5,000 years ago, an extraordinary people lived in Ireland. They were farmers, hunters and builders. Without the benefit of the wheel, and with tools made only of flint, they carved their culture into history. Along the banks of the River Boyne, they built houses to their dead, repositories to their spirit – monuments to immortality.
Brú na Boinne: Monument to Immortality
I don’t spend all my time involved in directing education programmes for capability management.
No, no, no.
Among my more arcane, but nevertheless very satisfying interests is in the culture of the Neolithic (New Stone Age), and particularly the culture of the Beaker People of Western Europe. An event central to the lives of the people of this culture in Ireland occurs today, 21st December, on the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere.
At ten minutes to nine on the morning of the shortest day of the year, a pale and weak sun slowly rises above a ridge in the Boyne River valley in County Meath, Ireland. As the sun’s rays penetrate the dawn mist, a solitary building sits atop it hill… waiting.
Waiting as it has every year for over fifty centuries to shine once again as a beacon to the spirit Of Man – a place where people forever bound to the earth can, however briefly, capture the Fire of the Sun and touch the sky.
Newgrange is best known for the illumination of its passage and chamber by the winter solstice sun. Above the entrance to the passage at Newgrange there is a special opening called a roof-box. Its purpose is to allow sunlight to penetrate the chamber on the shortest days of the year, around December 21, the Winter Solstice.
At dawn, from 19th to 23rd December every year, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof-box and reaches the floor of the chamber, gradually extending to the rear of the passage. As the sun rises above the horizon, the single light-beam widens within the chamber so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated. This event lasts for 17 minutes, beginning around 9am. In fact, if you look at the publish time for this post, you’ll see it’s 8.48am; exactly the time that the sun’s disc rises over the horizon to shed its first beams of light on the passage tomb.
Newgrange’s accuracy as a time-telling device is all the more remarkable when you consider that it was built 500 years before the Great Pyramids in Giza, and more than 1,000 years before Stonehenge. The interior of the tumulus consists of a long passage leading to a cross-shaped chamber. This burial chamber has a corbelled roof which rises steeply to a high-point of close to twenty feet above the floor surface. The recesses in the chambers contain large stone basins which would have held the cremated remains of those being deposited in the tomb. During excavation of the tomb, the remains of five people were found.
At the entrance to Newgrange (see image above right) stands the highly-decorated Entrance Stone.
The carvings on the stone include a triskele or triple-spiral motif which is found only at Newgrange. This motif is repeated along the passage into the tomb, and is carved into the rock again inside the burial chambers of the tumulus.
Despite much speculation, we still do not – and probably never will – know the meaning of these carvings, but I think that we can say that on some level, they indicate a perception of the divine on the part of the tomb builders. In Ireland, Newgrange (and the other monuments of the Boyne valley ritual landscape) represents a thread to our culture that leads us back to our ancestors, the very first settlers and farmers of the land. If you are part of the Irish diaspora, it’s part of your heritage too. Beyond this little island of Ireland, Newgrange represents the richness and depth and quality of human knowledge, and ability, and capacity to wonder, and achievement.
If you happen to be reading this post when it’s published (08:48am GMT on 21st December) and you’re really quick, click on this link to the Ireland’s Ancient East website to view the 2017 solstice event live. If the weather is with us, and the day dawns clear, it will be spectacular.
In 2007 and 2008, the event was streamed live over the web; sadly budget cuts by the Irish government meant that the solstice was not streamed from 2009-2016 (there was a recession on you know). For those of you who couldn’t make it to Newgrange today as a special Solstice treat I have created an edited version of the 2007 Newgrange Winter Solstice sunrise. I’ll post the 2017 video here soon after this year’s event is available on demand if it’s a clear dawn and the Neolithic gods are with us.
[Video courtesy of the Irish Office of Public Works]