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295 - Newgrange - Stone Age Ireland


John Young (Standard British accent):
Ireland is a land with many mysteries. One of the more intriguing is Newgrange, a Neolithic site in County Meath. Claire Tuffy, manager of the Newgrange Visitor Centre, thinks it is a special place:

Claire Tuffy (Irish accent)
It’s special because it’s 5,000 years old. There are very few opportunities anywhere to stand in a room which was built so long ago and see it exactly like they did back then. It’s wonderful to be at Newgrange at the winter solstice, when the sun shines into the chamber, and know that, when you’re waiting for dawn, that 5,000 years ago people stood on the same hill waiting for the same event. Now, there’s no doubt, but for them it had a completely different meaning than it would have for us, but we’re still waiting, glancing towards the same bit of sky, looking around at the gorgeous Boyne Valley and waiting for the sun to rise on the shortest day. So it’s a great opportunity to be able to share an experience with your remote ancestors — and feel pride in their achievement.

Needless to say, there are many theories as to why these remote ancestors built Newgrange:

Claire Tuffy
The entrance stone itself is a barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead. It’s rather like a threshold or doorway, and it’s covered in five spirals and lots of swirly lines and zigzags and diamond shapes. And some people suggest that the swirls and the spirals are to confuse the entrance into the spirit world, that it is somehow is to make things more convoluted. Other people suggest that it represents the sun and the stars, because, of course, we know that astronomy was extremely important to the people who built these monuments. And it is interesting that, at the winter solstice, when the sun is directly opposite the entrance of Newgrange, the light, because the sun is opposite the entrance, the art on the entrance stone seems quite flat, it almost disappears, there are no shadows, so perhaps on those days the barriers are down between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

But there’s an even stranger theory:

Claire Tuffy
Other people suggest that the people who carved the stones used halluc(in)-ogenic drugs so that they could enter into the spirit world and communicate with the ancestors. And tests that have been carried out by scientists using halluc(in)ogens report that these are the images, they’re called entoptic images, that are reported from, being seen from all over the world, not just in our culture, but from all over the world. And that might solve some of the queries, like how come sometimes, when you look at the art of our Neolithic tombs, it’s so similar to something you’d see in Aboriginal Australia, or in the Maori, or South America, that all over the world we use the same symbols in different combinations, so perhaps all of these holy men and women were using halluc(in)ogens to represent this spirit world!

A visit to Newgrange is one of the highlights of any trip to Ireland. Constructed around 5,000 years ago, the passage tomb of Newgrange predates the Egyptian Pyramids! The monument consists of a large mound of grass with a spectacular wall of white quartz and granite. Newgrange was built by a Stone Age community to house and honour the dead. The famous large stone in front of the entrance is engraved with beautiful spirals and lozenges. The designs have been interpreted in many different ways: as representations of the sun and moon, as an astronomical chart, as a map of the area, as a meditation aid, and as the effect of hallucinogenic drugs! A narrow passageway leads to the burial chamber. This is not for the claustrophobic. But then the chamber opens up. One of the designs in the stone, a beautiful tri-spiral, has become the symbol of Newgrange. Look up to the roof: the interlacing stones were put in place some 5,000 years ago and the roof is still waterproof today!

The Battle of the Boyne in 1690, the victory of the Protestant William III (William of Orange) over the Catholic James II, changed Irish history, and the history of Newgrange. New settlers came into the area. Until 1699, the tomb had been undisturbed for hundreds of years. Superstition kept the monument intact. Newgrange was discovered when a local landlord needed stone for some building work and accidentally found the entrance.

We know the builders of Newgrange were a Stone Age farming community on some of the richest agricultural land in Ireland. They had competence in architecture, engineering, geology, art and astronomy. For example, they aligned the passageway so that every year, at winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the first sunlight entered the passage tomb. Thousands of years later a ray of light still makes its way through the rooftop box above the entrance. The first archaeologist to excavate Newgrange in the early 1960s was the first person for centuries to witness this natural spectacle. Today, the guides replicate this effect for visitors with a torch. Even this artificial version is powerful. Every year, a few lucky people are permitted to attend winter solstice in the passage tomb.

There are still plenty of mysteries to be solved in this bend of the River Boyne. For example, archaeologists continue to look for evidence of the houses of the people who moved 200,000 tons of stone. 5,000 years on, Newgrange is as fascinating as ever.