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Home » Archaeology » Newgrange: The Ancient Winter Solstice Temple in Ireland

Newgrange: The Ancient Winter Solstice Temple in Ireland

by Doug MacGowan

Newgrange is the circular man-made construction built in the Boyne Valley of Ireland more than 5,000 years ago. This makes it older than Egypt’s pyramids, Stonehenge, and Greece’s Mycenaean society. The mysterious mound covers approximately one acre and is a little over 13 meters high at its peak. A passage from the entrance leads to a cross-shaped inner chamber containing three small rooms. There are also 97 huge kerbstones posted around the base of the mound. Some of the stones showcase primitive Megalithic art featuring spirals, parallel lines, and circles within circles. Why was this mound built and what was it used for?

newgrange

A young girl poses at the entrance of Newgrange as it looked in the early 1900s.

Celestial Significance of Newgrange

The passage and chamber align perfectly with the sun on the Winter Solstice, leading some scholars to believe that the entire site was used for religious and ceremonial purposes. This also reinforces the concept that ancient people of Europe celebrated the returning sun and longer days ahead. This was a highly significant event for them. Newgrange.com states that they believe the site was actually a temple with “…astrological, spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance, much as present day cathedrals are places of prestige and worship where dignitaries may be laid to rest.”

Newgrange chamber

On Dec. 21, Winter Solstice, the sun beams down the chamber. Source: Newgrange.com

Unlike Stonehenge, however, it appears that the large stones surrounding the mound were found and transported locally from an area near the Boyne River. How they were moved uphill, however, is still a puzzle. No one knows exactly how many years were required to build the site, however, estimates range from five years to several decades.

Some speculate that either the local population eventually moved elsewhere or possibly were displaced by war. Interestingly, by 2000 BCE, there was no society living near the spot, but a variety of nomadic groups used the site as a temporary shelter before moving on to other places.

Human Burial Mound?

Researchers have been trying to untie the riddles of this Irish mound for decades. Excavations performed 50 years ago uncovered a few human bones, some animal bones (although many of those could have been from animals that wandered into the chamber and died of natural causes), some primitive jewelry and flints, and Roman-made items.

Celtic mythology tells of a group of magical gods, known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, who went to Ireland after their own island in the west was destroyed. The Newgrange mound was supposedly built as a burial chamber for the king of the Tuatha Dé, Dagda. He was also the father of the famous Celtic Goddess Brigid.

Newgrange mound tombs

Newgrange from the front. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Tjp Finn.

Base stone with decorations at Newgrange

One of the kerbstones of the Newgrange mound displaying ancient designs. Photo: Historic Mysteries.

Stones at Newgrange

Stone erections at the site. Source: Flickr.

In 1890, there was a decision to renew the mound in an effort to counteract the wear and tear Newgrange had seen over the millennia. This helped somewhat, but later decades would see further deterioration and some vandals carved their names or other decoration into the ancient stones. A later restoration used steel, concrete, and new stones not originally used in the mound. This caused some controversy, as did a modern addition to the entrance of the passageway to the chamber.

New studies will undoubtedly be taken up at Newgrange in the future. However, access will not be as easy for modern researchers, as the site is now part of the country’s Board of Public Works and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is open to visitors throughout the year (holidays excepted) and is well worth a visit.

Sources:
Wikipedia, pulled 6/2/16.
NG, pulled 6/2/16.
Mythical Ireland

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