On the highest point of a low ridge overlooking the River Boyne is the best-known archaeological feature of Ireland: the passage tomb and solar observatory known as Newgrange. The construction of this magnificent site began about 3370 BCE. At sunrise on the shortest day of the year—the winter solstice—the light from the rising sun enters the tomb through the roof box. It extends down the passage way and the beam of light strikes the wall of the chamber. Observing this event was probably a major ceremony for important religious and political figures.
The solstice event at Newgrange is made possible by a roof box: this is a linteled structure which is set back 2.5 metres (8 ft.) from the entrance. It forms an aperture one metre (3 ft.) wide and 60 centimetres ( 2 ft.) high that channels the light through the 20 centimetre (8 in.) high gap between the first and second passage tomb lintels.
There were two kinds of ceremonies which were conducted at Newgrange. There were ceremonies which included the general community and there were ceremonies which were exclusive and involved only selected community members. The preparation of the human remains for burial took place outside of the tomb and would have allowed the entire community to observe or to be involved. The tomb mound provides a venue for outside ritual activities.
The archaeologists have suggested that the preponderance of art on the kerbstones shows that these outdoor rituals included a procession around the mound. They feel that the main community ceremonies took place at the entrance to the passage where there is the greatest concentration of art and quartz.
The ceremonies which took place in the chamber probably involved male chanting. Modern acoustic tests in the chamber have shown that corbelled chambers are ideal environments for producing dramatic sound effects. The curved stone surfaces directed echoes toward specific points in the chamber. Archaeologists feel that the acoustic features would have been integral to the architectural design of the chamber and its passage.
About 2875 BCE, some new features were added outside of the Newgrange mound: an enclosure of postholes was constructed. This appears to indicate a new religion which might have come about through invasion and conquest or through emigration and assimilation. The new structure—dubbed Woodhenge by some archaeologists—represents religious change: a change from the exclusivity of the rituals which had taken place deep within the chamber and out of sight of the community to ceremonies which involved the public inside a huge ritual amphitheatre.
Archaeologists Geraldine Stout and Matthew Stout, in their book Newgrange, describe the new ceremonies this way:
“Inside the sanctuary marked out by its ring of stout posts, offerings to the gods were prepared; the finest pigs and cattle, as well as the first horses known in Ireland, were slaughtered. Pottery beakers were ritually smashed in alcohol-fuelled rituals. Fires were lit in the rings of pits within the timber sanctuary and joints of meat were cooked in the open flames. Feasting followed, with the celebration of life and its bounty, in contrast to the more somber evocation of dead ancestors that ceremonies within the chamber at Newgrange must have evoked.”The Great Stone Circle:
Sometime after the timber circle had stopped being used, the Great Stone Circle around Newgrange was constructed. This represents the final phase of Newgrange as a ceremonial and astronomical centre. Archaeologists Geraldine Stout and Matthew Stout write:
“The construction of the Great Stone Circle was the last act of those who expressed their devotion to their gods by erecting giant stone (megalithic) structures.”The circle of stones was erected around the Newgrange mound at a distance from the kerbstones between 18 metres (59 ft.) in the southeast and 6 metres (20 ft.) in the west. Originally, 36-38 stones were erected, of which 12 remain.
The Great Stone Circle, like some of the stone circles in other parts of Ireland, functioned as a solar observatory. On the shortest day of the year, the rising sun casts the shadow of the stone erected before the passage across the entrance stone. On the morning of the spring and autumn equinoxes, the rising sun casts a shadow from the second stone to the east so that it strikes the entrance stone. The alignment of the three surviving stones before the entrance marks the sunrise of the morning of the longest day of the year.
To the west of the tomb, archaeologists have found two roughly parallel rows of large postholes. These are about a metre (3 ft.) wide and a metre deep and indicate that a very large structure was built over one of the stones of the Great Stone Circle.
We don’t know what the people who built, maintained, and used Newgrange called themselves or what language(s) they spoke. We do know that they were an agricultural community. Newgrange was built on open farmland which had been cleared of trees during the centuries prior to its construction. Neolithic farmers began to settle in the Boyne Valley about 4000 BCE.
The people raised both crops and domesticated animals. With regard to domesticated animals, archaeologists found far more cattle bones than pig bones. They also found the remains of sheep and goats. Field fences separated tillage from pasture and kept the animal stock away from the crops.
These Neolithic farmers had two main cereal crops: wheat and barley. They had two, and possibly three, varieties of wheat: emmer (Triticum dicoccum) and bread wheat (Triticum aestivum). In addition, they may have raised einkorn (Triticum monococcum).
Archaeologists Geraldine Stout and Matthew Stout write:
“Food production created a surplus that permitted large numbers of people to be involved in the construction for significant periods during the farming year. The society was sufficiently wealthy to permit large areas of turf to be stripped from fertile land and permanently removed from farming. Eventually they created a landscape that was a reflection of both their farming foundations and their spiritual sophistication.”Note on Terminology:
Since this is an Irish archaeological site, I have used Irish spellings and measurements in describing it.