Sunday, August 10, 2008
Newgrange County Meath, Ireland
Newgrange is one of the most notable archeological monuments in Europe. Named in Gaelic Uaimh na Gréine (Cave of the Sun), the great passage tomb stands on a low hillock beside the River Boyne in County Meath, Ireland, about 9 miles (14 kilometers) from the sea. Newgrange was built around 3150 b.c., making it as old as some of the neolithic temples on Malta and much older than the pyramids of Egypt. It is a dramatic testimony to the ancient Celts’ scientific and architectural sophistication. Its designers employed great mathematical skills to create such an uncannily accurate astronomical instrument of gargantuan scale. It forms the center of Brú na Bóinne, a region steeped in megalithic culture and ritual. Around it are more than forty prehistoric sites: standing stones, burial mounds, and other passage tombs. Irish mythology identifies Newgrange as the burial place of the high kings of Tara and the home of a preternatural race known as Tuatha de Danainn (people of the goddess Danu); other traditions are attached to the mystical place.
Newgrange is a colossal stone-and-turf tumulus, 1 acre (0.4 hectare) in area and approximately circular in plan, averaging about 280 feet (85 meters) in diameter; the top of its flattish dome is 44 feet (13.5 meters) high. The mound is surrounded by a retaining wall of white quartz and water-washed round granite boulders standing on a foundation of ninety-seven huge curbstones, many of which are decorated with incised patterns of triple and double spirals, concentric semicircles, lozenges, and zigzag lines. It has been estimated that there are some 224,000 tons (203,200 tonnes) of material in the structure. None of the stone is local: the curbstones and those used inside the tumulus were quarried about 20 miles (36 kilometers) from the site; the quartz comes from Wicklow, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) to the south; and the 1,600 granite boulders come from the Mourne Mountains, just as far to the north. All were quarried, transported, dressed, and fitted into place using only stone tools, and without the use of the wheel. The mound was encircled by about 40 widely spaced standing stones, up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) high, in a 340-foot (104-meter) ring. They were probably erected about 1,000 years later. Only twelve survive. The reconstruction as it can now be seen is based on some scholars’ interpretation of the position of the quartz layers found during excavations under the direction of Michael J. O’Kelly between 1962 and 1975.
For all its size, the mound encloses very little space. A single low passage, 3 feet (less than a meter) wide, penetrates 62 feet (19 meters) into the interior. The passage is lined with standing stones from 5 to 6.5 feet (1.5 to 2 meters) high and richly decorated with patterns similar to those on the curbstones. There are twenty-two standing stones on one side and twenty-one on the other, supporting a corbeled roof of flat stones. Following the profile of the hill, the floor rises until the passage terminates in a cruciform chamber measuring about 21 by 17 feet (6.4 by 5.2 meters), with a 20-foot-high (6-meter) corbeled roof. Its stones are carved with grooves that prevent rainwater from entering the interior. Three low apses, their walls also carved with intricate geometric designs, open from the central space, Each contains a massive stone basin.
The entrance, crowned with a rectangular opening known as a “roof box,” and the passage are exactly designed so that, at dawn on the winter solstice, a shaft of sunlight penetrates to illuminate the central chamber and a triple spiral on one of the great basins. Of course, the tangential sunlight also vitalizes the carvings on the passage walls, bringing life in the depth of winter. The astrophysicist Thomas Ray has calculated that the architecture was not approximately oriented but amazingly accurate. Five millennia ago, as viewed from the inner chamber, the gap in the roof box would have matched almost exactly the sun’s apparent width. Ray demonstrates that the first beam would strike the exact center line of the floor in a patch of intense light about 6 feet (2 meters) long and just a few inches wide. Then in the space of twenty minutes it would broaden, narrow again, and withdraw.
Conjecture abounds about the purpose of Newgrange, although the truth is shrouded in mystery. It seems clear that it was more than a tomb. Cremated remains found on the floor originally had been placed in the basins in only two of the recesses; the center one, whose triple spiral is annually illuminated by the rays of the sun, contained no remains. Some sources suggest that it was the focus of religious rites and only occasionally used for burials; others think that its purpose changed over centuries; and still others that it was simply a giant calendar—the least acceptable of all the explanations. Archeological investigation continues. Newgrange is open to the public and the inevitable impact of large numbers of visitors—close to 200,000 a year—is endangering its ancient fabric. Although it remains as weatherproof as ever, the humidity from tourists’ breath is a growing threat that the ancient builders could never have foreseen. It is expected that access will be restricted, especially during the summer months.