Newgrange is a prehistoric monument in County Meath, Ireland, located 8 kilometers (5.0 mi) west of Drogheda on the north side of the River Boyne.
It was built during the Neolithic period, around 3200 BC, making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids.
The site consists of a large circular mound with an inner stone passageway and chambers. Human bones and possible grave goods or votive offerings were found in these chambers.
The mound has a retaining wall at the front, made mostly of white quartz cobblestones, and it is ringed by engraved kerbstones. Many of the larger stones of Newgrange are covered in megalithic art.
The mound is also ringed by a stone circle. Some of the material that makes up the monument came from as far away as the Mournes and the Wicklow Mountains.
There is no agreement about what the site was used for, but it is believed that it had religious significance. Its entrance is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice when sunlight shines through a ‘roof-box‘ and floods the inner chamber.
Several other passage tombs in Ireland are aligned with solstices and equinoxes, and Cairn G at Carrowkeel has a similar ‘roof-box’. Newgrange also shares many similarities with other Neolithic constructions in Western Europe, such as Maeshowe in Orkney, Scotland and Bryn Celli Ddu in Wales.
It is the most famous monument within the Neolithic Brú na Bóinne complex, alongside the similar passage tomb mounds of Knowth and Dowth, and as such is a part of the Brú na Bóinne UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Newgrange consists of approximately 200,000 tonnes of rock and other materials. It is 85 meters (279 ft) wide at its widest point.
After its initial use, Newgrange was sealed for several millennia.
It continued to be featured prominently in Irish mythology and folklore, in which it is said to be a dwelling of the deities, particularly The Dagda and his son Aengus.
Antiquarians first began its study in the seventeenth century, and archaeological excavations took place at the site in the years that followed.
Archaeologist Michael J. O’Kelly led the most extensive of these and also reconstructed the frontage of the site in the 1970s, a reconstruction that is controversial and disputed.
Newgrange is a popular tourist site and, according to the archaeologist Colin Renfrew, is “unhesitatingly regarded by the prehistorian as the great national monument of Ireland” and as one of the most important megalithic structures in Europe.
Newgrange contains various examples of graphic Neolithic rock art carved onto its stone surfaces.
These carvings fit into ten categories, five of which are curvilinear (circles, spirals, arcs, serpentine forms, and dot-in-circles) and the other five of which are rectilinear (chevrons, lozenges, radials, parallel lines, and offsets).
They are marked by wide differences in style, the skill-level needed to produce them, and on how deeply carved they are. One of the most notable types of art at Newgrange is the triskele-like features found on the entrance stone.
It is approximately three meters long and 1.2 meters high (10 ft long and 4 ft high), and about five tonnes in weight. It has been described as “one of the most famous stones in the entire repertory of megalithic art.”
Archaeologists believe that most of the carvings were produced prior to the stones being erected, although the entrance stone was carved in situ before the kerbstones were placed alongside it.
Various archaeologists have speculated as to the meanings of the designs, with some, such as George Coffey (in the 1890s), believing them to be purely decorative, whilst others, such as Michael J. O’Kelly (who led the 1962–1975 excavation at the site), believed them to have some sort of symbolic purpose, because some of the carvings had been in places that would not have been visible, such as at the bottom of the orthostatic slabs below ground level.
Extensive research on how the art relates to alignments and astronomy in the Boyne Valley complex was carried out by the American-Irish researcher, Martin Brennan.
There have been various debates as to its original purpose. Many archaeologists believed that the monument had religious significance of some sort or another, either as a place of worship for a “cult of the dead” or for an astronomically-based faith.
The archaeologist Michael J. O’Kelly, who led the 1962–1975 excavations at the site, believed that the monument had to be seen in relation to the nearby Knowth and Dowth and that the building of Newgrange “cannot be regarded as other than the expression of some kind of powerful force or motivation, brought to the extremes of aggrandizement in these three monuments, the cathedrals of the megalithic religion.”
O’Kelly believed that Newgrange, alongside the hundreds of other passage tombs built in Ireland during the Neolithic, showed evidence for a religion that venerated the dead as one of its core principles.
He believed that this “cult of the dead” was just one particular form of European Neolithic religion and that other megalithic monuments displayed evidence for different religious beliefs that were solar-oriented, rather than ancestor-oriented.
Studies in other fields of expertise offer alternative interpretations of the possible functions, however, which principally center on the astronomy, engineering, geometry, and mythology associated with the Boyne monuments.
It is speculated that the sun formed an important part of the religious beliefs of the Neolithic people who built it. One idea was that the room was designed for a ritualistic capturing of sun rays on the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, as the room gets flooded with sunlight, which might have signaled that the days would start to get longer again.
Formerly, the Newgrange mound was encircled by an outer ring of immense standing stones, of which twelve of a possible thirty-seven remain. Evidence from carbon dating suggests that the stone circle which encircled Newgrange may not be contemporary with the monument, however, but was placed there some 1,000 years later in the Bronze Age.
This view is disputed and relates to a carbon date from a standing stone setting that intersects with a later timber post circle, the theory being, that the stone in question could have been moved and later, re-set in its original position.
This research implies a continuity of use of Newgrange of over a thousand years; with partial remains found from only five individuals, some question the tomb theory for its purpose.
Once a year, at the Winter Solstice, the rising sun shines directly along the long passage, illuminating the inner chamber and revealing the carvings inside, notably the triple spiral on the front wall of the chamber.
This illumination lasts for approximately 17 minutes.
Michael J. O’Kelly was the first person in modern times to observe this event on 21 December 1967. The sunlight enters the passage through a specially contrived opening, known as a roofbox, directly above the main entrance.
Although solar alignments are not uncommon among passage graves, Newgrange is one of few to contain the additional roofbox feature. (Cairn G at Carrowkeel Megalithic Cemetery is another, and it has been suggested that one can be found at Bryn Celli Ddu.)
The alignment is such that although the roofbox is above the passage entrance, the light hits the floor of the inner chamber.
Today the first light enters about four minutes after sunrise, but calculations based on the precession of the Earth show that 5,000 years ago, the first light would have entered exactly at sunrise.
The solar alignment at Newgrange is very precise compared to similar phenomena at other passage graves such as Dowth or Maes Howe in the Orkney Islands, off the coast of Scotland.
Mythology and folklore during Medieval and Early Modern periods
During the medieval period, Newgrange and the wider Brú na Bóinne Neolithic complex gained various attributes in local folklore, which was often connected to figures from wider Irish mythology.
The monuments of the Brú were thought of by some as being the abode of the supernatural Tuatha De Danann, whilst others considered them to be the burial mounds of the ancient kings of Tara.
Amongst those who believed the folkloric tales relating the Brú to the Tuatha De Danann, it was commonly thought that they were the abode of the most powerful of the Tuatha, particularly The Dagda, his wife Boann, and his son, Oengus.
According to the eleventh-century Book of Lecan, the Dagda had built the Brú for use by his family, whilst the twelfth-century Book of Leinster describes how Oengus tricked his father into giving him the Brú for all eternity.
Another text, The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Grainne also implies that Oengus owned the Brú, when he declared how he took his friend Diarmaid to it.
Sometime after 1142, the structure became part of outlying farmland owned by the Cistercian Abbey of Mellifont. These farms were referred to as ‘granges‘. Newgrange is not mentioned in any of the early charters of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but an Inspeximus granted by Edward III in 1348 includes a Nova Grangia among the demesne lands of the abbey.
On 23 July 1539, following the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, Mellifont Abbey and its demesnes became the fortified mansion of an English soldier of fortune, Edward Moore, ancestor of the Earls of Drogheda.
On 14 August 1699, Alice Moore, Countess Dowager of Drogheda, leased the demesne of Newgrange to a Williamite settler, Charles Campbell, for 99 years.
*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.