Monday, 27 December 2010

The Tombs of Newgrange

The Megalithic tombs of Newgrange, in Ireland, are more than 5,000 years old, so they pre-date the pyramids of Egypt, and even the arrival of the Celts in Ireland. As is often the case with such ancient monuments, very little remains today to give a clue as the greater purpose behind their construction and this fine Stone Age necropolis is a source of speculation and intrigue all over the world.

Located near the banks of the river Boyne, to the east of Slane, the Newgrange tombs are known in the native tongue as Bru Na Boinne. According to pagan lore, Newgrange was the dwelling of Aengus, the powerful god of love. The site is also associated with the mystical race of the goddess Danu, also known as the Tuatha De Dannan. According to local superstition, these nature-loving pagans have left something of their spirit in the landscape and it is thought that Cuchulain, the legendary hero of the Celtic warriors, was conceived at Newgrange.

The Newgrange tomb is said to be the burial place of the high kings of Tara. The ash remains of these rulers would have been contained in large bowls in each of the three recesses of the burial chamber. Although this chamber has been described as cruciform in shape, given the fact that the tomb pre-dates the birth of Christ by around 3,200 years, it is more likely that this layout reflects the clover form that is so prevalent in ancient Irish artworks.

The builders of these tombs demonstrated considerable devotion to their construction. First, they made use of materials that were not readily available – the quartz must have been quarried and transported from the Wicklow Mountains, a considerable distance from Newgrange. Second, the builders were involved in a huge project – it has been estimated that the construction of the monument would have taken a workforce of 300 men more than twenty years to complete.
In common with the people of other ancient cultures, the lives of the Newgrange community would have been closely regulated by the natural rhythms and cycles of the earth, with the summer and winter solstices assuming great importance. At Newgrange, at the winter solstice, the dawn sun shines through a ‘roof-box’, down a short, straight passage and into the heart of the burial chamber, illuminating intricate carvings that are believed to represent the sun and the moon.

Intriguingly, similar effects can be found at Stonehenge, in the pyramids of the Maya and Aztec, and in King Khufu’s pyramid in Egypt, where a curious shaft of light enters the tomb at the time of the solstice. It is unclear whether this shaft may have been intended to allow the king’s soul to ascend to the heavens.

Did these cultures have a common spiritual identity, or is there simply something innate in human nature that discovered great profundity in the movement of the stars and the cycles of the planet? These ancient farming communities possessed a knowledge and understanding way ahead of their time. It is impossible not to marvel at the skill that enabled these people to make the precise calculations necessary in order to align the passages of the tombs with the light thrown out by the stars or the sun.

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