Newgrange: The Megalithic Wonder

What is Newgrange?

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Newgrange is a Stone Age monument in the Boyne Valley, County Meath, Ireland. Newgrange was constructed over 5,000 years ago (about 3,200 B.C.) during the Neolithic period, which makes it older than Stonehenge and Great Pyramids of Giza. Newgrange is a large circular mound with a stone passageway and chambers inside. The mound is ringed by 97 large kerbstones.

Newgrange was built by a farming community that prospered on the rich lands of the Boyne Valley. Knowth and Dowth are similar mounds that together with Newgrange have been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Archaeologists classified Newgrange as a passage tomb, however Newgrange is now recognised to be much more than a passage tomb. Ancient Temple is a more fitting classification, a place of astrological, spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance, much as present day cathedrals are places of prestige and worship where dignitaries may be laid to rest.

Newgrange is a large kidney shaped mound covering an area of over one acre, retained at the base by 97 kerbstones, some of which are richly decorated with megalithic art. The 19 metre long inner passage leads to a cruciform chamber with a corbelled roof. The amount of time and labour invested in construction of Newgrange suggests a well-organized society with specialised groups responsible for different aspects of construction.

Newgrange is part of a complex of monuments built along a bend of the River Boyne known collectively as Brú na Bóinne. The other two principal monuments are Knowth (the largest) and Dowth, but throughout the region there are as many as 35 smaller mounds

Winter Solstice

Newgrange is best known for the illumination of its passage and chamber by the winter solstice sun. Above the entrance to the passage at Newgrange there is a opening called a roof-box. This baffling orifice held a great surprise for those who unearthed it. Its purpose is to allow sunlight to penetrate the chamber on the shortest days of the year, around December 21st, the winter solstice.

At dawn, from December 19th to 23rd, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof-box and reaches the floor of the chamber, gradually extending to the rear of the chamber. As the sun rises higher, the beam widens within the chamber so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated. This event lasts for 17 minutes, beginning around 9am.

The accuracy of Newgrange as a time-telling device is remarkable when one considers that it was built 500 years before the Great Pyramids and more than 1,000 years before Stonehenge. The intent of its builders was undoubtedly to mark the beginning of the new year. In addition, it may have served as a powerful symbol of the victory of life over death.

Each year the winter solstice event attracts much attention at Newgrange. Many gather at the ancient tomb to wait for dawn, as people did 5,000 years ago. So great is the demand to be one of the few inside the chamber during the solstice that there is a free annual lottery. Unfortunately, as with many Irish events that depend upon sunshine, if the skies are overcast, there is not much to be seen. Yet all agree that it is an extraordinary feeling to wait in the darkness, as people did so long ago, for the longest night of the year to end.

new light


new blueprint

The mound covers a single tomb, which consists of a long passage and a cross-shaped chamber. The passage points to the southeast and is just less than 19 m long. It leads in to a chamber with three recesses. A corbelled roof covers the chamber. To construct the roof, the builders overlapped layers of large rocks until the roof could be sealed with a capstone, 6 metres above the floor. After 5000 years, the roof at Newgrange is still water proof. I mean, that type of ingenuity would have Duncan Stewart in a spin!!

duncan stewart

These basins which are on the floor of each of the recesses held the remains of the dead. The remains of at least five people were recovered during excavation, although originally much more bone may have been placed there.   Most of the bones found were cremated, although small amounts were unburned. Grave goods of chalk and bone beads and pendants as well as some polished stone balls were placed with the dead.

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Corbelled Roof of the Chamber


Now the art is interesting!!. From inside the chamber at Newgrange the tri-spiral which is found on the left of the below piicture is probably the most famous Irish Megalithic symbol. It is often referred to as a Celtic design, but it was carved at least 2500 years before the Celts reached Ireland. At 12 inches in diameter the tri-spiral design is quite small in size, less than one-third the size of the tri-spiral design on the entrance stone.

Newgrange Passage Tomb, Co. Meath, Ireland Chamber

new entrance

The Gavrinis passage tomb in Brittany is remarkably similar to Newgrange. The cairn is about 5500 years old, it is 60 metres in diameter and covers a passage and chamber which is lined with elaborately engraved stones. In the passage and chamber 23 of the 29 upright stones are engraved with zig-zags, concentric circles, herring bones, axes, bows and arrows.

So these people have similar what? But is it a coincidence? Surely the style of design coinciding with the type of structure it is carved on along with the time in which both structures were built is enough evidence to show that these people either know about one another or they are the same people! The Irish have links to many nations of the world. Historically, this is due to the wave of Celtic people that spread throughout Europe. Today, the Gaelic Irish as a result still have similar cultural ties with regions in Europe such as England,Scotland,Wales, Spain and France, most notably Brittany, or Bretagne. But remember, the Celtic ties that bind Ireland with this regions do not occur until about 2,500 years after these structures were built.

gaelic map
Major Celtic Regions of Europe


Lets get back to this winter solstice thing again. So light mysteriously shines through a box two dates per year, what’s the big deal? Well it is kind of a big deal. When we think about it, what were the odds of that happening by mistake? No, these people figured it out! They had no concept of time other than close monitoring of light and season change. They must have painstakingly developed a system to track sunlight. They also must have had to figure out exactly the two days in which are the longest and shortest in our year. Doing all this with what we would call extremely primitive tools today proves that these people were not only very clever, but they saw astrology and the afterlife as very important in their lives! On a sad note, due to the act that the earth is spinning on an axis, it is apparent that in at some point the solstices will no longer exist. The chamber will remain in the dark. However, on a more exciting note, at some point in the future, the chamber will be illuminated just like it was thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, it won’t be in any of our lifetime! If Newgrange survives that is! I am not so optimistic…cue Armageddon…Humans vs. Apple Computers

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So there you have it! Britain you can have your Stonehenge! Egypt you can have you pyramids of Giza! because Ireland has Newgrange! If you are in Ireland you should definitely check it out. I will leave you with these videos and a note to tell you to explore more of this website!


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