Winter Solstice: Stone Age people in Ireland built a Fantastic Monument to the New Year
Today, the Irish and visitors celebrated the Winter Solstice as they did thousands of years ago at Newgrange, a huge Stone Age megalithic monument into the deepest part of whose main chamber the sun shines at sunrise. This year about 30,000 people participated in a lottery, from whom 50 were chosen, to be in the 5,000-year-old monument at sunrise to witness the primeval event the mornings of Dec. 18 to 23.
While the monument near the Boyne River in County Meath is open all year and is one of Ireland’s most popular attractions, it draws special international attention today.
Newgrange predates the great pyramids at Giza in Egypt by some 500 years and Stonehenge by about 1,000 years. When it was built, sunrise on the shortest day of the year, what we now call December 21, entered the main chamber precisely at sunrise. Experts say it is not by chance that the sun shines there. Now it enters about four minutes after sunrise because of changes in the Earth’s orbiting of the sun since then.
Solstice sunrise light entering the Newgrange monument, a photo by Cyril Byrne of the Irish Times, as seen on NASA’s Astronomy Photo of the Day website.
Archaeologists say they believe Newgrange and two other nearby monuments, Knowth and Dowth, were tombs, built in ancient times to provide somewhere to bury the dead and as ritual and community gatherings, perhaps to honor ancestors. They believe it took decades to construct by generations of the Neolithic people, about whom little is known.
The tomb itself is massive and impressive and is surrounded by a henge or ring of huge stones. Experts say they believe the huge stones were moved from the nearby river, perhaps by rolling them on logs.
This short YouTube video from National Geographic gives great views of the Newgrange tomb and monument.
The number of bone fragments found inside Newgrange hardly constitute evidence of a communal burial chamber, Ancient Origins reported in 2013 in a two-part article about the Neolithic structure. In total, the bones of only five individuals were found inside the monument during excavations in the 1960s. Some bones could have been taken away after the rediscovery of the entrance to the passage and chamber in 1699. But at over 85 meters (278 feet) in diameter, and containing more than 250,000 tons of stone and earth, this monument would seem such a lavish and grandiose tomb for a few mere mortals, if that were indeed its sole purpose.
The structure of the passage tomb was buried in earth for many centuries, until archaeologist M.J. O’Kelly began excavating it in 1962. He worked there until 1975. In 1967, he saw for the first time in thousands of years the dawn sunlight striking into the chamber on December 21. The light enters a perfectly placed window and hits deep in the tomb where the human remains were found.
O’Kelly wrote in his notes: “The effect is very dramatic as the direct light of the sun brightens and cast a glow of light all over the chamber. I can see parts of the roof and a reflected light shines right back into the back of the end chamber.”
O’Kelly and others have restored the Newgrange mound. It is 12 meters (40 feet) high. The total area of the monument and surrounds covers about 1 acre, and its roof is intact and still waterproof 5,000 years after construction. Triple-spiral carvings like the Celts did still adorn many of the stones making up the tomb.
The triple spiral carvings on a wall at Newgrange (Photo by Johnbod/ Wikimedia Commons )
Up until 1967, after archaeological excavation, conservation and restoration work, it was not possible for the light of the sun to illuminate the interior. This was because of the slow subsidence of the roofing stones of the passage, which had slowly sunk as the supporting orthostats leaned inwards over the long centuries. Before 1967, when Professor O’Kelly became the first person to witness the solstice event in modern times, nobody could have witnessed this phenomenon. And yet, local folklore held that the sun shone into Newgrange on the shortest day of the year. O’Kelly pointed to this as being one of the reasons for his visit to the chamber in December 1967.
But the astronomical mysteries of Newgrange run deeper. In 1958, in his book about primitive mythology, Joseph Campbell recounted a folk tale from the Boyne Valley in which a local had told him the light of the Morning Star, Venus, shone into the chamber of Newgrange at dawn on one day every eight years and cast a beam upon a stone on the floor of the chamber containing two worn sockets. This might seem like an incredible suggestion, except for the fact that it is astronomically accurate. Venus follows an eight-year cycle and on one year out of every eight, it rises in the pre-dawn sky of winter solstice and its light would be able to be seen from within the chamber.