On the high ground overlooking the River Boyne, in County Meath, is a collection of some forty passage tombs, which together make up one of the Irish Republic’s two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In a remarkable state of preservation, the tombs, known collectively as Bru Na Boinne, are 5200 years old, and so pre-date Egypt’s Giza pyramids by 500 years and England’s Stonehenge by a full millennium. The intricate rock carvings that decorate the enormous stones that surround the bases and line the interior passages represent a quarter of all the Megalithic art in Europe.
The most impressive and best known of the passage tombs is Newgrange, regarded as the oldest enclosed space in the world. This was discovered by accident in 1699, when the then landowner, Charles Campbell, thinking that the mound was a natural hill, sent workmen here to dig for stones to improve his roads. The site had been dormant for 4000 years and when Campbell entered through the uncovered opening, he found himself inside an ancient, intact burial chamber.
Our visit began a short coach ride upstream of Newgrange, at the Knowth tomb complex, where Aengus, our guide, led us up a gentle slope to the main passage tomb. Larger than its neighbour, this is surrounded by nineteen smaller satellite tombs, two of which were discovered during the last eight years but have not yet been excavated.
Aengus explained that the tombs had been covered for more than 3500 years. The Irish Government bought the site in 1939, but it was not until excavation began in 1962 that archaeologists realized that it was much more intricate than previously thought. Only the large mound and one of the smaller ones were then visible, as the tops of the other mounds had been removed more than 1000 years ago. Artefacts from the Mesolithic, hunter-gatherer people suggested that the clearing of the forests and house building had begun around 2750 BC, with construction of the monuments beginning some 350 years later.
“Much of the artwork has deteriorated over the millennia,” said Aengus, “and remains visible on only 90 of the 170 huge kerbstones that line the bases of the mounds.” Nevertheless, the inscriptions that remained were impressive, consisting of circles and spirals, both clockwise and anticlockwise, chevrons, crescents, horseshoes, mirror image patterns and serpentines. “Most of the symbols are mysterious, but some are too obvious to ignore, lunar images, for example, crescents and full circles. The numbers of some symbols can be related to the lunar months. The artworks become more elaborate as we come nearer the tomb’s entrances. There are two entrances to the large tomb, facing east and west. The large stones near these entrances cast shadows onto the openings at the spring and autumn equinoxes.
“Cremations and burials are thought to have taken place outside the tombs with the remains being brought in later and laid on large basin stones in the inner chambers. Remains of more than 200 individuals have been recovered. DNA testing of the remains tells us that the people who built the tombs came from Anatolia, in Turkey. They crossed the Mediterranean into Southern France, then moved up the coast into the British Isles. DNA evidence from remains discovered in Sligo show family connections between the two communities.”
Some of the stones, both here and at Newgrange, have traveled more than 60 kilometres, from the Wicklow mountains to the south and the Mournes to the north of Dundalk. As the country was then heavily forested, the stones, some weighing 3 to 5 tons, were brought here by water. The Boyne was then tidal up to the near fields. They were then hauled up the slopes using ropes and tree trunks.
“The work,” Aengus concluded, “would have taken two or three neolithic lifespans of around 35 years each, which tells us that the community must have had enough food to support a settled people. Organisational, engineering and architectural skills were needed as well as astronomical knowledge and sheer muscle.”
There is little evidence of major activity at Knowth and Newgrange during the Bronze and Iron ages, between 2000 BC and 300 AD, though burials around the bases of the mounds continued into the early Christian period. The area then became a frontier between the kingdoms of Ulster and Leinster, with headquarters set up on top of the large mound at Knowth. With the coming of the Normans in the twelfth century AD, political and military power shifted to Trim Castle. A small chapel was built at Knowth and monks remained here until 1539. The land then came into public ownership and religious, cultural and political activity ceased. The sites became quiet until excavation began in the 1960s.
Our coach then brought us to Newgrange, where we met our new guide, Lisa. Because of the very limited space inside the tomb, we were split into two groups of a dozen each. We were also requested to deposit our bags and cameras in a locker near the entrance.
We entered the 19-metre-long passage, dipping beneath the low roof and squeezing sideways through the narrowest parts until we gathered in the central cruciform sanctuary. Lisa recounted the discovery of the tomb and explained how Professor M. J. O’Kelly, who began excavations in 1962, worked out the probable positions of the white quartz stones that covered the façade, and which had lain scattered on the ground.
“The passage,” she explained, “only reaches one-third of the way into the mound and there are no secret passages. The structure is corbelled, consisting of layers of staggered stones crowned by a capstone. There are another four metres of stone above our heads and the whole tomb weighs 200 thousand tons. The basin stones in the side recesses contained the cremated remains of five adults. The temperature is a constant 10ºC all year and no water has ever leaked into the chamber.
“The floor of the passage along which we have just come slopes gently upward for two metres, so that it is level with the roof box, the rectangular opening above the tomb’s entrance. On the morning of the winter solstice, 21st December, and for a few days either side of it, just before 9am, the sun rises above the horizon and its light shines through the box to illuminate the chamber where we now stand.” At this point, Lisa turned out the lights in the tomb and we grew silent, anticipating a simulation of an event first witnessed 5000 years ago.
A tiny sliver of light, almost subliminal in its dimness, appeared near the passage entrance and slowly crept along the floor. It grew steadily brighter. Perhaps unaware of the growing tension, many of us held our breaths for several seconds as the light crept further, until the tension was released with gasps of ‘Wows’ and ‘Ah’s as the rays reached and illuminated the circle of ground around which we clustered.
Before we left the tomb, to return to the visitor centre, Lisa informed us that, should we wish to experience the real event, we could apply to join the lottery of forty thousand applicants from whom a lucky fifty would be chosen to enter the tomb on the few days either side of the winter solstice. There was no guarantee that the weather would accommodate us.