Mysteries and Histories of Newgrange, Ireland

I slept like a log last night.  Do logs actually sleep?  How do logs sleep?  Like me?

This is Newgrange, a Neolithic site in Ireland that was on my 30 list, which I visited in June when I went to Dublin to see The Who (I recently re-read that article and I’m glad I waited to write this one because I wasn’t making a lot of sense back then).

All the photos from Newgrange came out very, very brightly, because the light was doing something strange here.
All the photos from Newgrange came out very, very brightly, because the light was doing something strange here.

Archaeology:

Newgrange was constructed around 3,200BCE (it’s 5,000 years old; BCE means ‘before common era’).  It’s a chambered passage tomb in Neath, Ireland, about 40 minutes drive up the road from Dublin Airport.  It is ringed by kerbstones, most of which are carved.  The site was previously filled to the top with soil and remains (I have no idea what they were remains of), but in an act of Archaeological Stupidity, it was cleared out in the Victorian era (Ireland did also call the time period this because they were under British occupation at the time) so we don’t have as much evidence as we would like, so archaeologists can’t really say what was going on except that it was a chambered passage tomb.  Which I said already.

It’s mostly risen to significance in the last hundred years because of an interesting phenomenon:  For a couple of days before and after the winter solstice (December 21, midwinter), every year, when the sun rises, it shines in through a hole above the doorway and shines on the floor of the tomb, making it a clever way to mark the passage of time because it marks an annual event.  You can get entered into the lottery that they draw to get a ticket to see it in December but you’d have to make your own way there and you’d have to go alone because the lottery is per ticket.  I went alone but I’m not sure I felt like repeating the trip in the middle of winter and I have to wonder how many people win a ticket then don’t show up for whatever reason, causing other people (who would have turned up) to miss out.

Why does it only do it on Solstice?  Because the Earth is tilted, and it’s orbit around the sun is slightly elliptical, so the sun appears to move position in the sky to different heights (in its second dimension, it rises and sets on one plane and lifts and falls on another; see the diagram below) at different times of year.  In Ireland, in winter, it’s at its lowest during the winter solstice, so the rest of the year, it’s too high in the sky to shine through the hole above the entrance to Newgrange.  In summer, it’s got further to travel than in winter, so the days are longer (actually, we’re the ones travelling, but it’s easier to think of it this way if you’re stuck).

I just drew this to show how the sun appears to move across the sky at different heights at different times of year.
I just drew this to show how the sun appears to move across the sky at different heights at different times of year.

Why go to all the trouble to build something so big just to mark the passage of time?  Well there’s a few reasons (if we’re assuming this was its only purpose which is doubtful due to the human remains that have been found inside), but it’s mostly to do with the fact that during the Neolithic (when Newgrange was built) most of the world had transitioned to agriculture – in fact, these days, we define “Neolithic” as happening at different times around the world depending on when the onset of agriculture was, nothing at all to do with stone tools or fire or whatever.  The Neolithic fits into our current “age system” for prehistory (was the “three age system,” but sort of expanded now) like so:

Palaeolithic – Was “Upper Stone Age” (really long time ago, all of human prehistory until 10,000 years ago)
Mesolithic – Wasn’t a thing, now defined as between 10,000 years ago and the onset of agriculture.  The time of the “hunter-gatherers”
Neolithic – Onset of agriculture.
Iron Age – Discovery of and use of iron.
Bronze Age – Discovery of and use of bronze (an alloyed metal)
Historical – documentary evidence of events in the past.

These “ages” are debatable and the time we reached them differs around the world and particularly how they are defined differs around the world as different cultures view different events as being pivotal moments in their past development.  It is fairly likely that Newgrange, then, was built without the use of iron and was built by people who were living in an agri-culture.  Because this is really all we know about them, it has been put forward and agreed upon by many archaeologists that Newgrange’s function as a big calendar probably has something to do with needing to keep track of the time of year for purposes such as planting crops.  This, of course, would depend on what sort of agriculture was taking place because there is always a bit of an assumption that agriculture has always looked the same since it was first brought to the West, but we don’t actually know that to be true (and are gaining evidence that this is not the case – a topic for further discussion at some point perhaps).  Evidence for agricultural practices has pre-historically been difficult to find although advances in bioarchaeology might move us forward with this if people start seeing farmed land as legitimate archaeological sites instead of just looking for settlements.  Anyway…

I’m not using “absolute” words because you can’t point to anything in the past and say it’s a fact or an absolute truth, because it’s all down to whether we’ve made the correct interpretations of the evidence or not, and while scientific methods can reduce the margin of error, they can never fully eliminate it so most of the time we can’t construct those elaborate “histories” or narratives of the past that people like to hear with any great amount of accuracy.  Which sort of defeats the original point of archaeology if we’re to believe it was ever really about finding narratives of the people from the past in the first place (which I don’t believe, I believe that came later).

Enough Archaeology!  Show Me The Photos:

On the approach. The darker stones to the left are original, the whitest ones are part of a reconstruction.
On the approach. The darker stones to the left are original, the whitest ones are part of a reconstruction.
The entrance to the actual tomb, from almost straight-on (at a slight angle so you can see some contrast in the pic because the sun shines directly on it).
The entrance to the actual tomb, from almost straight-on (at a slight angle so you can see some contrast in the pic because the sun shines directly on it).
The opening through which the sun shines around the December solstice.
The opening through which the sun shines around the December solstice.
The corridor leading to the chamber in the heart of the tomb (photography not allowed inside).
The corridor leading to the chamber in the heart of the tomb (photography not allowed inside).
Another interesting structure nearby.
Another interesting structure nearby.
The site is still disappearing into the landscape and becoming one with its environment, making it hard to get a good picture from a distance.
The site is still disappearing into the landscape and becoming one with its environment, making it hard to get a good picture from a distance.
Many of the rocks were carved in the Neolithic, into intricate patterns that many call "Celtic."
Many of the big rocks (kerbstones) were carved in the Neolithic, into intricate patterns that many call “Celtic.”  These carvings would probably have been done with flint (a type of stone) tools because there were no iron tools yet.
Rock art in one of the rocks forming the outer back wall.
Rock art in one of the rocks forming the outer back wall.
A side view of Newgrange.
A side view of Newgrange.
A tumbledown farmhouse near the site. I thought it was particularly beautiful.
A tumbledown farmhouse near the site. I thought it was particularly beautiful.
A closer picture of the old and reconstructed stones.
A closer picture of the old and reconstructed stones.
A shot of Newgrange taken from the Visitor centre.
A shot of Newgrange taken from the Visitor centre.

The Tour:

It was remarkably short but still enjoyable.  For the fact I’d waited so long in line and on the bus and for the tour to start, I thought there could have been a lot more made of the age, construction, and archaeological finds (by contrast, the tour at Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh is fantastic, if you want an out of the way and mysterious site to visit with a damn good tour, go there).  Most of the information I gave you in “archaeology” was stuff I had researched as part of my archaeology final year dissertation (and never used, because I decided to stick with British Neolithic sites).  There were also too many people visiting for the size inside the tomb, and the guide told the taller people to get to the back (which is fair on the shorter people, and usually I’m all for this, but when the taller people are then unable to see much, it’s just a bit unfair).  It was stunning inside, but there was no photography.  More annoying still, there were no photos of the inside of the tomb available to buy in the gift shop, all the pictures focussed on the light on the floor or this one specific rock with carvings in it.  For you, dear readers, I did sketch while I was in there.  Forgive my crude drawings; I got a D in GCSE Art and when I did my degree, I only did archaeological drawing for 2 days then I dropped it because it was the stupidest course I ever went on, and everything we learned there had no real use in a situation like this (y’know, an actual archaeological site).

This was done inside the main chamber. The roof (bottom right) was from standing in the middle of the central atrium (see pencil arrow) and looking straight upwards.
This was done inside the main chamber. The roof (bottom right) was from standing in the middle of the central atrium (see pencil arrow) and looking straight upwards.  The zigzags and swirls were copied from some of the stones in the three chambers.

Given the way that the sun was behaving, and the fact that I went two days after the Summer Solstice (midsummer’s day) I would like to put forward, based on the evidence of my own eyes, an additional theory about Newgrange:  That it wasn’t originally just a winter calendar, but also a summer one – there’s a straight up and down arrangement of rocks (see my drawing) with a capstone which may not have been original, through which, I’m fairly sure the sun could have shone in from above if the capstone hadn’t been in the way.  So perhaps, since it was full of soil and overgrown when people found it back in the Victorian days, the whole thing was repurposed and filled in at a later date (when the capstone went on)?  I don’t have any hard evidence of this, just my drawings, but it seems entirely possible to me.

A major redeeming feature of the tour was that the guide was open in admitting  that we don’t really know much about Newgrange – there are all sorts of theories and ideas bouncing around in the academic and “fringe” circles, but at the end of the day what they’re all lacking is any kind of evidence.  Some people (not archaeologists, I hope,) make it their life’s work to concoct plausible stories for big sites, using the least amount of evidence (a grain of truth to support their lies, if you will), and the most amount of drama, fantasy and “inference” (in quotation marks because it’s not so much inference as ‘making it up to get on the History Channel’), and sadly these versions of things run around the world before we can research, get evidence, assess context and investigator biases, consider reductionism, and all the other things that need to be done to support an idea about the past.  I’ve been to a few “historical sites” and found the guides to be reiterating as “facts” some complete gobbledegook that has no basis in evidence at all.  I found it very refreshing that what little the guide did tell us was all clearly stated as interpretation and she did tell us what those interpretations were based on (and why we don’t know more) and I think there’s a middle ground between “we just don’t know” and “a wizard did it.”

Accessibility:

There is no disabled access to the actual Neolithic tomb of Newgrange itself.  This picture is taken at the entrance, this is as far as you can get if you’re not pedwardly mobile:

There is no disabled access to the tomb of Newgrange.
There is no disabled access to the tomb of Newgrange.

Tickets must be bought at the Visitor Centre not at the site, and there is a walk and a bus ride between the Visitor Centre and the site.

Newgrange 3

You must get there early.  I got there before 9:00am and went on the first  tour of the day, and this was the queue already for tickets when I arrived:

This was before 9:00am and there was about 30 people inside the building who I had to wait behind before I got to the ticket desk.
This was before 9:00am and there was about 30 people inside the building who I had to wait behind before I got to the ticket desk.

Buying tickets:

When I visited, the combined ticket was the same price as the separate tickets for Newgrange and Knowth, so you may as well go to Newgrange first (because that sells out) then decide whether that’s enough chambered passage tombs for you or not (I decided it was enough for me but then I’d been up for 2 days and that always kills my attention span).  Ticket for Newgrange cost 6 Euros.  Check opening times and do some Googling before you go so you don’t miss out on the significance of this site.

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Author: MsAdventure

I am a twentysomething travel, photography and beauty blogger who occasionally writes about other topics. Within travel, I tend to write mostly about Europe because all the other travel bloggers seem to write about South East Asia. As a writer, I have written articles that are published in Offbeat Bride and on Buzzfeed, and as a photographer, I have taken photographs that are published in local and national news outlets in the UK. I have a blog at www.delightandinspire.com