The depths of winter are upon us once again and the winter solstice draws near, making each day progressively shorter and daylight a precious commodity. In the lead up to the year’s shortest day (December 21st), many of us take stock as we bid goodbye to the dark days of December and welcome the return of the sun with hopeful prospects for the coming year.
How do you celebrate the changing of the season?
We acknowledge the transition of the seasons just as many ancient cultures have done before us. In Meso-America, the Mayans observed the cosmic rebirth of the sun; the Romans celebrated with the festival of Saturnalia and the ancient Irish marked the winter solstice at Newgrange.
Located in Ireland’s Boyne Valley, Newgrange is a 5,200-year-old passage tomb that was constructed to align with the rising sun of the winter solstice. The Boyne Valley has a high concentration of prehistoric tombs and Newgrange is a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Brú na Bóinne that also includes the passage tombs of Knowth, Dowth as and 40 other smaller tombs.
Newgrange was built in approximately 3,200 BC during the Neolithic Period (4,000- 2,000 BC). The people of the Neolithic were early farmers, that constructed communal monuments such as henges, stone circles and tombs. Although they left behind numerous monuments, not much is known about this prehistoric culture. Passage tombs, such as Newgrange, have also been found in Scotland, France, Scandinavia and even as far away as the Mediterranean. Appearing from the outside as a circular mound, the interior of a passage tomb consists of a narrow passageway leading to a vaulted chamber. Passage tombs were used for funerary purposes and archaeologists typically find human remains and grave goods within their inner chambers.
The Discovery of Newgrange
Following the Neolithic, Newgrange lay undisturbed for thousands of years, until 1699 when the landowner identified a large mound on his property as a good source of stones. His labourers were ordered to remove the stones and in the process exposed the tomb’s entrance. The discovery of Newgrange was met with much interest; over the centuries visiting antiquarians and travelers have put forth their own theories of its origins and purpose. The site, however, was not fully investigated until archaeological excavations began in the 1960s.
The archaeological excavations at Newgrange made some remarkable discoveries and added to the fragmented picture of Neolithic society. The tomb is 85 metres in diameter and 13 metres in height. Its walls and roof were constructed from large stone slabs without the use of mortar. From the entranceway, a 19 metre passage leads into a large chamber with three alcoves. The chamber’s corbelled roof is one of the finest examples of its kind in Western Europe and has remained intact for thousands of years. Inside the chamber, archaeologists discovered bone fragments and cremated remains of five individuals as well as grave goods such as bone beads, pendants and polished stone balls. The tomb may have contained more human remains and artefacts, but it is possible that they were removed after its 1699 discovery.
Neolithic artwork is found throughout the tomb, carved directly into stone. The images represent a variety of designs that include spirals, diamonds, chevrons, triangles and parallel lines; it is not known, however, if their purpose was aesthetic, symbolic or ritual. The three-metre entrance stone is considered one of the greatest preserved examples of Neolithic art. With its intricately carved spiral designs, it is an impressive sight to modern-day visitors, just as it would have been in ancient times.
Newgrange and the winter solstice
The most significant revelation during the archaeological program was the discovery of the tomb’s alignment with rising sun of the winter solstice. This was revealed when archaeologists found an opening above the entranceway that was deliberately positioned to capture the light of the rising solstice sun. Termed by archaeologists as the roof box, this feature allows light to penetrate the otherwise dark tomb.
On the waning days of the solar calendar (December 18-23), sunlight enters through the roof box; as the sun rises higher, the beam widens, penetrating further down the passage and into the dark recesses of the chamber. On the morning of the solstice (December 21), the light will travel the furthest and illuminate the rear wall of the chamber. This event will last approximately 17 minutes before the tomb is taken over by darkness for another year. An incredible achievement for its builders, Newgrange’s celestial connection has remained intact for thousands of years and provides us with a glimpse of the ancient world.
Archaeological investigations have brought about a better understanding of the structure of this ancient tomb, but also have shed new light on an ancient time that is shrouded in mystery. Newgrange is a remarkable monument that tells us much about the people of the Neolithic. In addition to it’s funerary function, Newgrange also played a religious and ceremonial role within society. Its monumental architecture reveals a well-organised society, capable of complex technology and large-scale building schemes. Its deliberate orientation with the winter solstice indicates that these ancient people studied the heavens and had knowledge of astronomy.
Newgrange is open to the public throughout the year, but entrance to the tomb is restricted for the solstice event. Because there is such a demand, access to the tomb is decided by a lottery system where people can submit their entries in person, or online. Competition is stiff with over 32,000 entries in 2017, but perhaps you will be one of the fortunate few who gets to observe this ancient phenomenon. We have applied several times and have not had any luck thus far.
The solstice is a special time at Newgrange, but a visit to this site can be magical at anytime of year. After reading about the neolithic momentums and ancient history of Ireland as children, when we finally visited this site for the first time the beauty and majesty was an experience we will never forget. We imagine most will feel the same visiting Newgrange.
An architectural achievement, Newgrange is testament to the knowledge and expertise of the Neolithic people and to truly appreciate its ancient craftsmanship, one must experience it firsthand. Visiting neolithic sites throughout the Celtic world always reignites my (Peggy) passion for historical architecture and archeology.
How to Apply – Heritage Ireland
People gather at Newgrange for dawn on each of the mornings from December 18th to December 23rd inclusive. Sunrise is at 8.58am.
All access to the chamber is decided by lottery. However, everyone else is welcome to come and stand on the outside of the monument.
To enter the lottery, you can fill out an application form in Brú Na Bóinne Visitor Centre when you visit Newgrange. Alternatively you can send your postal address, a contact telephone number and an indication whether or not you have ever visited Newgrange by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.On receipt of these details a member of staff will complete an application on your behalf. Applicants must be over 10 years of age. An adult must accompany children under 18 years of age. Only applications on the official form can be entered into the draw. Applications are valid for the current year’s draw only.
The draw for places at Newgrange for Solstice 2018 will take place on September 28th 2018. Children from three local schools will choose the winning applicants. The successful people will be notified by mid October.
Sixty names are drawn, and each of those sixty people is invited along with a guest to attend on a specific morning. There are ten lottery winners and their guests in the chamber on each of the mornings. Some additional names are also drawn and placed on a reserve list. The reserve list is there in case someone whose name is drawn for the initial list is not contactable or else finds it impossible to travel to Newgrange on the date they have been assigned. The place at Newgrange for dawn is non-transferable. Lottery winners cannot offer their place in the chamber to someone else.
What to See
- The mound and passage tomb.
- Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre. See interpretations of the Neolithic monuments of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.
- Megalithic art.
- The kerb. 97 large stones surrounding the mound called kerbstones.
Newgrange is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Brú na Bóinne. Visitors can access the site by guided tour from the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre. Visitors are able to explore the site year round, although opening hours vary by seasons.
Newgrange is 52 km (32 miles) from Dublin. Take the M1 North towards Drogheda and take exit 9. This is signed for Donore and Brú na Bóinne/NEWGRANGE MONUMENT. In Donore the road bends to the right, follow the bend and the Visitor Centre is 2km past the village on the right hand side.
From the North via the M1. Take the M1 heading south. Take the first exit after the Boyne Cable Bridge. This is signed for Donore and Brú na Bóinne/NEWGRANGE MONUMENT. Go through the village of Donore, in Donore the road bends to the right, follow the bend and the Visitor Centre is 2km past the village on the right hand side.
See detailed directions via this link.
Bus Eireann operates a bus service between the Visitor Centre and Drogheda, (operating twice daily Mon – Sat, with no Sunday service). This service (163) runs in conjunction with the service to Drogheda from Dublin.
For more information, please visit Heritage Ireland.
Did you know?
On December 21st 1967, Prof O’Kelly was the first person in modern times to witness the light of the rising sun illuminate the chamber at Newgrange. Have some fun with the Winter Solstice 50th Anniversary quiz.