Ancient Origins Tour IRAQ

Ancient Origins Tour IRAQ Mobile

December 21, the longest night and shortest day of the year, is a special event at Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland. This photo was shot August 24, 2014.

Winter Solstice: Stone Age People in Ireland built a Fantastic Monument to the New Year


Tomorrow, 22 December, the Irish will celebrate the Winter Solstice as they did thousands of years ago – at Newgrange, a 5,000-year-old megalithic monument into which the sun shines at sunrise on the solstice through the passage and into the main chamber. 

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 around the solstice.

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, which is usually 21 December but is on 22 December this year, 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.

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 often refer to Newgrange and two other nearby monuments, Knowth and Dowth, as 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. But the monuments were much more than tombs – and may have functioned as an astronomical observatory or calendar long before they were used for burials.

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 or 22. 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

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.

Featured image: December 21, the longest night and shortest day of the year, is a special event at Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland. This photo was shot August 24, 2014. (Photo by Paul A. Byrne/Wikimedia Commons)

By: Mark Miller



When you live in a seasonal latitude where sunlight decreases to a nadir midwinter, to enable max sunlight year round it is logical to pick alignment of build with sunrise on shortest day. Newgrange looks now as Stonehenge used to- it was covered in the same way (nobody gathers outdoors in large numbers without getting regularly soaked through in our islands- Stonehenge was roofed over- thats why there are lintels, duh!

If you others the same intelligence and needs as yourselves the answers flood in, simples

Aaaack!!! How can National Geographic include voice over that perpetrates the stupid, mathematically-challenged, unscientific view that ancient people died by the time they were 40????  “Life expectancy” of a population of ancient folk is low because of the high rate of infant/child mortality, and the deaths of many young people in wars and similar conflicts.  Suppose Ancient Irish woman A lived to be a great-great grandma and died at age 80.  However, her first-born child died within days of being born.  Then, the “life expectancy” of this duo is (80+0)/2, or 40.  Get it?

AnnieLaurie Burke

We have no concept of the technology of the designers/builders and how they moved the stones.
We do not know when it was built and every date given is at best, a guess.
There are far too many structures that have been labelled tombs, graves and for religious purposes for the sake of a lack of understanding the ancestors technology, which was far in advance of some of the concepts which we are just clutching at, today.
The spirals are the trace of the relative (to us) movement of the Sun on its 365/6 days.
It may well be that Venus can be seen from within the tunnel but only the Sun is bright enough to shine into the passage and be seen from deep within.

We must desist from prescribing our cultural and educational beliefs upon the ancestors and open up our minds to many differing possibilities of their capabilities and technologies.

I’m not sure why but I thought that this was a very beautiful and uplifting story. It made for a happy day.


--Still learning--

The accuracy of these ancient people is amazing.. I believe the purpose of these places were to assist Neolithic farmers by acting as a clock.. I am sure it eventually became a burial area later.. Neolithic people in Turkey were known for plastering skulls and burying them shallow until ceremonies.

Troy Mobley

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

Next article