Newgrange is a prehistoric monument in County Meath, Ireland, located eight kilometers 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 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 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 'roofbox' 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 'roofbox'. 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 Bóinn 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.
After its initial use, Newgrange was sealed for several millennia. However, it featured prominently in Irish mythology and folklore, in which it is said to be a dwelling of the gods, particularly The Dagda and his son Aengus. Antiquarians first began its study in the 17th 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 today 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.
Mound and passage tomb
The Newgrange monument primarily consists of a large mound, built of alternating layers of earth and stones, with grass growing on top and a reconstructed facade of flattish white quartz stones studded at intervals with large rounded cobbles covering part of the circumference. The mound is 76 metres (249 ft) across and 12 metres (39 ft) high, and covers 4,500 square metres (1.1 acres) of ground. Within the mound is a chambered passage, which can be accessed by an entrance on the southeastern side of the monument. The passage stretches for 19 metres (60 ft), or about a third of the way into the centre of the structure. At the end of the passage are three small chambers off a larger central chamber, with a high corbelled vault roof. Each of the smaller chambers has a large flat "basin stone", which was where the bones of the dead were possibly originally deposited, although whether it was actually a burial site remains unclear. The walls of this passage are made up of large stone slabs, twenty-two of which are on the west side and twenty-one on the east, which average out at 1.5 metres in height; several are decorated with carvings (as well as graffiti from the period after the rediscovery). The ceiling shows no evidence of smoke.
Situated around the perimeter of the mound is a circle of standing stones. Twelve standing-stones survive out of a possible original thirty-five or thereabouts. Most archaeologists say they would have been added later, during the Bronze Age, centuries after the original monument had been abandoned as a tomb.
Newgrange contains various examples of abstract Neolithic rock art carved onto it which provide decoration. These carvings fit into ten categories, five of which are curvilinear (circles, spirals, arcs, serpentiniforms and dot-in-circles) and the other five of which are rectilinear (chevrons, lozenges, radials, parallel lines and offsets). They are also marked by wide differences in style, the skill-level that would have been needed to produce them, and on how deeply carved they are. One of the most notable examples of art at Newgrange are the triskele-like features found on the entrance stone. It is approximately three metres long and 1.2 metres 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 instead carved in situ before the kerbstones were placed alongside it.
Various archaeologists have speculated as to the meaning of the decoration, with some, such as George Coffey (in the 1890s), believing them to be purely decorative, whilst others, like M.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 American-Irish researcher Martin Brennan.
Location and access
Newgrange is located 8.4 km west of Drogheda in County Meath. The interpretive centre is located on the south bank of the river and Newgrange itself is located on the north side of the river. Access is strictly via the interpretive centre only.
Access to Newgrange is by guided tour only. Tours begin at the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre from which visitors are taken to the site in groups. Current-day visitors to Newgrange are treated to a guided tour and an re-enactment of the Winter Solstice experience through the use of high powered electric lights situated within the tomb. The finale of a Newgrange tour results in every visitor standing inside the tomb where the tour guide then turns off the lights, and lights the light bulb simulating the sun as it would appear on the winter solstice.
To experience the phenomenon on the morning of the Winter Solstice itself from inside Newgrange, visitors to Bru Na Bionne Visitor Centre must enter an annual lottery at the centre. Of the thousands who enter, fifty are chosen each year. The winner is permitted to bring a single guest. The winners are split into groups of ten and taken in on the five days around the solstice in December when sunlight can enter the chamber, weather permitting.