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Walk through Ireland’s Neolithic Masterpiece

Walk through Ireland’s Neolithic Masterpiece

Of Ireland’s thousands of ancient archaeological sites, Newgrange, north of Dublin, is considered one of the most significant and impressive.

Crowning a hill in County Meath and surveying a landscape of lush green fields through which the River Boyne flows, Newgrange is a Neolithic (Late Stone Age) passage tomb that was constructed 5,000 years ago. It predates the Egyptian pyramids by 500 years.

Newgrange passage tomb was built 5,000 years ago.Newgrange passage tomb was built 5,000 years ago. — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese

Newgrange is part of a system of passage tombs called Brú na Bóinne, which in Gaelic means Palace or Mansion on the Boyne River. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, the area encompasses 90 other archaeological sites, including two other passage tombs called Knowth and Dowth which may be visited through the Visitor Center as well. Newgrange is the only tomb here visitors may enter.

Most notable about Newgrange is that during the winter solstice, the rising sun shines directly through its 60-foot passage to illuminate its inner chamber. The roughly round mound was all human made, and it’s about 250 feet in diameter.

The inner chamber is a small cross-like room that’s not unlike the layouts of much-later Christian cathedrals. Its ceiling is vaulted with overlapping layers of flagstone, and it has remained intact since its completion in 3,200 B.C.

While the term Stone Age conjures images of primitive societies, the amount of planning, labor, artistry and foresight that went into creating this megalithic site speaks to the sophistication of Ireland’s earliest inhabitants. 

Surrounding the 40-foot-high mound are 97 boulders – called kerbstones – many of which are decorated with carved swirling patterns and geometric triangle designs. These large boulders – weighing many tons – are not from the immediate area, and were likely transported from near the mouth of the River Boynne at the Irish Sea some 12 miles away. The face of the tomb is covered in thousands of gleaming white quartz stones.

At the tomb’s entrance is a 10-foot-long, four-foot-high kerbstone that’s covered in spiral designs called triskeles. Above the main doorway is a rectangular opening called a roofbox, which allows the sun to shine straight down the interior corridor to illuminate the center tomb during the winter solstice.

Newgrange's entry kerbstone is ornately decorated and considered to be one of the most impressive examples of Neolithic art in all of IrelandNewgrange’s entry kerbstone is ornately decorated and considered to be one of the most impressive examples of Neolithic art in all of Ireland — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese

It’s thought that, in addition to functioning as a tomb, Newgrange also served as an astronomical calendar and as the focal point for the religion of its creators. Many have drawn similarities between the tomb’s marking of the “rebirth” of the sun and cross-shaped inner chamber and Christianity, which came to Ireland thousands of years later. St. Patrick of March holiday fame is often credited with introducing Christianity to the country in the early 5th century.

Newgrange is open year-round, and it can only be visited through tours. Tickets are €6 for adults (€3 for children), and tours last for an hour.

Buses take groups to the site from the visitor center, where a guide explains Newgrange’s features, points out the remains of a rock circle that surrounded the mound and finally takes the group into the chamber, where an electric light simulates what the passage tomb looks like at sunrise on the winter solstice. There is a lottery for tickets to view the actual event on the winter solstice.

At the Visitor Center, there’s a museum that explains what is known about the people who built Newgrange, a gift shop and and café. Tours take an hour and are limited to 48 people, so arrive at the Visitor Center as early as possible to ensure enough spots for your party. 

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