[Wednesday - 11/13/02] The most famous of all Irish prehistoric monuments, Newgrange is one of the finest European passage-tombs. Built atop a small hillock, this site was discovered accidentally by the removal of material for road-metalling in 1699. The great tombs of Knowth and Dowth are nearby and we could see them from the hilltop. In the same three square mile area of the Boyne Valley are grouped more than 30 prehistoric monuments: standing stones, barrows, and enclosures.
Newgrange was originally built about 3100 BC and today is in a much restored form thanks to extensive reconstructions between 1962 and 1975. It consists of a vast stone and turf mound about 280 feet in diameter and 44 feet high, containing a passage leading to a burial chamber. Outside the base, 12 out of the original estimated 38 large boulders up to 8 feet high form a ring of about 340 feet in diameter. The stone circle was built about 1000 years later than the original structure, dating probably from the Beaker period. This ring of stones is almost unique in Great Britain and Ireland, with Clava and maybe Loanhead of Daviot being the other notable examples.
The base of the mound is retained by no less than 97 large stones, lying horizontally, many of which bear beautifully carved designs of spirals, lozenges, zigzags, and other symbols. The most famous of these is the stone marking the entrance, with carvings of a triple spiral, double spirals, concentric semi-circles, and lozenges similar to those found in Brittany (France), at Gavrinis.
Above the entrance passage is a 'roof-box', which precisely aligns with the rising sun at the winter solstice of 21 December, so that the rays touch the ground at the very centre of the tomb for about 20 minutes. Many of the upright stones along the walls of the 62 feet passage, which follows the rise of the hill, are richly decorated.
The cruciform chamber inside the mound measures 21.5 feet by 17 feet, has three recesses, and is topped by a magnificent corbelled roof reaching to a height of 20 feet above the floor. In the recesses are three massive stone basins which presumably had some ritual use. Excavations in the central chamber produced the remains of two burials and at least three cremated bodies as well as seven marbles, four pendants, two beads, a flint flake, a bone chisel, and fragments of several bone pins and points.
There has been controversy over the reconstruction of the white quartz wall on top of the South-East sector of the kerb, which was based on the position of the white quartz layers found during excavations between 1962 and 1975. Michael O'Kelly, who worked for 13 years on the mound, searched diligently but in vain for traces of a second burial chamber, though it may be the unexcavated half of the mound.
As at Knowth, some satellite tombs have been found outside the edge of the mound: one of which lies to the east and another to the west of the entrance. Cement posts now mark what was once a double circle of wooden pillars, enclosing Beaker cremation pits.
Newgrange gets its modern name from the fact that by 1142, the site had become part of Mellifont Abbey farm. These farms were known as granges, and by 14th century the site was known only as the 'New Grange'. In early Irish mythology, Newgrange was not only the alleged burial place of the prehistoric kings of Tara, but also the home of a race of Irish supernatural beings, known as 'Tuatha de Danann' : the people of the goddess Danu. Newgrange was also taken to be the house of the patriarchal god Dagda.
Newgrange is a spectacular structure, now rebuilt and turned into a major tourist attraction. We were fortunate enough to have the entire place virtually to ourselves (once those French school children left!).
Last modified on Wednesday, November 26, 2008|
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