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Newgrange Passage Tomb

Neolithic cairn: Brú na Bóinne
Megalithic architecture & art

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Main mound at Newgrange Passage Tomb
The great mound at Newgrange.
Image by Patrick. (CC BY 2.0)

Megalithic Passage Tomb

Newgrange Passage Tomb is the largest megalithic tomb in Ireland and one of the most famous sites of Megalithic art in Europe.

It is part of the Neolithic Brú na Bóinne complex of chamber tombs, standing stones, circular enclosures, and other prehistoric structures on the banks of the river Boyne, five miles west of Drogheda in Co Meath.

Neolithic spirals incised onto the entrance stone at Newgrange
Neolithic spirals carved into the entrance slab to Newgrange. The slab weighs about 5,000 kg tons in weight. The spiral design shown here predated the arrival of Celts in Ireland by about 2,000 years, but became one of the legendary Celtic designs. Image by Nomadtales. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When Was Newgrange Built? (Dates)

It was built during the transition between the Stone age and the Bronze Age culture - between 3,200 and 3,100 BC - by Neolithic smallholders and labourers using only stone tools or wooden implements.

Its construction was completed roughly 500 years before the Great Pyramid of Giza, but 1,000 years later than the Gavrinis Passage Tomb in Brittany.

Experts estimate Newgrange took about 30 years to build, using a workforce of around 300 people.

Why Was it Built?

Although no consensus exists as to its precise function, (aside from holding the ashes of the dead), Newgrange was clearly an important centre of Stone Age culture in the region - one that was closely associated with veneration of the dead, and veneration of the sun.

Newgrange is famous, in particular, for being precisely aligned with solar activity.

Each year at dawn, from the 19th to the 23rd of December, the rays of the rising sun pass through an opening above the entrance to the passage tomb, and briefly illuminate the interior of the burial chamber (for 17 minutes).

Newgrange's Cultural Importance

In addition to its monumental but sophisticated architecture, Newgrange is famous for a wealth of megalithic art, notably rock engravings and other petroglyphs, featuring intricate spiral symbols and many other motifs, although not on the same scale as the ancient art at the nearby Knowth Passage Tomb, which was built around the same time.

The Brú na Bóinne complex also sheds considerable light on the values and organizational resources of prehistoric Ireland during the last phase of Neolithic culture.

To maintain a 300-strong workforce for 30 years is no small achievement, nor is the gathering of so many large stones - some fetched from as far away as the Wicklow Mountains, some 110 kms (70 miles) to the south.

Newgrange is viewed by some experts as much more than a large, well constructed passage tomb. They prefer to see it as an ancient temple, along the lines of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

They consider it to be a prestigious place of ceremonial importance, where dignitaries may be acknowledged, crowned and laid to rest. A centre that serves as the spiritual heart of the people.

According to a 2020 study, a combination of archaeological, DNA and ethnographic evidence suggests that an elite male was buried in the Newgrange passage grave. The individual may have been a 'god-king' and the leader or senior figure within a 'royal dynasty'.

Abandonment

Newgrange was expanded further in the years following its initial construction, but ceased functioning as a ritual centre during the second millennium BC, and was abandoned altogether during the era of Iron Age art in Europe, around 250 BC.

However, the site lived on in Irish legends and myths, and the High Kings of Ireland, who were crowned at Tara, were said to be buried there up until 800 AD.

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Rediscovery and Excavation

For 2,000 years the great tombs of Newgrange, Knowth, and Douth and the 35 others in the surrounding area, were forgotten until their discovery in 1699.

However, it wasn't until 1962 that a thorough 11-year excavation of the site was conducted by archaeologist Michael J. O'Kelly. It was O'Kelly who discovered the opening that allowed the sun into the tomb during the winter solstice.

In 1993, Newgrange was made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Newgrange: Description & Details

Newgrange's megalithic architecture consists of a passage and chamber, whose roof and walls are built of large stones without any mortar.

A large circular mound (or cairn) of stones covers the passage tomb, while a kerb of monumental stone slabs which surrounds the base of the mound serves as a retaining wall.

Around the cairn, is a circle of widely spaced upright standing stones.

The Mound (Cairn)

Newgrange's mound is made up of 200,000 tonnes of earth and stones, topped with grass, with a facade of white quartz stones reinforced with large football sized cobbles covering the front third of the monument. (The facade was added during modern times.)

At present, the mound measures roughly 85 metres (279 ft) in width and 12 metres (39 ft) in height, and covers an area of 4,500 square metres (1.1 acres).

A continuous circle of massive kerbstones surrounds the base of the mound and acts as a support. The kerbstones vary in length, from 1.7 metres to 4.5 metres.

The mound is ringed with a circle of standing stones, with an average diameter of 104 metres.

The largest of the menhirs stands 2.5 metres above ground level. Originally, there were thirty-five; today, only twelve survive.

Archaeologists believe they were added later, during the Bronze or Iron Age, long after the original monument had been abandoned as a ceremonial centre.

Passage and Chamber

From the entrance to the tomb, visitors follow a 1-metre wide passage which stretches for 19 metres (60 ft) into the centre of the cairn.

The passage walls are made up of large stone slabs called orthostats, which range from 1.5 metres to 2 metres in height.

There are 21 orthosats on the right of the passage and 22 on the left, several of which are decorated with rock engravings.

At the end of the passage is a central cruciform-shaped chamber, which opens out into three small recesses or side-chambers.

Each recess contains a stone basin which used to hold the bones or ashes of the dead, along with votive offerings of ancient pottery, jewellery, beads and finely worked stone tools.

This seems to contradict the idea that Newgrange was a temple rather than a passage grave.

The roof was constructed using a technique called corbelling. Stones are stacked in such a way that - from below - they resemble the underside of a staircase.

A corbelled roof was essential in order to support the enormous downward pressure of the cairn's earth and stones.

Although the central chamber is quite small, its roof is very high. The final capstone is roughly 6m above the floor.

The combined length of passage and chamber is 24 metres (79 ft) - just over one quarter of the total diameter of the mound.

Interestingly, there are no signs of smoke on the ceiling stones, showing that no fires were lit inside the chamber.

Roofbox

Located high up above the entrance to the passage, is a rectangular opening known as the Roofbox. It is this opening that enables sunlight to penetrate into the passage on the Winter Solstice and to reach the chamber deep inside.

Megalithic Construction

The megalithic (large stone) architecture of Newgrange is what makes the monument so extraordinary.

Locating, transporting and then positioning the materials must have been extremely difficult without any wheels or metal tools.

The fact that the corbelled vault and passageway have survived in excellent condition for 5,000 years without any cement or mortar, testifies to the exceptional skills of Newgrange's builders.

Compare Ancient Egyptian architecture of the Bronze Age, see: Egyptian Pyramids (from 2670 BC).

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Newgrange's Megalithic Art

Newgrange is famous for its megalithic art - that is, imagery on megaliths - which features a wide range of abstract signs and symbols, some of which were used in Upper Paleolithic art (from 40,000 BC onwards).

The most common motifs include: circles, arcs, spirals, chevrons, zigzags and lozenges. Some scientists have suggested that these geometric motifs have a symbolic or magical meaning, but there is no clear evidence to support these claims.

In total, there are seventy-five engraved megaliths at Newgrange. These comprise: sixteen passage stones, eighteen stones in the cruciform chamber, and thirty-one of the exterior kerbstones.

Although carvings are found both inside and outside the tomb, the most exquisite carving is is seen on the Kerbstones.

According to Professor Michael J. O'Kelly (1915-82) who excavated Newgrange from 1962 to 1975, craftsmen created two basic types of Neolithic rock art on its stone surfaces:

The most famous abstract images at Newgrange are the triskele-like designs found on the entrance stone.

The boulder itself is roughly 3 metres in length and 1.2 metres in height, and weighs about five tonnes. Its decoration is dominated by spirals, roughly 1 cm in depth and 1 cm in width.

A Large triple spiral occupying roughly one third of the surface area, is ringed with lozenges and other smaller spirals. (Similar triple spirals can be seen in the passage, and in the end recess of the cruciform chamber.)

Two other stones whose decorative designs show exceptional artistry, are Kerbstone 52 (directly at the back of the tomb) and Kerbstone 67 (to the north of the chamber).

In addition to these three fully-decorated stones, there are numerous less intricate patterns on the other kerbstones, including some carved onto their inner faces, which have become hidden over time.

Meaning of the Art

Scholars continue to speculate about the meaning of the rock engravings at Newgrange.

The Irish antiquarian George Coffey (1857–1916) thought they were created for purely decorative purposes, while O'Kelly believed they had a deeper symbolic meaning.

Others have focused on specific images such as the triple spirals, believing they represent springs of water or sources of energy beneath the cairn.

Still others, like Martin Brennan have searched for specific connections with Neolithic astronomy.

Unfortunately, like most prehistoric art created thousands of years ago, the megalithic imagery at Newgrange continues to defy all our attempts at interpretation.

Famous Sites of Megalithic Art

NEXT: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) Eogan, G. & Doyle, P. Bru Na Boinne Guide to the Passage Tombs. Wordwell, Ltd, Dublin, 2010.
(2) O'Kelly, Michael J. Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend. Thames & Hudson, London, 1982.
(3) E. Grogan, "Prehistoric and Early Historic Cultural Change at Brugh na Bóinne", Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 91C, 1991, pp. 126–132.
(4) "A dynastic elite in monumental Neolithic society". Cassidy, Lara (2020). Nature. 582 (7812): 384–388.

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