Newgrange Archaeological Site, Ireland
Let me show you what it’s like on the winter solstice, the guide says as he turns off the lights. We’re thrust into pitch blackness, with just cold stone all around us.
He flicks a switch and a narrow band of orange light appears on the floor. It’s clear to make out but it’s only just there and is almost swallowed up by the darkness around us.
He flicks another switch and the beam becomes stronger. It now stretches from up the end of the long narrow passage and hits the stones near where I’m standing at the very back. It’s still black everywhere else and my hand is invisible in front of my face – just a vague silhouette. But this orange ray is bold and warm. It brings with it such power and… hope.
For millennia, this orange beam has been appearing just once a year… but nobody knows exactly why. There are lots of theories and educated guesses – and I’m not the first to think of power and hope.
It’s one of the strongest theories about the Newgrange site here in Ireland, about an hour’s drive from Dublin. Newgrange, at its simplest, is an enormous burial mound built more than 5000 years ago (before the Pyramids or Stonehenge). It was surely more than that, though. It must have also had some kind of ceremonial role in the society of people who lived in these lands all those years ago. How… we don’t know. But it’s clear that this chamber I’m standing in was the focus.
Inside the chamber
The chamber is about 6 metres high and it is deep in the very centre of the mound, which is about 76 metres in diameter. To get to it, I’ve come through the narrow passage from the very edge, squeezing between rocks on a couple of occasions and ducking my head a couple of times. But, here in the centre, there is plenty of space. The three sides that don’t have the passageway entrance have alcoves that may have been altars or may have been where the remains of the deceased were kept.
Some of the rocks – on the walls and the ceilings – are carved with mysterious artwork. I would love to show you some pictures of them but photography isn’t allowed inside the mound. In some ways this is a good thing. Photos would not be able to convey the sense of being inside the chamber and it’s something which is best experienced for yourself. There is a spiritual energy inside the chamber of Newgrange.
The best time to be here, to experience the power, is on the winter solstice – the day the guide is now replicating for us. Because even 5000 years ago, the humans who built Newgrange had an incredible understanding of astronomy and geometry. For just a matter of minutes at about 9 o’clock on the morning of the winter solstice, the rising run will shine directly down the passage, through a special box at the entrance.
Well… I say that humans had a good understanding of astronomy back then but, really, the best way to put it is that they had no choice but to understand the seasons. It was about survival. Winter in Ireland didn’t just mean months of biting cold, it meant a scarcity of food – so understanding the movement of the sun meant being able to plan your harvests and prepare for bad times.
One theory amongst archaeologists is that Newgrange was used as a plea to the gods to bring back the sun. The winter solstice is the turning point of when the days will start to get longer again. Perhaps the people of 5000 years ago worried that one day that wouldn’t happen, that the days would just keep getting shorter until they lived in eternal darkness. Perhaps the ceremonies in that chamber were to ask for their light back and to send that message to the deities directly back up that beam of orange.
The people who built Newgrange
These people from Newgrange are interesting. This is just one site of many in the area – the whole ensemble being called Bru na Boinne. There are two other large mounds, that presumably hold some particle significance, and at least 40 smaller mounds within relatively easy reach. Even the construction of them, all those years ago before the wheel was invented, is impressive. But then you look at the artwork and wonder what these people were thinking.
The rock positioned at the entrance to the mound at Newgrange is the most famous of them all. Take a look at it here:
Like many aspects of the site, we don’t know exactly what it depicts. The guide suggests a few of the popular theories. It shows the passage of the sun in the days around the winter solstice; it’s a map of the area with the three mounds prominent; it’s some kind of ancient pictoral language. Oh, or it could just be a pretty pattern that doesn’t mean anything. That’s a popular theory as well.
Bru na Boinne visitors centre
A short drive down the road is the official visitors centre for the whole Bru na Boinne area of ancient mounds. It’s a modern and interesting exhibition about many aspects of the story. What catches my attention are the sections about the people who lived here.
They’re depicted wearing animal furs as clothes, hunting with simple weapons, gathering around a fire in a crude tent. But then the text says “these humans were almost identical to humans today”. I look at the models of the men and think they look nothing like me. They’re primitive and ancient and have foxes hanging from the roof of their tent. But, then again, they dragged heavy stones from 80 kilometres away and built a waterproof chamber in an enormous mound that is perfectly aligned with an astronomical event.
What did they know? What were they thinking? What were they trying to achieve?
Honestly, I have more questions now than at the start of the day. Somewhere like Newgrange may not have the reputation of Stonehenge but it’s just as mysterious. And it’s a mystery that will probably never have an answer.
This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For more info click here. You can see all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I’ve visited here.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Tourism Ireland but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.