Newgrange & Knowth: unearthing the Neolithic past of Ireland

Brú na Bóinne is a UNESCO site in Ireland containing some of the world's most important landscapes from the Neolithic period. The best-known constructions are Newgrange and Knowth, two megalithic passage graves built around 3200 BC, which makes them even older than the pyramids of Egypt.

Surrounded by mystery, a visit to one of the only two heritage sites in Ireland is a must. But, what is the real story behind these impressive constructions?


HOW TO GET THERE

 

Brú na Bóinne is located in County Meath, about 40 kilometres north of Dublin.

River Boyne

Due to its somewhat isolated location, the easiest way to get there is driving through the M1 towards the city of Drogheda and then turn left on exit 9. It takes approximately 50 minutes to get to the visitor centre.

If you don't drive or don't have a car, the only alternative to visit Newgrange and Knowth is taking a day tour. There are a few tour operators offering this visit, and most of them also combine these sites with the Hill of Tara. Some of the most popular tour operators are Newgrange Tours by Mary Gibbons and Gray Line. I haven't taken any of these tours myself, but they've been operating for years and both are reliable companies.

 

Brú na Bóinne

 

After getting to the site, I headed straight to the visitor centre in order to purchase my tickets. The number of daily visitors is restricted, so if you're visiting on your own, it is always recommended to arrive as soon as possible, especially during the high season, to ensure that you can join one of the guided visits. If you're part of a bus tour the entrance is already included and guaranteed, so you don't need to worry about that. 

Brú na Bóinne includes 3 different sites: the visitor centre, Newgrange, and Knowth. You can combine the visitor centre with one of the two tombs, or visit the three of them. The combined ticket is only €13 for adults, so I highly recommend visiting both Newgrange and Knowth; they are quite different and equally worth it.

 

Mockup of Newgrange

 

After purchasing the tickets, I was assigned two different groups: one to visit the tombs of Knowth, and another one to visit Newgrange a couple of hours later. The visit to the tombs is guided, and there are shuttle buses departing from the visitor centre that will bring you to both sites. 

While waiting for the start of the first visit, I spent some time in the exhibition at the visitor centre, which mainly covers the history of Brú na Bóinne and how the constructions were built. The exhibition also and has a 10-minute video presentation explaining how the sites were aligned with the different stages of the sun, as well as a replica of the chamber at Newgrange and some of the sites at Knowth.

 

Neolithic house

Original artefacts

Method of transport of the rocks


Knowth

 

After approximately half an hour in the visitor centre, it was time to get the shuttle bus that would bring me to Knowth for my first guided visit. The tour lasted about one hour, followed by some free time to roam around the tombs.

The passage tomb complex at Knowth is at the western end of Brú na Bóinne, only about 5 minutes drive from the visitor centre. Built between 2500 and 2000 BC, the most spectacular tomb is the great mound outlined by 127 massive kerbstones. Arranged around this are 19 smaller or satellite tombs, at least two of which were built before the great mound. 

 

Knowth

 

The site was excavated between 1967 and 1968 by Professor George Eogan and his team, who discovered two tombs within the large central mound.

One of the main features of the tomb was the great wealth of decoration on the structural stones, as in Knowth you can find one-third of the total number of megalithic art in Europe, made up of hundreds of decorated stones. 

The art in Knowth contains a great variety of images and symbols: from spirals and lozenges to the crescent shape. The meaning of most of these symbols is still unknown.

 

Crescent

Spiral

Kerbstones in Knowth

Calendar count

Entrance to the tomb

 

It isn't totally clear why Knowth was built or who was buried there. Due to the grandeur of the place, it is believed that it could've been built for a ruler or an important local family, however, these are only suppositions as there is no documented history of those times.

The archaeological evidence found at the site seems to suggest that there was a place of ritual at the entrance of the tomb that could've been used for offerings.

It is also believed that the passages at Knowth were aligned with the equinoxes; the moment of the year in which the Earth passes through the centre of the Sun's disk and the day and night have the same duration. 

Just like it happens at Newgrange during the solstice, the light of the sun would go through the passage and illuminate the interior of the tomb. Due to the alterations over the years and the concrete wall built in the west entrance during the excavations in the 1960s, this phenomenon no longer takes place at Knowth. 

 

Smaller tombs at Knowth

Remains of a house

Satellite tomb in Knowth

 

In the early Christian era (450 AD) the great mound of Knowth was transformed into a massive defended site. Two huge ditches were dug, one at the base of the mound, the other near the top. It seems likely that a powerful chieftain was defending his territory and that times were turbulent. The site continued in use as a defended location right through to the Middle Ages.

Unfortunately, the interior was severely damaged and today it is no longer possible to access the central chamber. I could only access the entrance of the tomb form where I could look at the 40-meter long eastern passage, the longest in Western Europe. At the end of the passage is located a cruciform chamber similar to the one in Newgrange.

 

Eastern passage

 

Just outside of the eastern passage there is a Timber Circle of Woodhenge, which has been recreated using 33 prehistoric postholes. Some pottery and offerings were found around the circle, so it is believed that it could've been used as a place for rituals.

After the guided visit, we had some free time to walk around the multiple tombs and even climb the great mound, offering great views of the Boyne Valley.

After a brief but torrential rain that came from nowhere, I took the next shuttle bus to continue with my visit in Newgrange. 

 

Timber Circle or Woodhenge

Typical Irish landscape

A very cloudy Boyne Valley


Newgrange

 

Newgrange is the best known Irish passage tomb. As you arrive at the monument, the view is quite impressive: a 12m tall structure surrounded by a kerb of 97 decorated and undecorated stones, the most imposing of which is the ‘entrance stone’. Under the mound is the tomb with a long passage and a cross-shaped chamber.

The site was excavated between 1962 and 1975 by Professor Michael J. O’Kelly, who discovered the roof box through which the mid-winter sun penetrates into the chamber. Based on the excavation evidence, he also designed the reconstruction of the white quartz facade. 

 

Newgrange

 

It is incredible to think that such a colossal structure could be constructed over 5000 years ago with so little technology. It is estimated that about 2000 large stones must have been used to build all the tombs at Brú na Bóinne. Of the range of stone used the most favoured was greywacke, a grey-green sandstone.

Much smaller stones were used for decoration and ritual - granite, banded and green siltstone were brought from the Cooley peninsula, quartz came from the Wicklow mountains and clay ironstone nodules were found locally.

It is believed that all the large stones at Newgrange were collected locally, as all had weathered surfaces except where they were carved. 

Whether they were quarried or found locally, the stones had to be transported over a fairly hilly landscape - the major tombs are on the tops of ridges. Stones up to about 2 tons could be lifted by men with rope slings over shoulder posts. Heavier stones would have to be dragged on sledges over wooden rollers and pulled with plaited leather of fibre ropes. It could take up to four days for 80 men to bring a four-ton stone from 3km away.

 

Lateral side of the tomb

 

Newgrange must always have been a prominent location; the earliest evidence for human activity comes from a number of tools from Mesolithic people who lived here sometime before 4000 BC.

From about 3800 BC until the tombs were built, there were early farmers on the ridge. To the west, there is evidence of working and using flint, as well as some small pits and hollows, one of which may have been a cooking pit; another contained pieces from eleven different Neolithic pots.

Between 3300 and 2900 BC, Newgrange had built to the shape of the ridge top. It has been suggested that the ground plan was laid out using the entrance stone, the back-stone of the chamber, and the kerbstone at the back of the mound.

 

Close up of Newgrange

 

In front of the entrance to Newgrange, there was a small hut foundation and a low mound of quartz and granite, probably connected with ceremonies taking place in front of the entrance.

To the southeast, there was a hearth formed by a circular setting of cobbles and near this a number of substantial post-holes, perhaps marking part of a house or shelter.

One of the most recognisable symbols of Newgrange is the entrance stone, a three metres long and 1.2 metres high rock weighing more than five tonnes that is placed right at the entrance of the tomb.

It is not clear what the symbols on the stone mean; while some scholars believe that they are purely decorative, some others believe that it might have a hidden symbolic meaning.

 

Entrance stone

 

But the big highlight of visiting Newgrange is being able to access the central chamber. Only 20 people can be inside of the chamber at once, so our group had to be divided into two. 

The narrow passage leads to a chamber beautifully decorated with spiral symbols where the ashes and bones of the dead were placed. Long thought to be just a tomb, in the late 1960s archaeologists discover an amazing secret that shed new light on this ancient structure.

Every year, during the winter solstice, the sun enters at dawn through the passage and illuminates the interior of the tomb for 17 minutes. This demonstrates a surprising knowledge of astronomy by the builders of this unique monument, who aligned it with the sun to be lit up during the shortest day of the year. 

The meaning of this impressive event is still unknown, but it is believed to represent the start of a new year; the rebirth of nature when the winter is finally left behind as the days get longer and spring arrives.

On every tour to Newgrange, the solstice is reproduced using artificial light. When our entire group was inside, our guide left us in the darkness and lit up a light that reproduces the sunlight entering through the shaft and crossing the entire passage until it reached the very end of the chamber. Because the chamber is uphill, the shaft is at the same level of the ground, making it possible for the light to cross such a narrow passage. The entire experience was absolutely incredible, and it was only a simulation!

Unfortunately, photography or video are strictly forbidden inside. If you'd like to see what the solstice or this reproduction would look like from the central chamber, here's a fantastic video simulation to give you an idea:

 
 

Every year, a lottery is drawn and 50 lucky winners and their guest can access the chamber from December 18th to December 23rd to witness the sunrise (weather permitting).

All visitors to Newgrange have the chance to fill out an application form in the visitor centre. I obviously left my name, so hopefully, I'll be one of the lucky ones this year!

 

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