometer away, though less famous than Newgrange, is in fact much larger at 95 meters wide. Here we also find an abundance of marvelous incised designs, including those on the slabs that make up the 18 smaller structures surrounding it, forming a sort of archipelago.

Dowth, which derives from the Gaelic word for "house of darkness,'' is a structure very similar to Newgrange. Dowth has two passageways with two terminal chambers; one of the two passageways is aligned with the corridor at Newgrange, the other oriented toward the north. The internal chambers at Dowth are built with enormous megaliths, and even more impressively, the ceiling consists of a single slab. Here, too, the walls are decorated with spiraliform motifs, and they have a strange, almost hypnotic effect in the penumbra of the chamber. There is one slab in a corner that is the most unsettling of all, in that the incisions seem to combine to form a human face.

Numerous other subsidiary structures complete the sacred landscape of the Boyne Valley. There are traces, though not readily apparent, of a cursus, that is, a concave roadway with high banks. This earthwork, 20 meters wide, connected two lesser mounds with a U-shaped area in the proximity of the main tumulus. Just a few dozen kilometers from Newgrange is a second concentration of tumuli, at Loughcrew. Once again the mounds are disposed in groups, the largest of which hosts the so-called T tumulus, which is extraordinarily similar to Newgrange.

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