Newgrange—More Questions Than Answers?


IN EARLY Irish literature, the place is called Brú na Bóinne, meaning “the House or Mansion of the Boyne.” Today in this mysterious area located at a bend in the river Boyne, about 30 miles [50 km] north of Dublin, some of the world’s oldest tombs are being unearthed. One of these is called Newgrange. No one knows exactly how old it is—although it is thought by some to be older than the great pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Each year at the time of the winter solstice, tourists flock to Newgrange to see a truly spectacular evidence of the abilities of the ancients.

Why Was It Built?

This mysterious monument must have been very important to its builders. (See box on page 24.) Why all the expenditure of time, effort, and resources? Why did they build this remarkable tomb?

Brú na Bóinne, or Brugh na Boinne, was apparently viewed not only as a sacred burial place but also as a place for ritual worship. Professor Michael O’Kelly, who excavated the site, reported: “The Brú was associated with the Dagda, the Good God; his wife, Boann; and his son Oengus; all belonging to the Tuatha Dé, a people said to have inhabited Ireland before the coming of the Gael or Celts and who thereafter retreated into the fairy mounds and forts of Ireland. They were . . . regarded as supernatural beings who could and did perform deeds beyond the power of mortals.”—Newgrange—Archaeology, Art and Legend.

Boann was the mythical goddess after whom the river Boyne was named. With the river on three sides of the burial mound, the builders may have believed that Boann would protect the site from harm. According to researcher Martin Brennan, they may also have thought that some of the gods actually resided in the mound. In fact, he says that the earliest mythology surrounding the mounds indicates that they “were regarded as abodes of living gods conceived and born there.”—The Stars and the Stones.

But Newgrange was more than a tomb for the dead and an abode for the gods. It is one of the oldest astronomically aligned monuments in the world. With great precision, the architects aligned the long passage and grave chamber with the spot on the horizon where the sun rises at the winter solstice. Then they put a special aperture above the entrance to the tomb. This allowed the rays of the rising sun to reach the innermost part of the tomb.

Even today, tourists gather at Newgrange each winter solstice, when the sunlight pierces the inner chamber for about 15 minutes. Clare Tuffy, manager of the Brú na Bóinne visitor  center, said: “Some people believe that the sunlight penetrating the depth of the mound represented a sort of marriage between the earth goddess and the sun deity and that the people of the time thought this would bring fertility to the ground.”

The Enigma of the Stone Carvings

As far as we know, the mysterious tomb builders left no written records. But they did leave their signature in the form of some remarkable stone carvings. They carved spirals, chevrons, rectangles, triangles, curved lines, circles, and other shapes, likely using only a piece of flint or quartz and a stone hammer. Brennan calls their legacy to Ireland “the greatest collection of megalithic art in the world.”

Some feel that the cryptic carvings can be interpreted and that they reflect an expert knowledge of astronomy. Brennan thinks that they depict solar and lunar activity. “It is likely that . . . both the mounds and the symbols were regarded as sacred to the sun  and moon,” he says. “This recognition alone, to a large extent, explains much of the art.” But other experts agree with O’Kelly, quoted earlier, who wrote that the carvings “must have had a meaning for those who saw them, but we are unlikely ever to know what that meaning was. It must remain part of the mystery which was the Brú or mansion of the ancient gods.”

“An Intellectually Sophisticated People”

It may seem that Newgrange is all questions and no answers. The mysteries surrounding the passage-tomb builders of Brú na Bóinne do remain largely unsolved. But at least one thing has been established. The builders were no savages. Indeed, O’Kelly said that Newgrange’s architects, artists, and artisans “must have been of a high cultural level.” Author Peter Harbison states that the builders “were far from being the primitive cave-man savages of popular legend . . . They were an intellectually sophisticated people.”

Granted, we do not know who built Newgrange at Brú na Bóinne. Still, it gives eloquent testimony to the ingenuity and intelligence of its ancient architects and builders—whoever they were.

[Box/Picture on page 24]

The Builders and the Building

What do we know about the builders of Newgrange? “Very little,” said Clare Tuffy, manager of the Brú na Bóinne visitor center. “But we have learned a few things. We know that they were farmers. They were also wealthy—they needed to be in order to have the resources to build such a magnificent tomb. And they had no metal tools.”

Using huge stone slabs weighing up to ten tons, the builders constructed a passage approximately 60 feet [19 m] long, 6 feet [2 m] high, and wide enough for a man to walk through with ease. The passage leads into a 20-foot [6 m]-wide burial chamber with three alcoves. The passage and chamber are in the shape of a long cross.

Over this burial chamber, these ingenious ancient builders used other massive stones, without mortar, to erect a vaulted roof 20 feet [6 m] high. Above the tomb they then constructed a huge mound about 270 feet [80 m] in diameter and 40 feet [12 m] high. They also built a retaining wall of boulders and faced the front of it with quartz pebbles. Around the edge of the mound, they laid 97 immense curbstones, each weighing from two to five tons. Sometime in the past, the curbstones and the entrance to the tomb were buried. In 1699 a laborer searching for stones stumbled on the entrance, and this ancient passage tomb came to light again.


Entrance to Newgrange passage

[Map on page 22]

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[Pictures on page 23]

Above: Sunlight pierces the inner chamber for about 15 minutes each year during the winter solstice

Below: Burial chamber from the innermost recess; note the three-spiral carving

[Credit Line]

All pictures on pages 22-3 except map: Dúchas, The Heritage Service, Ireland

[Picture on page 24]

Megalithic mound and tomb

[Credit Line]

Dúchas, The Heritage Service, Ireland