Thursday, 21 February 2013


Newgrange was constructed over 5,000 years ago (about 3,200 B.C.), making it older than Stonehenge in England and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Newgrange was built during the Neolithic or New Stone Age by a farming community that prospered on the rich lands of the Boyne Valley. One of the oldest surviving buildings in the world.

Archaeologists classified Newgrange as a passage tomb, however Newgrange is now recognised to be much more than a passage tomb. Ancient Temple is a more fitting classification, a place of astrological, spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance, much as present day cathedrals are places of prestige and worship where dignitaries may be laid to rest.

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Newgrange is a large kidney shaped mound covering an area of over one acre, retained at the base by 97 kerbstones, some of which are richly decorated with megalithic art. The 19 metre long inner passage leads to a cruciform chamber with a corbelled roof. The amount of time and labour invested in construction of Newgrange suggests a well-organized society with specialised groups responsible for different aspects of construction.

Newgrange is part of a complex of monuments built along a bend of the River Boyne known collectively as Brú na Bóinne. The other two principal monuments are Knowth (the largest) and Dowth, but throughout the region there are as many as 35 smaller mounds.

Newgrange is best known for the illumination of its passage and chamber by the winter solstice sun. Above the entrance to the passage at Newgrange there is a opening called a roof-box. This baffling orifice held a great surprise for those who unearthed it. Its purpose is to allow sunlight to penetrate the chamber on the shortest days of the year, around December 21, the winter solstice.

At dawn, from December 19th to 23rd, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof-box and reaches the floor of the chamber, gradually extending to the rear of the chamber. As the sun rises higher, the beam widens within the chamber so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated. This event lasts for 17 minutes, beginning around 9am.

The accuracy of Newgrange as a time-telling device is remarkable when one considers that it was built 500 years before the Great Pyramids and more than 1,000 years before Stonehenge. The intent of its builders was undoubtedly to mark the beginning of the new year. In addition, it may have served as a powerful symbol of the victory of life over death.

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Each year the winter solstice event attracts much attention at Newgrange. Many gather at the ancient tomb to wait for dawn, as people did 5,000 years ago. So great is the demand to be one of the few inside the chamber during the solstice that there is a free annual lottery (application forms are available at the Visitor Centre). Unfortunately, as with many Irish events that depend upon sunshine, if the skies are overcast, there is not much to be seen. Yet all agree that it is an extraordinary feeling to wait in the darkness, as people did so long ago, for the longest night of the year to end.

As he spoke, he paused before a great mound grown over with trees, and around it silver clear in the moonlight were immense stones piled, the remains of an original circle, and there was a dark, low, narrow entrance leading within…‘This was my palace. In days past many a one plucked here the purple flower of magic and the fruit of the tree of life…but look: you will see it is the palace of a god.’
And even as he spoke, a light began to glow and to pervade the cave, and to obliterate the stone walls and the antique hieroglyphics engraved thereon, and to melt the earthen floor into itself like a fiery sun suddenly uprisen within the world, and there was everywhere a wandering ecstasy of sound: Light and sound were one; light had a voice, and the music hung glittering in the air…
‘I am Aengus…men call me the Young. I am the sunlight in the heart, the moonlight in the mind; I am the light at the end of every dream, the voice for ever calling to come away; I am the desire beyond joy or tears. Come with me, come with me: I will make you immortal; for my palace opens into the Gardens of the Sun, and there are the fire-fountains which quench the heart’s desire in rapture.’

Æ (George William Russell), “A Dream of Angus Oge,” 1897
On a hill above the bend of the River Boyne in the townland of New Grange there is a mysterious mound. When the new proprietor of the farmland, Scottish settler Charles Campbell, set about improving his holdings, he instructed his workmen in 1699 to use as a quarry the vast pile of stones under the scrub-covered mound on his land. Soon, a broad flat stone that covered the mouth of what they termed a “cave” was seen. Through this act of vandalism, the entrance to the ancient tomb was discovered. 

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Serendipitously, the discovery of Newgrange occurred just as the polymath Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, Edward Lhwyd, was traveling through Ireland. Lhwyd asked to be taken to New Grange and was given a tour of the newly discovered tomb. 

They came at last to a broad flat Stone, rudely Carved, and placed edgewise at the Bottom of the Mount. This they discover’d to be the Door of a Cave, which had a long Entry leading into it. At the first entering we were forced to creep; but still as we went on the Pillars on each side of us were higher and higher; and coming into the Cave we found it about 20 Foot high. In this Cave, on each hand of us, was a Cell or Apartment, and another went on straight forward opposite to the Entry. In those on each hand was a very broad shallow Bason of Stone, situated at the Edge.

Correctly deducing from the Roman coins found buried near the top of the mound that the later Viking invaders could not have constructed it, Lhwyd concluded, “it was some Place of Sacrifice or Burial of the ancient Irish.” We observed that Water dropped into the right-hand Bason, tho’ it had rained but little in many Days; and suspected that the lower Bason was intended to preserve the superfluous Liquor of the Upper (whether this Water were Sacred, or whether it was for Blood in Sacrifice), that none might come to the Ground.

Thomas Pownall in 1773 concluded that the engravings on the Newgrange stones were really Phoenician characters, and thus the stones must have originally been used by the seafaring Phoenicians for their own monuments at the mouth of the Boyne, and only later assembled at New Grange. In 1786 Charles Vallancey studied the engravings on the Newgrange stones and translated them to obtain proof that the monument was a “Mithratic cave,” with its name derived from the Chaldean “Grian Uaigh, the “Cave of the Sun.”

Such depredations for the most part ceased when finally all the monuments of Brú na Bóinne came under the protection of the state in 1882.

Early state efforts to investigate and preserve the monuments were often haphazard and poorly documented. When he began his own Newgrange excavations in 1962 Professor O’Kelly was forced to proceed without the missing records from the nineteenth-century Office of Public Works modifications. Thus began the first comprehensive scientific investigation of the tomb, which would consume 13 years of work by the archaeologist and his colleagues, students, and workers from National University of Ireland (NUI) Cork and the Irish Tourist Board. There would be a further seven years until the publication of the research in 1982. This epic archaeological project was ultimately to result in the preservation and the modern reconstruction of the monument, most evident in the brilliant white entrance facade that greets its many thousands of yearly visitors.

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When the investigations were completed and every stone put back into place, what resulted was a flat-topped heart-shaped mound some 11 m (36 ft) high and about 91.5 m (300 ft) in diameter, covering an area of nearly .4 ha (one acre). The base of the mound is held in place by 97 large kerbstones placed end-to-end horizontally. The mound itself was built from hand-sized rounded boulders, along with layers of sod for stability. The passage into the tomb, together with the corbelled-ceiling inner chamber, is 24 m (79 ft) long, penetrating only a third of the way into the mound. It was constructed, entirely without mortar, of large slabs, some up to 2 m (6.5 ft) tall. Many of these slabs were sumptuously decorated with spirals, concentric semi-circles, and lozenges (diamond-shapes). Similar decorations are to be found on many of the kerbstones.

At the end of the passage the large cruciform central chamber, with its high ceiling, opens into three smaller recesses, each of which held a large “basin stone,” which may have held the burnt bones of the dead. The “Great Circle” of 12 boulder-like standing stones, up to 2.5 m (8 ft) high, partially surrounds the monument. There may once have been a complete circle of some 35 to 38 stones. This feature was built more than a thousand years after the passage tomb itself, which was built in the Neolithic period, around 3200 BCE.

Excavation trenches into the adjacent landscape uncovered evidence of a smaller (destroyed) passage tomb, a later ritual monument known as a “woodhenge,” and a ceremonial pathway or “cursus.” There is evidence that the surrounding area may have once contained up to forty tombs. 

As archaeologist Michael Herity put it. Probably the most dynamic and accomplished people to settle in Ireland during the whole span of prehistory were the builders of the passage graves. In energy and creativity they are rivaled only by the Celts. Their spectacular tombs, the massive tumuli with which they are covered, and the carvings on the tomb walls are their best-known achievements; these are all the more remarkable when we consider that they were erected in the Stone Age.

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Excavation diagram of the Newgrange Passage (After O'Kelly)
Before the tomb could be reconstructed in its modern form, the archaeologists had to remove much of the covering cairn and the roofing stones of the passage in order to create a concrete dome protecting the chamber. Other stones were braced and stabilized in position. The heaviest stone removed, using a crane, weighed more than 9,000 kg (ten tons). Although most were lighter, Professor O’Kelly wondered how the Neolithic-era builders could lift such stones. As an experiment he had some of his men, experienced in the handling of large stones, move a 900 kg (one-ton) stone using only rollers on a ramp. With a length of rope, three men were able to move it a distance of 15 m (49 ft) and 4 m (13 ft) in elevation during twelve hours of labor.

Within the tomb there were some items that escaped the attentions of earlier generations of treasure-seekers. A large hammer-shaped pendant was found in the center of the main chamber; nearby were a serpentine marble and some flint flakes. In the west recess a pendant and pieces of bone tools were found mixed with the burnt human bones remains. The east recess was the largest, and was extravagantly decorated on its roof. Recovered from that recess were a bone chisel, marbles, beads, and a pendant.

Human remains, some found mixed into the earth on the floor of the tomb where they were discarded by the eighteenth-century visitors, represented at least five different persons, although there may have been many more. Three of the individuals were cremated; the other two were unburnt.

However many or few were contained in these tombs they must surely have been special in some way. The number of workers and their families who built Newgrange must have been considerable and yet they were not buried in or immediately around it. We have no way of knowing in what way the people who were put inside Newgrange were special; it does not necessarily follow that they were royal or priestly, they may have been special in some quite different way.

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1880 Photograph by R Welch the decorated edge of the roof bos lintel is sen above the entrance.
In their 1841 travel journal the Halls enthusiastically proclaimed Newgrange the spot where …the Druids offered sacrifice; or at least, where they held their solemn meetings; for of its origin there is no doubt, and almost; as little, that it was the ‘Inner Temple’ of their secret rites.

But the local farmers who guided the Halls and other early visitors to the tomb had their own legends of the gods who inhabited the site, gods far older than those of the Druids. In local tradition, Newgrange was the home of Aengus Óg and the Daghdha, the gods of the Tuatha Dé Danaan. The ancient name for Newgrange and the other nearby tombs, including Knowth and Dowth, was Brú na Bóinne, the Palace of the Boyne. From the top of any one of these three major passage tombs, the other two may be seen. Around 1830 a priest went to Newgrange to try to uncover evidence of its ancient name still being used. He found that local usage referred to the site as “Bro-Park,” and nearby were “Bro-Farm” and “Bro-Mill,” all using the modern derivation of the older Irish Brú. “Thus, the identical name An Brugh, (the Palace) by which the celebrated place is called in the Senchus-na-Relec (History of Cemeteries), though unobserved by the learned, still lingers around the monument of the Danaans.”

Professor Michael J. O’Kelly, who led the 1962-1975 excavation and reconstruction of the monument, was inspired by these legendary stories of the Palace of the Boyne. The gods and heros, while found in the Medieval manuscripts, likely date from earlier oral tradition. Professor O’Kelly, in fact, takes the oft-repeated claim that “the earliest Irish stories are a window on the Iron Age” and revises it:

One cannot help feeling that the richly accoutered warriors of the Irish Bronze Age are far more convincing prototypes for thedramatis personae of the Irish heroic cycle than the shadowy figures [of the Iron Age]. If this were the case it would bring [the stories] nearer in time to the people who built the Boyne tombs. Can it have been they who planted the first seeds of Irish oral literature and should one begin to think of this not as a window on the Iron Age but as one on the Late Neolithic?

The legendary resident of Brú na Bóinne, Aengus Óg, was the son of the Dagda, the “good god,” of the Irish. The Dagda had an affair with Aengus’ mother, Boann, who symbolized the river Boyne. To disguise the illicit union the Dagda ordered the sun to stand still for nine months. Thus Aengus was conceived, brought to term, and born all in one day. Aengus Óg, “Aengus the Young,” was also known as “Mac-an-Og,” the son of youth. He is similar to the Greek Eros, the god of youth and love.

According to the twelfth-century Book of Lecan, when he learned that he would inherit nothing from his father the Dagda, Aengus used his wiles to re-order time in his own way. He asked the Dagda if he could live in Brú na Bóinne for “a day and a night,” and his father agreed. Afterwards, however, Aengus insisted that “a day and a night” was equal to “all days and all nights.” Thus he took over possession of the Palace on the Boyne.

In another tale, Aengus fell in love with a girl named Caer Ibormeith whom he saw in a dream. Both his mother and his father searched Ireland for a year, but failed to find her. When finally Aengus found Caer, she was chained up with 150 other girls at the Lake of the Dragon’s Mouth. He discovered that on every other Samhain (November 1) all the girls would turn into swans for one year. Aengus was told he could have Caer if he could identify her as a swan.

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‘Who is calling me?’ said Caer. ‘Angus calls you,’ he said, ‘and if you come, I swear by my word, I will not hinder you from going into the loch again.’ ‘I will come,’ she said. So she came to him, and he laid his two hands on her, and then, to hold to his word, he took the shape of a swan on himself, and they went into the loch together, and they went around it three times. And then they spread their wings and rose up from the loch, and went in that shape till they were at Brugh na Boinne. And as they were going, the music they made was so sweet that all the people that heard it fell asleep for three days and three nights.

The epic significance of Brú na Bóinne was woven into the later tales of the Ulster Cycle. As Lady Gregory tells the story, the great Cuchulainn was conceived in the mound of Newgrange when his father Lugh of the Long Hand magically transported his mother Dectire there:

And he put on them the appearance of a flock of birds, and they went with him southward till they came to Brugh na Boinne, the dwelling-place of the Sidhe. And no one at Emain Macha could get tale or tidings of them, or know where they had gone, or what had happened to them.

The Palace on the Boyne also plays a role in the Fenian Cycle, the tales of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his band of warriors. In the story called “The Pursuit of Diamuid and Grainne” after Diarmuid was gored by a boar and left by Fionn Mac Cumhaill to die in agony, his lover Grainne found his body watched over by Aengus Óg, along with three hundred of his followers.

Oengus said: ‘[There has never been] one night since I took you with me to the Brugh over the Boyn , at the age of nine months, until tonight that I was not watching you and guarding you against your enemies, Diarmuid, and alas for the treachery that Fionn has done to you.’ He continued: ‘Horsemen of the fairy-mound without defilement, let Diarmuid of the fine shape be lifted by you to the Brugh, sweet, full of hosts, everlasting.’
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The early sanctity of Brú na Bóinne was invoked to enhance the legitimacy of those who were supposedly the later historical pagan kings of Ireland. In legend, the kings of Tara were originally buried in the royal cemetery at Rathcroghan (Crúachan) in Co. Roscommon. But when one of the kings married a woman from the Tuatha Dé Danaan, he and his descendants insisted on burial at the Palace of the Boyne.

Cormac mac Airt was the most celebrated of the pagan High Kings of Ireland. In legend reared by a she-wolf in Co. Sligo’s Caves of Kesh, he grew to be, according to some, an actual historical ruler of the Ui Neil in perhaps the third century CE. According to the story, after he became aware of Christianity he vowed that he would not be buried with his predecessors at Brú na Bóinne, as it was the “chief cemetery of the idolaters,” and instead wished to be interred across the river at Ros na Righ.

There may even be a connection between the Aengus Óg of Brú na Bóinne and the Aengus who gave his name to the spectacular Iron Age fort of Dun Aengus on the Aran Islands. Although in most accounts Dun Aengus was named after Aengus, King of the Clann Umoir, of the Fir Bolg, some think that this Aengus and Aengus Óg, son of the Dagda, are but two aspects of a single god, a Celtic Zeus.

The Neolithic peoples who occupied the rich fertile lands of the Boyne Valley created a community stable and cohesive enough to build structures destined to last more than 5,000 years. Powerful rulers, perhaps priest-kings, inspired the loyalty required for these achievements because they were believed to communicate with their ancestors in another plane of existence. To envision just how many members of the community may have been required to build Newgrange, Professor O’Kelly calculated that the 181,436,948 kg (200,000 tons) of earth and rock required would have taken a workforce of 400 people 16 years to carry to the spot and construct the mound.

It was clear to the excavator and others that all this effort was not solely to create a house of the dead. Newgrange was also seen as a residence of other-dimensional beings, a home of the spirits. The great care taken by the Neolithic builders, which included cutting rain channels on some of the roof stones to keep the interior dry, shows a respect for the structure that was remembered through all the succeeding generations. Respect came even from the invading Vikings of the ninth century, who never entered the tomb, and to those visitors who left golden coins in tribute. No such tribute was found elsewhere at the other nearby passage tombs.

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Perhaps the most complex fo the Bru' na Boinne sites is Knowth
The three great Boyne tombs must have been sources of awe, wonder and superstition from very early times, perhaps even from their very beginning; indeed the arousal of these emotions may have played no small part in the minds of their builders in the first place. Perhaps the tombs were built as much to commemorate and arouse respect for the gods or spirits as to provide resting places for the newly dead.

The veneration of Newgrange continued long after the liturgy of its builders was forever lost, even after the tomb had begun to collapse onto its kerbstones, and its entrance sealed by tons of rock and earth. In the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, a thousand years after the construction of the Brú na Bóinne tombs, the new Beaker culture farmers of the Boyne built their own settlement, squatting right up against the side of Newgrange. It may have been these people who built the incomplete circle of stones around the monument. They also built, just 9 m (30 ft) away from the tomb, a large circular enclosure of timbers posts. In the center of this circle archaeologists discovered pits where small animals were cremated and buried. Nearby is the “cursus,” the surviving 100 m (328 ft) of the route of a ritual procession through the landscape.

The vista must have been very impressive, indicating that by the Late Neolithic religious ceremonies and processions were taking place across the landscape of Brú na Bóinne, with their organisers using the river valley to create their own theatre of ritual.

Such scenarios as these, imagined by archaeologists and anthropologists from clues left in the earth and observations of indigenous peoples, can never completely explain the belief systems of the ancient peoples of the Boyne Valley. In their desire to commune with the remote civilization that built and worshipped at Newgrange, some have today projected their own sincerely held spirituality onto the monument. Just as Vallencey and others saw Phoenician letterforms in the Brú na Bóinne spirals, there are authors today who combine their observations with their intuition to arrive at conclusions quite outside the realm of archaeology. Some have suggested that specific constellations, guide points for ancient astronomers, can be deciphered in the ornamented stones of Newgrange. One book, with information derived from “the ancient tradition of Freemasonry…rediscovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls,” postulates that Newgrange, “a large house built of crystals,” was actually a ” a machine for the reconstruction of a shattered world.” More soberly, Martin Brennan’s work in The Boyne Valley Vision and The Stones of Time has gained a wide following:

The ancient mounds in the Boyne Valley are a great feat of non-verbal communication. Their message comes to us through four millennia of time. By using universal and concrete symbols like the sun and the earth itself, this message transcends the barriers of language. These mounds are concrete realizations of the world view of ancient man in Ireland. In this great vision, the whole cosmos is symbolized.

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The neolithic Winter Solstice Ceremony as envisoned by Paul Francis
(copyright OPW)
We cannot know how the excavator of Newgrange might have responded to those seekers of the sacred who made their pilgrimages to Brú na Bóinne following its reconstruction. Professor O’Kelly, sadly, did not live to see the 1982 publication of the book documenting his work. But the academic archaeologist and the devotee of sacred sites may have more in common than is immediately evident. Carleton Jones, of NUI Galway, explains that for the Neolithic people “points in the landscape marked by the Boyne monuments were viewed as supernaturally powerful…” Dr. Jones suggests that the builders of Brú na Bóinne may have chosen the spots for their monuments in order to enhance the existing “power points” they perceived on the landscape. In their Powerful Places in Ireland guidebook, authors Elyn Aviva and Gary White write that Newgrange “continues to be a powerful place, drawing thousands of visitors throughout the year who bring a mixture of curiosity, awe, and reverence.”

Irish author, poet, and self-described clairvoyant Æ (George William Russell) wrote of the inspiration for his dialogue at Brú na Bóinne with Aengus Óg in which “a light began to glow and to pervade the cave…” Russell wrote those words 70 years before Professor O’Kelly became the first person in 5,000 years to see the light of the Winter Solstice enter the passage of Newgrange.

…one warm summer day lying idly on the [Newgrange] hillside, not then thinking of anything but the sunlight, and how sweet it was to drowse there, when, suddenly, I felt a fiery heart throb, and knew it was personal and intimate, and started with every sense dilated and intent, and turned inwards, and I heard first a music as of bells going away, away into that wondrous underland whither, as legend relates, the Danaan gods withdrew; and then the heart of the hills was opened to me, and I knew there was no hill for those who were there, and they were unconscious of the ponderous mountain piled above the palaces of light, and the winds were sparkling and diamond clear, yet full of colour as an opal, as they glittered through the valley, and I knew the Golden Age was all about me, and it was we who had been blind to it but that it had never passed away from the world.

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