Friday, September 23, 2016


This is our academic blog post on Newgrange. This blog contains the adventures of Brad, Meghann, Elizabeth, and Eva.

 Note: We were unable to take pictures of the inside of the tomb, so there is only footage of the outside.

The Newgrange tomb may not seem like much from the outside, but the history that this passage holds is truly ancient. The tomb itself is over five thousand years old and is located in the Boyne Valley. It is much older than Stonehenge and the great pyramids of Giza. 

The Boyne River

The Boyne Valley
At the top of the hill -- Newgrange.

We must remember that the only tools these farmers had at the time were made of stone, wood, or bone. Transporting stones would have been difficult and taken time to move. It often took four days for 80 men to bring a 4 ton stone from 3km away. About 2,000 of these stones were likely used to make the tomb. Most of these stones were greywacke, a grey-green sandstone. On the outside, the base of the tomb is lined with 97 large stones called the kerbstones. The entrance kerbstone is decorated with an ornate design. The decoration stops near the bottom of the stone in a horizontal line that represented the ground level at the time. This stone acts a physical and spiritual barrier. Before the stairs were built, you had to climb over the stones to enter the tomb. It also is thought to have acted as a barrier between the living and the dead.

This mound likely took around fifteen years to build depending on the number of people involved.
In order to build the tomb in the precise alignment with the sun that it is, measurements of the sun had to be taken for years before any stones were set in place. The passage was likely marked out with timber, then sockets for the stones were made in the ground. As the stones were set in place, artists decorated them. Smaller stones for decoration and rituals were brought from the Cooley peninsula, and quartz was brought from the Wicklow mountains. 

Quartz on the walls.

Inside is a short passageway with a large room in the center. It is thought to have held the remains of the inhabitant’s ancestors or to held a burial ritual. The walls of the passageway and chamber are decorated with ancient carvings. Sadly, they are also covered in "graffiti" (names and dates chiseled into the stone some of which is dated from the 1800's.) The grounds are now protected and kept up. The grass is always cleanly cut, litter picked up, and the monument rebuilt to its original glory.

Beautiful Carvings

One of the many other, much smaller passage tombs in the area around Newgrange

Newgrange, although the biggest burial site in Ireland, has a simple structure that can be seen in the 27 other burial sites also located in the Boyne Valley. Looking at the huge mound, you would think the chamber inside is large, but it is very small. Only twenty people can fit inside. The cross shape inside is created by having one long pathway, and three sections pointing north, south, and west. Within the structure, it is easy to see how the burial mound was built. By layering large slates of stone closer and closer together, a cone shape is formed until the top stone was placed to seal off light. This is called Corbelling. 

One many think that the tunnel into the tomb would cut off any light to illuminate the inside. However, the Neolithic builders were very smart. The window at the entrance of Newgrange is in exact level with the eastern horizon and the center of the tomb. This means that as you walk to the center of the mound, you are elevating yourself about 2 meters. The passage is facing toward where the sun rises during the winter solstice. During that time, the light shines through a window above the doorway called the roof box. It then travels down the passageway and lights up the chamber at the end. 

The effect is magical. It is recreated for tourists today with artificial light, but thousands enter for the drawing to be one of the few people who get to be inside the chamber during the five days around the winter solstice to see the real thing. Real sunlight creates a completely different effect because it seems to have a pulsing energy of its own. Below we'll try to describe what it felt like, however, it will not be as real as being there and we were only there for the artificial reenactment. 

The chamber is pitch black. So utterly dark it sticks to you like and inky coating, weighing down on you. You wave your hand in front of your face. You know you're doing it, but you cannot see it. It is so quiet you can hear your heartbeat. Goosebumps speckle your arms in anticipation, wondering if the Irish clouds will block out the sunlight. Nothing happens. Finally, a speck of golden light smacks the floor. It turns into a stripe, slicing down the center of the chamber. Suddenly you can see all around you and to the top of the chamber even with that little bit of light. The light seems to vibrate and move. It lasts for a few magical minutes before it shimmers and fades and you have left once again in the dark.

What just happened? Many have wondered what exactly the sun shining into the tomb for these few precious minutes meant to the people who took the time and effort to built this tomb. Some think it was to signify the triumph of light over darkness. Maybe the spirits of the ancestors were revived during these few moments, or perhaps they traveled up the stream of light into the heavens beyond. No one knows what the significance of these moments were to those people, but it is fun to wonder and amazing to see the same thing happen thousands of years later.

The reasons for this are argued. The people who built the tomb might have worshiped the sun. It was also a useful way for farmers to know when winter was coming to an end so they could plant their crops.

The people who built these tombs were very intelligent, but they probably lived very simple lives. Farming was the main source of nutrition, but food from the wild supplemented their diet. Therefore, knowing when to plant crops was vital. The passage tomb of Newgrange provided this "calendar." The Boyne river which wraps around Newgrange provided a wealth of salmon. Every part of the animal was used. They ate the meat and blood, skin and fur became clothes and shoes, and the bones could be used for any number of things, especially tools. The guts and sinew were used for sewing and binding. They ate many wild plants including “fat hen” which was like spinach or cabbage, but it provided a lot more iron, protein, and calcium. Berries and nuts were also a great source of food. Although mushrooms were gathered and eaten, they were also used for other things. The inner tissue of some mushrooms could be used to stop bleeding others were used as medicine.

They made longbows out of yew and arrows with flint points which were used for hunting and defense against bears. The arrowhead was likely bound to the shaft with sinew and cemented with resin. They made tools of wood and flint, stone, or bones.

It was awesome getting see this ancient tomb. It is a wonder it isn't listed among the wonders of the world. For the record, it is way cooler than Stonehedge. 

Here is Brad's video again with footage from our trip to Glendalough and Newgrange.

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