Newgrange, a chambered tomb, is one of Europe’s oldest buildings, dating back 5200 years. The white stone that originally covered the external walls has been replaced so that it glows in the sun, restoring it to a remarkable skyline landmark.
Newgrange is the best-known Irish passage tomb. The enormous mound is about 80m in diameter and is encircled at its base by a 97-stone curb. The Entrance Stone, which is richly ornamented, is the most remarkable of these stones.
The flat-topped cairn covers over 0.5 hectares. It is fairly round and weighs an estimated 200,000 tones in total. It is made of water-rolled stones from the Boyne River terraces. Excavations revealed that the revetment wall above the kerb along the front or south side of the mound was built with white quartz stones from quartz veins in Co Wicklow and round granite boulders from Mourne and Carlingford.
The mound protects a solitary tomb with a long passage and a cross-shaped chamber. The passage is only about 19 meters long and faces southeast. It opens into a room with three recesses. The chamber is covered by a corbelled roof. The roof was built by overlapping layers of huge boulders until it could be sealed with a capstone 6 meters above the floor. The roof of Newgrange is still watertight after 5000 years.
Stones of Basin
The remains of the dead were kept in these basins on the floor of each recess. During the excavation, the remains of at least five persons were discovered, while much more bone may have been deposited there originally. The majority of the bones discovered were incinerated, with only a few exceptions remaining unburned. Grave items like as chalk and bone beads and pendants, as well as polished stone balls, were put with the deceased.
The entrance stone at Newgrange and Kerbstone 52 at the mound’s back are highly sophisticated sculptures that are recognized as some of the finest works of European Neolithic art. Many more kerbstones are carved, some with carving on the inside facing inwards.
Some of the stones in the corridor are wonderfully carved, particularly the 19th stone on the left, which bears a motif that some tourists claim resembles a stylized face. The world-famous tri-spiral design may be found in the chamber in the back recess on the right hand side.
The winter Solstice
The most famous feature at Newgrange is the little opening or ‘roof box’ located above the passage entrance. A shaft of sunshine enters the chamber through an opening in the roof box at dawn on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year (December 21st), and for several days before and after.
The winter solstice signaled the beginning of the New Year for the Neolithic culture of the Boyne Valley, a sign of nature’s rebirth and the promise of new life for crops, animals, and humans. It could also have acted as a potent symbol of life’s inevitable triumph over death, possibly offering fresh life to the spirits of the deceased.
Beaker People of the Early Bronze Age
Around the year 2000 BC, new people or ideas arrived in Ireland. The Beaker period, so named because of the peculiar pottery style associated with it, corresponds with the rise of metal working, even if stone tools were still used. The Beaker people built a massive enclosure that served as a ritual center as important as the passage tomb had been in its day. David Sweetman’s archaeological excavations revealed it to be a massive double circle of wooden poles (c100m in diameter) within which animal parts were burnt and buried in pits. It’s known as the Pit Circle.
Newgrange is likewise surrounded by a circle of standing stones. Its function is unclear, though recent study suggests that it may have served an astronomical purpose. The Stone Circle was built after 2000BC, as excavations have revealed that one of the circle’s stones is right on top of the Early Bronze Age Pit Circle. There could have been more stones in the circle at one time. Some may have been split up over time.
This was the final stage of construction at Newgrange.