Newgrange

Newgrange is one of three large Neolithic passage tombs that are found within three kilometers of one another on the northern side of the river Boyne west of Drogheda, County Meath, in central Ireland. It incorporates one of the most famous astronomical alignments in the world. Around the shortest day every year, just after sunrise, a shaft of sunlight suddenly enters the tomb and shines directly down the long passage, penetrating right through to the central chamber for a precious few minutes before, equally swiftly, it plunges once again into almost interminable darkness.

Newgrange is a supreme example of the passage tomb genre, of which there are more than three hundred examples to be found across Ireland, with many more in northern Scotland. Built in the later part of the fourth millennium B.C.E., it is an enormous mound some eighty meters (260 feet) across, entered by a passage leading in from an entrance on the southeastern side. Almost twenty meters (sixty-five feet) long, with a roof formed of enormous, flat slabs of rock held up by large, upright side-stones (or-thostats), the passage leads to a central chamber deep within the tomb. This chamber has an impressive corbelled roof six meters (twenty feet) high and is so large that several people can stand together inside comfortably. Three smaller chambers open off the main central chamber, one opposite the en-

The entrance to the passage tomb at Newgrange, Ireland, showing the roof-box above it. (Courtesy of Clive Ruggles)

trance and one on each side. Fragments of human bone, both burned and unburned, together with animal bones, pendants, beads, and other grave goods were found within the tomb.

Before Michael O'Kelly began excavations at the site in the early 1960s, visitors were perplexed by what appeared to be an additional roof slab above the entrance, apparently a false lintel about one meter (three feet) higher than the level of the main roof of the passage. This turned out to be the top of a roof-box above the passage entrance. It is through this roof-box that the sunlight enters at midwinter. This is not a precise phenomenon: it is repeated each day for a few days after the solstice, though for a progressively shorter period of time each day; and likewise (increasing up to the maximum duration) beforehand. Owing to the changing position of the solstitial sun over the millennia (due to the changing obliquity of the ecliptic), the shaft of sunlight would have appeared for somewhat longer, and for a few more days, at the time when the tomb was built.

There are many beautifully decorated stones at Newgrange, and it has been suggested that the interplay of sunlight and shadow across various spirals, lozenges, and other carvings at certain times of year might also have been significant to the builders. However, since eye-catching associations of this nature could easily have arisen fortuitously, such ideas are more contro versial. Similarly, claims of alignments involving the circle of standing stones that surround the tomb also remain speculative.

One thing that can be stated with relative certainty, however, is that Newgrange was not an ancient observatory. It is ludicrous to suggest that people entered the tomb and sat among the bones of the dead, merely to determine whether or not the shortest day of the year had arrived. Frivolous as this point sounds, it is important in that for many years a number of people—most famously the Scottish engineer Alexander Thom—claimed that free-standing megalithic sites that had no other obvious primary function had been constructed as astronomical observing instruments. In fact, this theory runs counter to common sense: people in prehistory would clearly not have gone to all the bother of constructing monumental architecture, even just one or two standing stones, to do what could be achieved perfectly effectively using non-permanent markers and the natural horizon. Where such monuments did incorporate intentional astronomical alignments, they expressed what was already known, and there was surely some greater purpose. At Newgrange the greater purpose is self-evident: the site was first and foremost a tomb, or (to use a form of words that better reflects its continual use over a considerable period) a shrine for offerings relating to the ancestors. Either way, the solstitial alignment surely expresses some link that existed in people's minds between the sun, the seasonal cycle, and the ancestors, although in itself it tells us nothing about the nature of that association.

At some date, possibly many generations after its initial construction, the entrance was blocked off using a closing stone weighing about a ton. However, because the critical shaft of sunlight entered through the roof-box rather than the entrance itself, the solstice hierophany was unaffected. Some have argued that this was intentional: by using the roof-box device, the builders ensured that the sun would continue to enter the tomb even after it had been sealed off. And yet this interpretation brings its own problems: is it not somewhat surprising that the original builders had the intention—or at least planned for the possibility—that what was then a dominant practice would some day come to a sudden end?

In Irish legend, Newgrange tends to be identified as Brug na Bóinne ("the mansion of the Boyne"), and thereby as the abode of some of the old gods of Ireland, including one of their principal figures, the Dagda (or Daghdha). His cauldron, it is said, was the vault of the sky, and this has led some to propose that the solstitial orientation of the tomb could be a manifestation of some long forgotten version of this legend. But the connections are too few and tenuous, and the timespan far too long between Neolithic times and even the earliest recorded legends in early Christian times, for much credulity to be attached to any suggestion of a direct continuity of tradition.

What, then, might have been the significance of the alignment? Al though we cannot draw direct parallels, modern indigenous practices can sometimes give us useful insights in our attempts to interpret practices in the past. Thus, for example, it was important to the Skidi Pawnee of the U.S. Midwest that the first rays of the morning sun should enter their traditional dwelling ("earth lodge") to bring life-giving strength and power. Could a similar conviction explain why people in the past appear to have been so interested in sunlight entering dark places at special times? This seems evident at a variety of prehistoric tombs, of which the solstitial alignment at New-grange is merely the most famous. Many of these tombs reflect the structure of houses for the living in various ways, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that they were seen as houses for the dead, or for ancestral spirits. Did people believe that the light of the sun imparted strength and power to the ancestors, as it did to them?

The example of Newgrange shows how even a simple, spectacular, and relatively uncontroversial astronomical alignment can give rise to many subtleties of interpretation when we try to explore the nature of its significance to people in the past.

See also:

Science or Symbolism?; Solstitial Directions; Thom, Alexander (1894-1985).

Boyne Valley Tombs; Pawnee Earth Lodge.

Obliquity of the Ecliptic; Solstices.

References and further reading

Jestice, Phyllis J. Encyclopedia of Irish Spirituality, 42, 101. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2000.

MacCana, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology, 66-67. London: Hamlyn, 1970.

O'Kelly, Claire. Illustrated Guide to Newgrange (3rd ed.). Wexford, UK: John English, 1978.

O'Kelly, Michael. Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 1982.

Ruggles, Clive. Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, 12-19. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Stout, Geraldine. Newgrange and the Bend of the Boyne, 40-47, 62, 65-67. Cork: Cork University Press, 2002.

Waddell, John. The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland, 59-62. Galway: Gal-way University Press, 1998.

Walker, Christopher, ed. Astronomy before the Telescope, 21-23. London: British Museum Press, 1996.

Whittle, Alasdair. Europe in the Neolithic, 244-248. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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