Shedding Light on Newgrange: 5,000-Year-Old Sun Trap May Not Be All That it Seems
Maybe the solstice sunlight-trapping “roof box” in Ireland’s ancient Newgrange stone monument is not a 5,000-year-old astronomical feature but rather a construct that is just 50 years old. The box on the huge structure’s roof allows sunlight to shine into the main chamber at sunrise for more than 17 minutes between December 19 and 23.
But a new report says the roof box is a hoax built onto the ancient structure in the 1960s when the late Michael O’Kelly, an archaeologist, did excavations and reconstructions there, says The Irish Times.
Since Professor O’Kelly “discovered” the mid-winter solstice sunlight shining into Newgrange in 1967, the monument has been the subject of controversy and debate among archaeologists, The Irish Times says.
Many experts are also skeptical of the quart wall that was built between 1967 and 1974 per Professor O’Kelly’s interpretation.
Michael Gibbons, a former Ireland state archaeologist, has recently published a paper in the journal Emania that says excavations and renovation of the passage tomb 50 years ago, included the roof box that allows sunlight to be “trapped” to renew life around the new year.
Mr. Gibbons and his nephew Myles say the significance of the entire structure as an Iron Age monument has been discounted in favor of the storyline that Newgrange is a tomb built around 5,000 years ago.
The structure is visited by many people around the solstice, and Newgrange’s sun show makes it one of the most famous megalithic tombs in the world. The alignment of the structure allows sunlight to be captured at sunrise around the solstice, when a thin light beam shines from the roof box to illuminate the entire inner chamber.
Newgrange passage tomb with the sunlight shining in (Wikimedia Commons photo/Dentp)
Professor O’Kelly said the tomb was in much the same state as it was during the Neolithic era but that during the later Iron Age people constructed an enclosure on the roof and altered the profile of the mound.
The Irish Times reports: “Mr. Gibbons says the ‘roof box’ which was central to capturing the winter light has ‘not a shred of authenticity,’ and was ‘fabricated’ during reconstruction in the 1960s.”
Mr. Gibbons’ article in Emania states that Roman artifacts and dog and horse remains found inside Newgrange and on the grounds outside are evidence of the mortuary purpose of the site, where Irish elites with links to the Romans in Britain may have been buried.
Some of the artifacts from the Roman era include two gold torcs, a brooch, a gold ring, pendants, a bracelet and some coins.
The Newgrange gold hoard in the British Museum (Jononmac46/Wikimedia Commons)
Another expert and author of a book about Newgrange who has analyzed the site, Richard Hensey, agreed that there was Iron Age activity at Newgrange and allowed that Professor O’Kelly emphasized that era less.
Dr. Hensey said, though, that the roof box is not a recent construct and several studies indicated it does date back to the Stone Age of 5,000 years ago.
He added that the roof box was elevated when upright stones were straightened during reconstructions headed by Professor O’Kelly.
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. 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 people, if that were indeed its sole purpose.
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