We burned out of the Hertz rental location with our Japanese sport automobile, custom made for the small Irish roads we were about to encounter. I still had a sting of the €1100 damage deposit they put on my mastercard, and wondered if the extra travelers insurance built into my card was really going to take care of all the damages. But then again what could really happen when your driving on the wrong side of the road, not quite knowing where your going on roads that are about half as wide as home. This is no time for restraint!
With fear put aside we navigated ourselves out of Dublin and onto the highway, headed North at 120khm to Newgrange. We had heard about this world UNESCO site of ancient temples built 5000 years ago, back when we were all chucking sticks and drawing pictures with coal on cave walls. Well maybe not quite that old, but pretty much.
Newgrange was (probably* – more on this later) constructed over 5,000 years ago – 3,200BC – making it older than Stonehenge in England by 1000 years, and the Great Pyramid of Giza by 500 years. Built in the New Stone Age by a farming community in the fertile lands of the Boyne Valley. There are two additional main mounts, Knowth and Dowth, that together with Newgrange has become a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Newgrange is best known for the illumination of its passage and chamber by the winter solstice sun. Above the entrance to the passage at Newgrange there is a opening called a roof-box. This baffling orifice held a great surprise for those who unearthed it. Its purpose is to allow sunlight to penetrate the chamber on the shortest days of the year, around December 21, the winter solstice.
At dawn, from December 19th to 23rd, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof-box and reaches the floor of the chamber, gradually extending to the rear of the passage. As the sun rises higher, the beam widens within the chamber so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated. This event lasts for 17 minutes, beginning around 9am.
We made a couple of wrong turns and finally hit the visitors center with time to spare. To see Knowth and Newgrange you have to take a tour, you can’t just wonder onto the grounds and we had heard that it gets busy, to be there before 1.00pm or you may not get a ticket! We flew in, got tickets to both Knowth and Newgrange and were on the bus.
Knowth is the lesser known temple and is equally stunning as Newgrange. They are much like pyramids, but with large amounts of earth over top. The way they layered the earth and stone ensured that the inside tomb chamber has not gotten wet in 5,000 years. Over the years it’s one time importance being lost, it had served as a prayer mound, fortress and a faery mountain.
The difference with Newgrange is you can actually go inside the tomb and see what the light would look like on the Solstice, quite amazing. When your inside the tomb there is no natural light, and again, no water has made it inside in 5,000 years. It’s an interesting experience. I recommend doing both the Knowth, then Newgrange tour, we feel we got a lot more out of the experience for a couple euro.
They’re quite impressive structures without a doubt, and for them to be built so long ago it’s an amazing feat of architecture and willpower. The tombs took approximately 30-80 years to make, and when the life expectancy was only 30-35 years, they took several generations to build and would have taken hundreds of people working for those years. Considering it was the stone age and not a lot of writing going on, you have to wonder if the art on the tablets weren’t future instructions. But with the language and people being long gone and no writing to make out, it’s up to interpretation and they have no idea.
One thing that did impress us is how much they were like a Pyramid would be, and how they had wood henges like Stonehenge around them. In addition there are a just under a 100 of varying sizes of mounds all throughout the valley. The visitor center and tour guides were quite adamant that these were older than Stonehedge and the Pyramid of Giza by 1000, 500 years each, and were quite proud of this fact decided by carbon dating.
But inside the tourist center they had their own facts about carbon dating saying that it could be inaccurate anywhere from 300-1000 years due to a variety of environmental causes. So I wonder how much of the dating is based on pride – being earlier than English / other monuments – and how much is accurate? Because if the dating is just a bit off, couldn’t it be possible that these great temples with astrological accuracy similarities were built during the same general time? There seems to be a lot of world focus during those thousand year block 3000 – 2000 BC on aligning up the solstice and sun, creating calendars etc.
For peoples who were still trying to figure out the wheel, Newgrange would have been a feat of technology. That, or Aliens. In fact, I go with Aliens.
To view all our photos of Newgrange, please view below!
Coming up next, Part III of our Ireland trip : Driving the great Irish cannonball run or “How I survived the Irish highways”