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The Winter solstice at Newgrange

A brief account of the Winter solstice at Newgrange, the archaeological excavations at the site and some of the finds now stored in the National Museum of Ireland


Newgrange is one of forty passage tombs in Brú na Bóinne (meaning the bend of the Boyne River) in County Meath. One of the principal features which sets Newgrange apart from the other passages tombs in Brú na Bóinne is the way in which the roof-box channels the sunlight along the passage in the tomb to illuminate the chamber at sunrise every year on the winter solstice.

Newgrange, O’Kelly’s excavations and the winter solstice at Newgrange

The prehistoric and archaeological significance of Newgrange was first recognised by Edward Lhywd, a Welsh antiquarian, when he was visiting Ireland in 1699 (Figure 1). It was not until the 20th century that it was first properly investigated first by R.A.S Macalister, and then later by Sean P. O’Ríordáin, both Professors of Archaeology at University College Dublin. However, their investigations were confined to the exterior of the site: the kerb on the exterior of the tomb and the outer stone circle respectively.

Figure 1: A drawing by the antiquarian Ledwich of Newgrange in 1790, almost 100 years after Lhywd “discovered” Newgrange (From Stout, Newgrange and the bend of the Boyne, Figure 7, 42).

In 1962 Professor M.J. O’Kelly of University College Cork undertook to carry out extensive archaeological excavations on behalf of the Office of Public Works. His excavations extended over several seasons from 1962 until 1975 and many fascinating and ground-breaking discoveries were made. Prior to O’Kelly starting to excavate at Newgrange, it was locally known that the tomb filled with sunlight at sunrise on the winter solstice, yet no one had ever experienced it. With the discovery of the roof-box and the orientation of the tomb to face southeast O’Kelly suspected that, like Stonehenge, their purpose maybe connected the astronomical calendar. So, O’Kelly set out to investigate this further and on the 21st of December 1967 O’Kelly and his team were the first observe and experience the illumination of the passage tomb by the sun rays since prehistoric times (O’Kelly 1982). 

Figure 2: the reconstruction of the roof-box at Newgrange (Photo: National Museum of Ireland).

After O’Kelly’s investigations it was found that this phenomenon occurs two or three days centring on the 21st of December. The light travels down the passage way into the chamber and hits the triple spiral motif on the back kerb of the chamber. Spiral motifs have been interpreted by some archaeologist as possibly representing a vortex linking two worlds. It is thought that at Newgrange when the light hits the spiral motif on back slab in the chamber it opens the vortex into the ‘other world’ to let the dead complete their journey from this world to ‘the other world’ (Carlton-Jones, 2007, 157).

Figure 3: sun filling the passage of Newgrange passage tomb at the Winter Solstice (From Stout, Newgrange and the Bend of the Boyne, p. 47)

Dating from Newgrange

Up until the 1980s passage tombs were considered to be Bronze Age mortuary monuments and Newgrange was thought to date to 2800 BC (Herity, 1974). This presented archaeologists at the time with a huge conundrum as there was an absence of bronze finds from the primary contexts. With improvements in radiocarbon analysis new dates were produced and current calibrated radiocarbon determinations date passage tombs to 3200 BC, firmly placing them in the middle Neolithic.

Some artefacts from Newgrange

With the chronology of passage tombs resolved, however, the debate over the origins of the passage tomb culture and how it disseminated into Ireland is ongoing. There are close parallels between the morphology, art and artefact assemblages of the Irish passage tombs and passage tombs in Brittany and Iberia. Indeed, several of the finds, namely the bone and antler mushroom-headed pins and the stone marbles/balls (Figure 4) from the Neolithic context recovered by O’Kelly are also found in assemblages from passage tombs in the Iberian Peninsula (Herity 1974). The function of these artefacts is still unknown. These objects would have had ritual connotations; they could have been ceremonial props or grave goods to accompany the dead into the afterlife.

Figure 4: Stone pendants (E56:575b, 576a, 568), balls or marbles (E56:562a-c), beads (E56:572, 549) and a disc (577a) found during the excavations at Newgrange – E56:575b, 576a, 568, 572, 549 and 577a. (Photograph: Copyright The National Museum of Ireland

Although built in the Neolithic, Newgrange continued to be seen and revered as an important religious focus in the landscape in throughout prehistory.  O’Kelly recovered artefactual and contextual evidence for re-use of the site during the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age by Beaker and early Bronze Age peoples, and later Iron Age and Roman finds were also found during his excavations (Figure 5). The Iron Age and Roman finds were considered to possibly be votive offerings.

Figure 5: Roman coins converted into pendant found during the excavations of the passages tomb at Newgrange (E56:560, 561) (Photograph: Copyright The National Museum of Ireland).

All the artefacts recovered during the excavations at Newgrange are held in the National Museum of Ireland. A selection of flint scrapers recovered during the excavations are illustrated Figure 6. The bulk of the artefacts from Newgrange are in our reserve collections, however, there is a selection out on display. The miniature hammer and pestle pendants, the stone marbles/balls and beads in the Prehistoric exhibition on the ground floor and some examples of these are illustrated in Figure 4, while the Romano-British artefacts are on exhibition in the Religious medieval exhibition on the second floor (Figures 5 & 7).

Figure 6: a selection of lithic finds from the excavations at Newgrange – E56:1021, 1035, 103, 1261, 327, 782, and 861) (Photograph: Copyright The National Museum of Ireland).

Figure 7: Romano-British bronze oval brooches dating to the 3rd century A.D. found during the excavations outside in the vicinity of the kerb of the passages tomb at Newgrange (E56:1711, 976) (Photograph: Copyright The National Museum of Ireland).

Solar symbolism in prehistory

Solar symbolism in megalithic art and rock art is well documented. Recent research has been carried out by our former Keeper of Irish Antiquities, Mary Cahill, into solar symbolism in the Bronze Age artefacts: gold discs, also referred to as sun discs (Figure 8), ceramic bowls (formerly called Food Vessel Bowls) found in early Bronze Age burials, and gold lunulae. Cahill’s. research on the ceramic bowls was especially ground-breaking: she observed that when you view the ceramic bowls from above the same set of motifs, whirligigs, rays and zigzags, used to decorate the sun/gold discs are also used to decorate the ceramic bowls.

Figure 8: Two gold/sun discs, 267 and W271 from Rappacastle in Mayo. (Photograph: Copyright The National Museum of Ireland).

Solar symbolism at Newgrange and the significance of Newgrange in Celtic mythology

Clearly, the sun and solar symbolism was extremely important throughout the prehistoric era. Well into the Iron Age it appears Newgrange continued to be a spiritual place of great significance. Newgrange is a relatively modern name for the passage tomb, in Celtic mythology it was known as An Brug, meaning mansion or dwelling place of the Tuatha De Danann, who were a mythological race who inhabited the “other world”. The chief God of the Tuatha De Danann, was An Dagda (meaning Good God) who fathered a child, Aengus, with Boann, the Goddess of the River Boyne.

Conclusion

Brú na Bóinne is one of two UNESCO sites in Ireland. It is quite aunique place in the Irish landscape. The late Michael Herity, professor of Archaeology at University College Dublin in his book Irish Passage Graves compared the passage tomb builders of the Boyne Valley to the Medici of Florence, and suggests that in the prehistoric era only the Celts possibly matched their achievements and level of sophistication. When you examine the construction of the roof-box, the orientation of the tomb itself and the impressive megalithic art on the orthostats and kerbstones this is certainly evident at the passage tomb at Newgrange.

Passage tomb builders were indeed a highly organised. We can only speculate as to their beliefs and how their religion was structured. Their reasons for building the roof-box, decorating the orthostats and stone slabs in the chamber of the passage tomb with sun symbols and geometric motifs and the grave goods are no doubt connected to their religious beliefs. Mid-winters day was a significant day for them. They deliberately constructed the tomb so that at sunrise every year on the day of the winter solstice the sun is funnelled down the passage to fill the chamber with sun light. Their reasons for this is a mystery, perhaps they believed the sun light would rejuvenate the dead and guide them into the next life or ‘other world’, but whatever the reason it would have been a very special and spectacular experience for them as it still is for us today.

Take a tour focussed on the Winter Solstice at Newgrange on December 21st to discover more - at the Museum of Archaeology, Kildare St.

References

Cahill, M. (2015) ‘Here comes the sun… Solar Symbolism in early Bronze Age Ireland’, Archaeology Ireland, 29 (1), 26-33. Wordwell Books: Dublin

Cahill, M. (2016) ‘A stone to die for’, Archaeology Ireland, 30 (3), 26-29. Wordwell Books: Dublin.

Herity, M. (1974) Irish passage graves: Neolithic tomb builders in Ireland and Britain, 25,00B.C. Irish University Press: Dublin.

Jones, C. (2007) Temples of Stone: exploring the megalithic tombs of Ireland. The Collins Press: Cork.

O’Kelly, M.J. (1982) Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend. Thames and Hudson: London

Stout, G. (2002) Newgrange and the Bend of the Boyne. Cork University Press: Cork.