Built 1,000 years before Stonehenge, Newgrange is Ireland’s best-known prehistoric monument. Located in the Boyne Valley, County Meath, it is arguably Europe’s finest example of a megalithic passage grave. According to the most reliable Carbon 14 dating technique carried out at Newgrange, the structure was erected around 3200 BC, 600 years before the Giza Pyramids in Cairo.
Built atop a small hillock, the tomb consists of a vast stone and turf mound about 85 metres in diameter and 13.5 metres high. The Stone Age mound contains a passage, which lead to a burial chamber. Encircling the mound on the outside are twelve large boulders (out of an original 38, archaeologists estimate), which are up to 2.4m (8ft) high. This stone circle, with a diameter of about 104 metres, was built about 1000 years later than the original structure.
The large stones that form the base of the mound itself are adorned with carved spirals, lozenges, zigzags, and other symbols. The stone that marks the entrance to the passage bears spiral carvings similar to those found at a similar site at Gavrinis in Brittany in France.
Newgrange is best known for the illumination of its passage and chamber during the festive season. A roof-box above the entrance passage is a roof-box, captures precisely the rays of the rising sun on the winter solstice of 21 December. Beams of sunlight touch the ground at the very centre of the tomb for twenty minutes or so, lighting up the upright stones along the walls, many of which are also richly decorated.
Excavations in the central chamber have revealed two burials and three or more cremations. Archaeologists have also discovered seven marbles, four pendants, two beads, a flint flake and a bone chisel. Historians believe that Newgrange (along with the nearby passage tombs of Knowth and Dowth) were places of astrological, spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance, in some respects similar to present day cathedrals. Some historians believe that Newgrange is the burial place of the prehistoric kings of Tara. It may also be the home of a race of mythical supernatural beings, known as Tuatha de Danann, meaning “the people of the goddess Danu”.
The site’s importance had long been forgotten when, in 1142, it became part of Mellifont Abbey farm. These farms were known as granges, and by 14th century the site was known only as the New Grange. The passage tomb was rediscovered in 1699 when the landowner at the time, Charles Campbell, needed some stones for road-building and instructed his labourers to carry some away from the cairn. The removal of the stones revealed the entrance to the ancient tomb. More recently, the Boyne Valley mounds at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth have together been designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, and the Boyne Valley Visitor Centre attracts some 200,000 visitors per year.
Image by René Querin