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Newgrange or Bru na Boinne

Newgrange or Bru na Boinne

An Ancient Place in Ireland

The world is full of old structures that we modern folks have not yet figured out exactly how or why they were built. Two popular places that readily come to mind are Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids of Giza, but nearly every country has a temple or monument of some kind that defies our knowledge of how people without modern tools and technology could move massive stones then decorate them with highly detailed art.

One of the oldest that has been discovered is at least 700 years older than Stonehenge and 500 years older than the Egyptian pyramids. Built in the Neolithic or new stone age at a time when Europeans were transitioning from hunter-gatherers to farmers, it is called Newgrange or Bru’ na Boinne, and at 5,300 years old it is considered one of the oldest artistically and astronomically significant structures in the world. It is located in County Meath, Ireland some 25 miles northwest of Dublin. Newgrange is the largest of three similar structures that were built on a rise overlooking the Boyne River. The other two are called Knowth and Dowth.  All three were constructed about the same time and together are considered one of Europe’s largest and most important concentrations of prehistoric megalithic art.

The name Newgrange was given to the area by Cistercian monks from Mellifont Abbey founded in 1142. The abbey’s vast estate was divided into farms known as granges. The field that contained the ancient monument was simply known to the monks as the new grange, and the name has stuck.

But long before the monks established their abbey and farms, even long before Christianity came to Ireland, the monument was known as Bru’ na Boinne, which roughly translates mansion or large house on the Boyne River. Although we think of Ireland as a Celtic country, the land had a thriving Neolithic population long before the Celts arrived. In fact, Bru’ na Boinne was built by Neolithic farmers at least 1,000 years before the arrival of the Bell Beaker People, who are considered one of the first Celtic tribes to get that far west.  These people brought to Ireland a unique pottery style and a knowledge of metalwork, especially how to work copper and tin into bronze. Unfortunately, they also brought a warrior culture that changed the social structure of what had been a relatively peaceful population.

Bru’ na Boinne was built by Neolithic farmers who had only stone tools, their muscles, plus a knowledge of engineering and astronomy that still astounds us today. The round structure when completed covered about one acre of ground. It was 45 feet high in the center, and contained thousands of tons of stone from a variety of sources up to 50 miles away. The stones include 97 large kerb stones surrounding the structure, some weighing up to 7 tons, as well as thousands of pieces of quartz that make up about half of the mound’s outer wall, and innumerable small and large stones used to make the roof and walls of a long central passage inside the mound. It was quite an engineering achievement.

Then the whole thing was covered with layers of soil or turves. It is interesting that even though we modern folks need to replace our roofs every 20 or 30 years, the 5,300- year-old corbelled stone and sod roof at Bru’ na Boinne has never leaked.

No one knows exactly how long Bru’ na Boinne or the many smaller structures around it were used by the Neolithic people who built them. There is evidence that they were still in use in the early Bronze Age which began in Ireland around 2000 BC. This would imply that the structures were used for well over 1,000 years. Why it was not used longer remains a mystery, but it might have to do with the arrival of the Celts who brought their own culture and religion.

Archaeologists have determined that around 1500 BC nearly all megalith building in Ireland gradually stopped. One theory for this is that the culture of the generally peaceful farmers and herders of the Neolithic age was being replaced by that of the quarrelsome warrior bands of the Bronze Age – the Celts who, with their copper and bronze weapons, easily overran the Neolithic farmers armed with only spears and stone axes. The Celtic invaders were more interested in building forts and palaces than in the quite pastoral life and the communal building efforts of the native inhabitants. It is interesting that in the hundreds of Neolithic tombs spread around Ireland, very few stone weapons of war have been found. Yet a good many of the later Bronze Age tombs contain swords, spears and other weapons.

For centuries Bru’ na Bornne lay unnoticed or was ignored as a useless pagan temple, especially after the arrival of Christianity in Ireland around 400 AD. The land was plowed over by the various owners, including the Cistercian monks, and many owners since then, but for the most part the stone structure remained undisturbed.

It was not until 1699 that some farmers gathering stones for a fence noticed an opening dug into the ground that was obviously the work of diggers and not a natural cave. They contacted the local authorities who got in touch with Edward Lhuyd, head of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at Oxford University, which, by the way, is still a world class museum today. His investigations determined that Bru na Boinne, with its long entrance passage was unique among ancient megalith structures that had been found in western Europe up to that time.

Lhuyd did a bit of cleaning around the entrance, and for the first time in well over 3000 years, opened it to public viewing. At first, he got little response for his efforts to tell people how unique Bru’ na boinne was. Ireland was under British rule at the time and the general opinion was that it would have been impossible for the ignorant Irish to have built such a complicated structure. And even Lhuyd did not realize just how complex the architecture of the structure was. For years it was more of a curiosity than a place to be revered and investigated.

In the 20th century, especially after the Irish had secured independence from the British, more people became interested in Irish history and tourism to Bru’ na Boinne increased.  So, in order to make the site more accessible and find out more about it, in 1961 the Irish Tourist Board commissioned archaeologist Michael J. O’Kelly and his wife Claire to investigate the structure and restore it to what it may have looked like 5,300 years ago. A bit reluctant at first to take on the huge project, Bru’ na boine turned out to be their greatest achievement and kept the couple busy for the next 15 years.

newgrange ireland

The most astounding discovery to come out of their work was in 1967 when the O’Kelly’s figured out the function of the ‘roof box’, a 3-feet wide by 2-feet tall opening over the entrance to a shaft or passage 70 feet long. It turned out that the open box, like a transom window over a door, allowed sunlight to shine down the entire length of the shaft for only 5 days of the year, the day of the winter solstice plus two days before and two days after it. By our Gregorian calendar that is December 19th through 23rd. Before the 19th the sunlight is too far south to line up with the passage, and after 23rd, it is too far north, so it is only during these 5 days that the passage is lit.

In the middle of this 5-day period December 21 is our winter solstice when winter begins and the hours of daylight begin increasing. It is a great turning point in the year. Although January is cold, we know the days are getting longer and spring is on the way.

This precise alignment was an impressive achievement that obviously took several years to calculate, especially without the aid of telescopes or any astronomical equipment. One wonders how many years of getting up before dawn to determine the exact position of the sun on the day that it shines the fewest hours did it take until these Neolithic observers got it right? They got it right then, and after 5,300 years, it is still right today. Those observations must have required a level of patience and perseverance that most of us in our harried and hurried world do not possess. 

The next question is why they did it. The most reasonable theory is that it marked the day when farmers could begin to plan for next years’ crops and sheep herders could plan for sheering season. That day probably marked the beginning of their calendar year and from that date they could calculate when to plant their wheat, oats, barley and other crops they were growing at that time.

Another theory is that Bru’ na Boinne was built to be a ‘passage tomb’ or tumulus where the remains of humans were buried. During the period of the solstice, sunlight reaches all the way to the back of the passage where three chambers contain stone basins in which human remains were found. Archaeologist have found bones and the cremated remains of several people, but not necessarily enough to justify the place as strictly a burial site. Ireland is home to over 1,500 stone tombs of a variety of types including dolmens, stone circles, court tombs, portal tombs, and others but none of them come close to matching the grandeur and astronomical importance of Bru’ na Boinne.

As if the age, the size, and astronomical significance of Bru’ na Boinne were not enough to make it an important site, it also contains some of the most beautiful Neolithic artwork in the world. Most of the hundreds of large stones around the main structure have intricate art carved into them. The abstract symbols of spirals surrounded by triangles, diamonds, and zig-zags have provoked a great deal of speculation as to their meaning. The most famous design is the swirling three connected spirals carved on the large entrance stone and on some of the stones in the passage. This design is seen frequently in Ireland today, especially on tourist brochures.

The reason for the art is a mystery that may never be solved. But given that Bru’ na Boinne was built in such a way as to catch the first rays of sun at that time of transition between the days getting shorter and the days getting longer, it makes sense that the designs the Neolithic artists carved had something to do with the things they saw in the sky. It would not be too big a stretch to envision that the spirals and other designs could represent stars, planets, and the shapes of constellations. One is reminded of Vincent van Gogh’s painting Starry Night where he represented stars as large swirls and spirals. Although Van Gogh and the Bru’ na Boinne artists were separated by over 5,200 years, and the telescope, the human desire to communicate a cosmic vision, or a feeling of wonder brought on by looking at the night sky is timeless.

Another mystery concerning the profusion of Bru’ na Boinne art is that that there are several decorated stones that seem to have been deliberately put out of public view which were not discovered until restoration work by the O’Kellys in the 1960s and 70s. For example, there are decorated kerb stones that are facing the mound instead of facing outward and there were a number of carved stones in the passage that were hidden behind other stones. There seem to be too many of these hidden stones for it to have been just an oversite or an attempt to cover up mistakes. Generally, these hidden stones looked as well carved as the ones facing outward. Perhaps the feeling was that the spirits of the sun, planets, and stars could see the intricate art regardless of how it was oriented.

Like many ancient monuments around the world, Bru’ na Boinne still has many mysteries to be solved. One fact that nearly all of these structures have in common, however, is that our Neolithic ancestors knew more about such things as engineering, the logistics of moving extremely heavy stones for long distances, and the movements of the stars, the sun, and planets than we realize. One could speculate about what the world would be like today if these early builders and astronomers had been allowed to steadily advance their knowledge and skills right up until today. But, as we know, wars, invasions, religious conflicts and other forms of shortsightedness often stifle human progress and we are too often forced to pick up the pieces and start over again. Without our destructive conflicts, could we have colonies on Mars today, would we have cures for cancer, heart disease, dementia? 

Today Bru’ na Boinne or Newgrange is considered one of the most unique Neolithic structures in the world and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ted McCormack

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