My husband and I took a half day bus tour west from Dublin to County Meath, and into the Boyne Valley past the beautiful and historical Boyne River. The river passes the neolithic passage graves at Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth, which are of archaeological significance, and the nearby Tara, seat of the high kings of Ireland. The river was also the scene of the famous 1690 Battle of the Boyne (to read a synopsis of the battle click on link)
Our destination was Newgrange, one of the best examples in Ireland and in Western Europe, of a type of monument known to archaeologists as a "passage-grave" or "passage-tomb". It was constructed around 3200 BC. This makes it more than 600 years older than the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, and 1,000 years more ancient than Stonehenge! Passage tombs are so-called because of the internal passage which leads to a chamber where the burned bones of the ancestor were placed. Newgrange so famous is that on each winter solstice on December 21, the rising sun shines through an opening above the door of the tomb and illuminates the entire passage.
Newgrange was "rediscovered" in 1699. The landowner at the time, Charles Campbell, needed some stones and had instructed his laborers to carry some away from the cairn. It was at this time the entrance to the tomb was discovered. Newgrange mound should be properly referred to as a cairn, because it consists of water-rolled pebbles, each of which is between 6 to 9 inches across. The entire mound contains an estimated 200,000 tonnes of material, and it has been estimated construction would have taken about 30 years using a workforce of about 300. Professor Michael J. O'Kelly excavated and restored Newgrange from 1962 to 1975. He was Professor of Archaeology at University College Cork from 1946 until his death in 1982
The entrance, in front of which is a massive curbstone (10 feet long, 4 feet high) carved with spirals and lozenges, incorporates a roof box which allows the sun, at sunrise on the morning of the winter solstice on December 21, to penetrate the full length of the interior passage all the way to the main chamber. So great is the demand to be one of the few inside the chamber during the solstice that there is a free annual lottery, with around 50 people chosen out of tens of thousands, and application forms for the lottery are available at the visitor center.
The interior is solid, except for a single stone-lined and stone-capped passage 62 feet long and 3 feet wide which terminates close to the center of the mound in main chamber with a corbelled vault 20 feet high and three recessed chambers. There were three large curved stone basins in the inner most room which are speculated to have been designed to hold the remains of cremated bodies. The roof was made so that chamber was completely waterproof from above the ground rain and drainage.
We were escorted inside in small groups, by a very interesting and informative guide, to view the chamber, and the winter solstice phenomenon was dramatically simulated for us. I would have loved to have been able to take photographs inside, but obviously we weren't allowed. Some photos of the interior designs and fascinating roof can be viewed here. There are some videos on Youtube of the sun solstice, just put "Newgrange" into the search box. You can view part three of one recorded onto Youtube from Irish TV here.
Close up of a curb stone design. This curb stone was almost directly in the back behind where the entrance would be on the other side of the mound.
Another look at the entrance and the decorated curb stone in front. In 1993, Newgrange and its sister sites, Knowth and Dowth, were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of their outstanding cultural legacy.
As part of this tour we were also taken to a nearby small rural cemetery in County Louth called Monasterboice. It was founded in the late 5th century by St. Buite, a disciple of St. Patrick, who died around AD 521 and was an important center of religion and learning until founding of nearby Mellifont Abbey in 1142. The site houses the ruins of two churches built in the 14th century or later and an earlier round tower, but it is most famous for its 10th century high crosses.
The cross is about 18 feet high. In the photo above you can see the tour guide describing the biblical carvings to our. group
The east face shows Adam and Eve and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Cain and Abel, Moses striking the rock, Samson toppling the pillars and David with the head of Goliath, while the west face shows the Flight into Egypt, the baptism of Christ, Christ being mocked by Roman soldiers and Christ in the tomb. To see other carvings and there description go here. The crosses are thought of as "sermons in stone" used to teach the masses about bible, and also as status for the church or patron.
The North and West crosses are also fine examples of this kind of structure, but these have suffered much more from the effects of the weather. The photo below is of the north cross
Monasterboice is still an active cemetery for local people, and we saw many new graves inter spaced among the very ancient. Our guide pointed out the grave stone below and told us the interesting story of how it was erected by an American from New York in memory of his family who had emigrated away from this area in Ireland and who had lived an died in New York, New Orleans, The West Indies, and including one brother who died off the coast of Africa. I thought it was a good example of the long Irish diaspora during and after the famine years until very recently.
We made one more all day trip to the Southeast of Ireland, including the Waterford Crystal factory, before we left Ireland, and I'll show the highlights in my next blog entry.
I'll be soon giving information on my little Irish give away too! Thanks for all your interest!