The origins of Newgrange, one of the most important passage graves in Europe, are steeped in mystery. According to Celtic lore, the legendary kings of Tara were buried here, but Newgrange predates them. The grave was left untouched by all invaders except the Danish, who raided its burial chambers in the 9th century. In 1699, it was rediscovered by a local landowner, Charles Campbell Scott. When it was excavated in the 1960s, archeologist Professor M. J. O’Kelly discovered that on the winter solstice, December 21, rays of sunlight enter the tomb and light up the burial chamber – making in the world’s oldest solar observatory.
TARA AND ITS KINGS
A site of mythical importance, Tara was the political and spiritual center of Celtic Ireland and the seat of the High Kings until the 11th century. Whoever ruled Tara could claim supremacy over the country. It is thought that many of Tara’s kings were buried in pagan ceremonies at Newgrange. Tara’s importance as a spiritual center diminished as Christianity flourished. Legend says that Tafra’s most famous king, Cormac Mac Art, who ruled in the 3rd century, did not want to be buried at the Newgrange among pagan kings. His kinsmen, disregarding his wish, tried to cross the Boyne River to Newgrange but failed due to the huge waves and so he was buried elsewhere.
WINTER SOLSTICE AT NEWGRANGE
The shortest day and the longest night occurs each year on December 21 and is known as the winter solstice. At Newgrange, on the morning of December 21, rays of sunlight shine into the roof box of the passage, illuminating the north recess of the cruciform burial chamber. At all other times of the year, the tomb is shrouded in darkness. Newgrange is the only passage grave currently excavated that has this characteristic – temples tend to be the usual locations for this type of event. Many believe that because of this, Newgrange was originally used as a place of worship, and only later as a burial ground for pagan kings.
DOWTH AND KNOWTH
Described as the “cradle of Irish civilization”, the Boyne valley contains two other prehistoric burial sites not far from Newgrange. The closest is Knowth, which is just 1 mile (1.6 km) away. Excavation of this site began in 1962 and it was found Excavation of this site began in 1962 and it 1was found to contain two tomb passages and the greatest concentration of megalithic art in Europe. Archeologists also found evidence that the site was occupied from the Neolithic period and weas used for habitation as well as for burials up until about 1400. Dowth, another passage grave 2 miles (3km) from Newgrange, is less spectacular. Its tombs are smaller and most of its artifacts were stolen by Victorian souvenir hunters.
Burial Chamber Ceiling
The burial chamber’s intricate corbelled ceiling, which reaches a height of 20ft (6m) above the floor, has survived intact. The overlapping slabs from a conical hollow, topped by a single capstone.
There are three recesses, or side chambers: the north recess is the one struck by sunlight on the winter solstice.
The chiseled stones found in each recess would once have contained funerary offerings and the bones of the dead.
The passage contains slab of slate, which would have been collected locally.
At dawn on December 21, a beam of sunlight shines through the roof box (a feature unique to Newgrange), travels along the 62-ft (19-m) passage and hits the central recess in the burial chamber.
The opening was originally blocked by the stone standing to its right. Newgrange’s most elaborately carved curbstone is in front, part of the curb of huge slabs around the cairn.
Restoration of Newgrange
Located on a low ridge north Boyne River, Newgrange took more than 70 years to build. Between 1962 and 1975, the passage grave and mound were restored as closely as possible to their original state.
White quartz and granite stones found scattered around the site during excavations were used to rebuild this wall around the front of the cairn.
CONSTRUCTION OF NEWGRANGE
Newgrange was designed by people with exceptional artistic and engineering skills. Without the use of the wheel or mental tools, they transported about 200,000 tons of loose stones to build the mound, or cairn, that protects the passage grave. Larger slabs were used to make the circle around the cairn (12 out of a probable 35 stones have survived), the curb, and the tomb itself. Many of the curbstones and the slabs lining the passage, the chamber, and its recesses are motifs. The corbelled ceiling consists of smaller, unadorned slabs.
In Irish mythology, Aenghus Mac Oc was the God of Love, who tricked his way into owning Newgrange. It is said that he was away when the magical places of Ireland were being divided up. On his return, he asked to borrow Newgrange for the day and night, but refused to give it back, claiming it was his, since all of time can be divided by day and night.
c. 3200 BC: Construction of the tomb at Newgrange by Neolithic farmers.
c. 860: Danish invaders raid the burial chamber and remove most of its treasures.
c. 1140: Newgrange is used as farmland for grazing cattle until the 14th century.
1962-75: Newgrange is restored and the roof box is discovered.
1967: Archeologist learn that rays of sunlight shine up the chamber on the winter solstice, December 21.
1993: Newgrange is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.