If we were making a list of the top 100 ancient sites in Britain and Ireland (as is the current vogue) Newgrange would undoubtedly be in the hallowed top 10. Its great age, size, astronomical features and location in the beautiful Boyne Valley, mark it as one of the most important ‘mystery’ sites in Europe. Its popularity and exposure has not diminished its power to impress, as I discovered one blustery August afternoon when I joined one of the guided tours from the Bru na Boinne visitor’s centre, that now form the only public access to the site. Even thronged with visitors from school trips and bus parties Newgrange still has the power to stir the soul.
The real mystery of tombs such as Newgrange is what they were originally used for. Their purpose can only be speculated on with reference to any archaeological evidence. Although obviously a place of burial, its long history of continuous development brings to mind colourful rituals from the dim reaches of the past. Add to this the mysterious spirals and geometric designs, and the shaft of sunlight that pierces the mound at the Winter Solstice, we can only dream of the beliefs and practices that were the driving force behind the construction of Newgrange.
History and Construction
Newgrange forms the largest of a complex of monuments built along a stretch of the River Boyne known as the Bru na Boinne. The oft quoted date for the tombs construction is circa 3200BC, but in reality the site as a whole has a complex history of development spanning over a 1,000 years. The actual mound and chamber dates from 3300-2900BC and consists of layered stone and turf that rises 40 feet from a base supported by 97 large kerb stones. This mound covers a 60 foot passageway leading to a corbelled chamber with 3 side recesses. Within each recess is a carved stone basin onto which the cremated remains of the dead were placed. Unfortunately the grave had been robbed (the tomb was opened in 1699) before proper archaeological excavations in the 1960’s, so the number of remains can not be counted with certainty although 5 individual burials have been identified.
The outer entrance wall and façade of granite and quartz blocks was speculatively reconstructed and there has been some suggestion that the quartz stones may not have been part of the actual mound construction at all. During the Beaker period timber circles were added to the site along with ritual pits, the main mound having fallen out of use. Finally a circle of standing stones, some of which can still be seen today, was erected sometime after 2000BC.
One of the most intriguing and famous aspects of the tomb is the roof box above the main entrance through which, at dawn on the winter Solstice, sunlight enters to light the chamber at the end of the passage. This is hardly an accidental design and shows the meticulous care and attention to detail of the people who built the tomb. Access to this special event is now run as part of a national lottery.
Newgrange like many of the ancient mounds of Ireland became the home of the Sidhe, the remnants of the mythological Tuatha De Dannan. It was also traditionally the home of the God Dagda and forms part of the landscape of Celtic mythology where many of the ancient tales were played out. There is some evidence that the site was revered throughout history as votive offerings from c.400AD were discovered during excavation.
All in all Newgrange is an impressive site, the focus of interest for historians, archaeologists, mystery researchers and mystics alike.