Newgrange: The Heart of the Boyne Valley

The Brú na Bóinne complex of three neolithic tombs (Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth) on a ridge in the middle of the Boyne Valley is perhaps the most-famous archaeological site in Europe, and Newgrange is its poster child.

newgrange, bru-na-boinne

A side-view of Newgrange passage tomb.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

Built around 3200 BC, Newgrange is a huge passage tomb on top of a small hill overlooking the river. On each side stand two other huge passage tombs, and numerous smaller mounds. Excavated and controversially restored in the 1970s, both Newgrange and Knowth contained numerous cremated remains and are decorated with a marvelous array of carved boulders; the interpretation of the images on these boulders still eludes archaeologists — so visitors can play amateur archaeologist trying to make a story out of the characteristic symbols and patterns. 

Entrance stone, Newgrange

The entrance to the Newgrange tomb. The wooden steps were added to protect the carved kerbstones from wear and tear. It’s thought that the druids and elders would originally have climbed over them to access the tomb.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

 

Visitor Center

Access to Newgrange and Knowth is via the Brú na Bóinne visitors center only, where you can watch an informative film about the history of the mounds, explore exhibits on the theories about the construction of Newgrange, and see various artifacts found on-site. After that, visitors are driven by minibus up to either site and a guide escorts the group on a tour. Visitors to the unrestored mound at Dowth are free to give themselves a self-guided tour.

Unlike most of the “ruins” and ancient sites in Ireland, access to and exploration of the Brú na Bóinne complex is highly supervised. Both mounds feature a long passage giving access to a central chamber where cremated remains were interred by stone age people. These passages are narrow, and access to Newgrange is in small groups only. The passage in Knowth is even more difficult — requiring crawling at one point — and visitors are not allowed into it for safety reasons. However, controversial renovations have been made to the edge of the largest Knowth mound to allow some access into an antechamber and to reveal some of the secrets of the mound’s construction.

Newgrange Kerbstone

Have fun interpreting this kerbstone. Is that a face formed from the spiral patterns? Are those lozenge shapes a form of the chalice and the blade symbols for male and female?
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

Carved Kerbstones

Both Newgrange and Knowth are surrounded by a ring of carved kerbstones; in fact, most of the neolithic art in Europe is found at sites in Co. Meath. The walk along the narrow passage and into the central chamber in Newgrange is an errie and memorable experience which gives one a taste of the awe and reverence with which the ancient builders must have viewed Newgrange. The central chamber features an immense corbelled roof of overlapping flat stones — still water-tight after 5000 years. Three side-chambers contain large bowl-like rocks, which have been scooped out to hold remains (although the remains have now been removed). An impressive tri-spiral carving is the only decoration inside the chamber. The guide will explain some of the history of the site and then use electric lights to recreate the central wonder of Newgrange: the sun’s illumination of the chamber on the winter solstice.

Bru na Boinne, solar alignment

The entrance to the Newgrange passageway, with the roof box shows overhead.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

Solar Alignment

At sunrise on the solstice, the sun rises above a hill on the other side of the Boyne Valley and enters the passage via a special “roof box,” a window built above the entrance to the mound. A beam of sunlight slowly works its way along the passage until it lights up the central chamber. The sun illuminates the chamber for about 20 minutes on the solstice and the two days immediately before and after (all weather permitting, of course). This is the only time all year that natural light enters the central chamber. We don’t know exactly what the ancients believed this symbolized — rebirth, the New Year, or ascension to the afterlife, perhaps — but we can appreciate the phenomenal feat of engineering the mound represents, and marvel at the successful continuation of its function thousands of years later.

The recreation of the solstice effect plunges the chamber into darkness for a brief few seconds before the beam can be seen working its way up the passage. This does not appear to be very frightening for most children (although I’ve seen a few adults get spooked). The chamber is large enough to hold about 15 people, so everyone’s packed pretty tight, and the kids don’t feel alone in the dark. It’s really a magical experience that allows us a glimpse into how these ancient ancestors honored their dead, and gives us plenty of food for thought as to why they might have built this mound.

 

Notes

Another part of the complex: Dowth the untamed corner of Brú na Bóinne

News: Archaeologists search for hidden passages at Newgrange…

A new theory about the construction of Newgrange…

 

 

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5 comments

  1. heretherebespiders’s avatar

    I’ve been twice, and definitely recommend it!

  2. bridget’s avatar

    Been years since I visited there. Your fab photos make me want to go there again.

  3. Rich’s avatar

    Bridget, we end up going back every time we’re home. It hasn’t got old yet.

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