Ireland's ancient wonder
An hour’s drive north of Dublin sits a wonder of the prehistoric world. Every 21st December, deep inside this megalithic marvel, one of the world’s oldest and most spectacular light shows takes place.
This place is Newgrange.
Six centuries older than the oldest pyramid in Egypt and seven hundred years older than the stone circle at Stonehenge, this huge Neolithic monument was built around 3200 BC. Central to a prehistoric complex, known in Irish as Brú na Bóinne (Palace of the Boyne), this passage tomb consists of 200,000 tons of material and has a footprint of over an acre. A sophisticated structure, it is testament to its builders’ abilities as engineers, artists, and astronomers, as well as evidence of their religion. Who, then, were these builders?
The consensus has been that native Irish peoples constructed the monument, but this has not stopped a slew of radical and sometimes fascinating theories to the contrary. Vikings, Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Romans have all been put forward as colonist-builders of Newgrange. Is there any truth in these claims?
Opening a cairn of worms: Rediscovering Newgrange
In 1699, Charles Campbell came across an overgrown mound of stones on his estate and took it to be a convenient quarry. This was until he uncovered a colossal decorated stone guarding an entrance to a passage. Campbell had rediscovered Newgrange. He and his men then became (probably) the first people in thousands of years to set foot inside the ‘cave’.
The early days of investigation at the site were themselves a bit rocky and mysterious. Many of these surveyors of Newgrange recorded different measurements (some much more accurate than others) and offered wildly differing theories about the origins of the mound. Early 18th-century investigator Thomas Molyneux (1661-1733) claimed to have seen a large stone shaped like a pyramid, which has never been seen since, and Thomas Pownall (1722-1805) was convinced that the cairn was originally a much taller, pyramidal structure.
Many of these antiquarians made important contributions overall, however, such as George Petrie (1790-1866), who helped to re-establish the link between the monument and early Irish literature. These early scholars all tended to appreciate, too, that Newgrange was clearly not just a large mausoleum but rather something of greater religious significance, albeit not tending to expand much beyond seeing it as a ‘barbarous’ place ‘sacred’ to the ‘ancient Irish’.
'...every Winter Solstice, the rising sun shines through a small aperture in the structure and travels 18m into the main chamber, flooding it with brilliant light for around 17 minutes.'
Charles Vallancey (1731-1812) in his 1786 survey described the tomb as an artificial ‘cave of the sun’, linked to Chaldean sun worship. He may have been wrong about the Chaldean part, but many years later the solar significance of the tomb was taken much further.
From 1962 to 1975, Michael O’Kelly (1915-1982) led a much-lauded survey of Newgrange. While O'Kelly disputed aspects of the work of the early investigators, many of their findings were confirmed by the professor’s excavation.
O’Kelly called Newgrange and the nearby Dowth and Knowth the ‘cathedrals of the megalithic religion’. It was for the Neolithic people of Ireland a place of great religious importance, connected not just to sun worship but also to a ‘cult of the dead’. A fine example of a passage tomb, various mythical heroes and kings were said to be buried there. But O’Kelly also described it as a ‘house of the dead’, its waterproofing indicating a consideration for those ‘living’ inside. Irish tradition says Newgrange was the home of The Dagda, the chief of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a race of supernatural beings said to have inhabited ancient Ireland.
Recent genetic research backs up to an extent Newgrange’s place in mythology as the home of ‘god-kings’. A Dublin-based 2020 study analysed the remains of a man who was found interred at Newgrange. The results revealed that his parents were probably brother and sister. Being borne of a sanctioned incestuous union from this time indicates that he was very likely royal, or at least from an elite group.
Image: Newgrange pagssage | CC BY-SA 4.0
In addition to suggestions that the mound may have been connected to a fertility cult, wider cultic significance was seemingly confirmed in 1967 when O’Kelly re-discovered the famous ‘roof-box’. A local story of the winter sun penetrating Newgrange - probably based too on a much older myth of a king restarting the sun by an incestuous copulation - had reached O’Kelly during the dig. O’Kelly then subsequently observed the now-famous illumination – the first person in five millennia to do so. For at Newgrange, every Winter Solstice, the rising sun shines through a small aperture in the structure and travels 18m into the main chamber, flooding it with brilliant light for around 17 minutes.
A 1989 astronomical study concluded that this was a deliberate part of the design by the Newgrange builders. Some writers have even suggested a similar Newgrange connection with the Moon, and even Venus.
But what of the builders themselves?
Who built Newgrange?
O’Kelly chimed with the academic consensus when he wrote that the megalithic religion of Britain and Ireland was something that had emerged as people shifted from being hunter-gatherers to settled and successful farming communities. This was contrary to the view that this culture had arrived with invaders or migrants, though O’Kelly did acknowledge the possibility of some outside influence.
Do recent DNA findings contradict O’Kelly’s view?
Results from the aforementioned 2020 study contribute to the current theory that 5,800 years ago Ireland was colonised by Iberian descendants of west-moving Anatolian farmers. Migrating to the island via the western fringes of France, these Neolithic agriculturalists soon came to dominate the existing Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, but did not eliminate them – rather they assimilated with them, the evidence suggests. This theory, together with the ‘god-king’ theory of 2020, demonstrates that these relative newcomers established a ruling dynasty that buried its most senior members at Newgrange. Were these maritime migrants, having brought farming with them at a time broadly commensurate with the building of the great monuments, the Newgrange builders?
Later, in the Bronze Age, Beaker people arrived from Europe, possibly speaking Celtic languages, and Newgrange remained sealed for many centuries. In the days before radiocarbon dating, it was not even thought to be Bronze Age, however. In 1726, Sir Thomas Molyneux espoused a popular theory of the time that virtually every monument in Ireland, including Newgrange, was built by Danes of the Dark Ages.
Some early surveyors of the site went a little further back and suggested it had been built by the Romans. Though recent research has suggested it was an important cult site for the Romans in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, there is no evidence to suggest they even went inside. The Vikings or Romans were certainly not responsible for building Newgrange, as it predates their presence in Ireland by over three thousand years. Molyneux certainly didn’t think it was the work of the Romans, although he put this down to the rock art being too ‘rude’ for ‘so polite a people’ as the Romans.
Going back further still, could a people from the Orkney Islands have built Newgrange?
There is strong evidence to suggest that at the time Newgrange was built there were movement and contact to some extent between tribes and peoples of the British Isles. The so-called Grooved Ware society of Neolithic Orkney was, also, thought to have been highly hierarchical, with a small elite class enlisting the help of its much more numerous tribal subjects to build the rulers’ grand burial places. The Maeshowe passage grave on Orkney, for example, has many similarities to Newgrange, although if the same people built them the dating would suggest they had built Newgrange before Maeshowe.
What about the Ancient Egyptians? The British Isles origin myth of the pharaoh’s refugee daughter, Princess Scota, is probably just that, a myth. While the famous Ferriby boats of Yorkshire have been suggested by some to be a shipwrecked Egyptian fleet, their true origin is still hotly contested. Intriguingly still, some of the grave goods found at the Mound of the Hostages in 1955 were said to be similar to that of Egyptian artefacts from the time of Tutankamun. These all have an undoubted allure. In any case, even these cases cannot shed any light on Newgrange, as the Irish monument is far too old.
There is some evidence to suggest that the Phoenicians may have visited the British Isles as long ago as 2000 BC. But, there is no real substantial evidence to suggest Phoenician contact or settlement in the Boyne Valley around the time Newgrange was built.
Many remain convinced otherwise.
In the 18th century, Thomas Pownall was very taken with the so-called ‘boat carving’ inside the chamber, which he claimed to be symbols from the Phoenician alphabet, and an 1834 article declared that there was concrete evidence that the Phoenicians colonised Ireland. In 2018, an academic book confirmed that there is virtually no evidence of Phoenician contact with Ireland.
Image: The entrance to Newgrange in the early 1900s, after the debris had been cleared away| National Library of Ireland
Controversial Scottish explorer Laurence Waddell (1854-1938), suggested by some to have been an inspiration for Indiana Jones, wrote in 1929 of symbols ‘engraved on prehistoric cup-marked stones at New Grange in the Boyne River, near Drogheda, which are essentially replicas of the same pictograms as in the Early Sumerian and Hittite sacred seals’. Quite highly regarded in his day, since then he has been widely discredited, with modern academics regarding his theories as eccentric at best, and dangerous at worst.
All things considered, the theory, then, that Newgrange was built by ‘natives’ may not be entirely true in the way O’Kelly envisaged: that the original peoples of Ireland transitioned themselves from hunter-gatherers to settled farmers and built Newgrange and other monuments.
On the other hand, while the evidence at the moment seems to suggest that it was people of Iberian/French-coast descent who built Newgrange, the indications also seem to support the fact that these people were by 3200 BC sufficiently established on the island to no longer be considered ‘new’, in the sense of them being the fabled ‘colonist-builders’.
Newgrange will continue to baffle the world in more ways than one. Experts are still uncertain, for example, how the heavy the Newgrange stones were brought to the site.
Intriguingly, as early researchers claimed (but rejected by O’Kelly), the original building was very different? Nobody will likely ever know, also, how many people laboured in its construction or how long it took them.
What is the meaning, furthermore, of the megalithic ‘pick dressing’ at Newgrange - the chevrons, swirls, lozenges, and spirals - that adorn many of the heavy stones? Was this rock art supposed to perform a function, or were they merely decorative? Did they have astronomical or religious significance? Why, finally, were some of these designs deliberately hidden from view?