Celebrating the Winter Solstice at Newgrange Passage Tomb
In the Boyne Valley in County Meath about 25 miles north of Dublin, Ireland, a group of people gathers as they do every year on the days surrounding December 21st at sunrise. At this site lies a 5,200-year-old passage tomb called Newgrange, which serves as the main attraction for this group. Each year, as the sun rises on the Winter Solstice, it is in the perfect position to shine directly through the so-called “roof-box” above the entrance to the tomb and down a passage 63 feet long, flooding the inner chamber with morning light. It is this celestial phenomenon that has made Newgrange a true destination at all times of the year, even when the chamber is not illuminated by sunlight.
Newgrange is positively ancient. Though hundreds of years older than both Stonehenge in England and the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt, it is not the oldest passage tomb in Ireland. This style of tomb first appeared in County Sligo on the west coast of the island as early as 4600 BCE. These earliest tombs were nowhere near as grand as Newgrange, but as they spread throughout the country the scale and design of passage tombs grew. Having had roughly 1,400 years to perfect their craft, the architects and builders of Newgrange were clearly very skilled. The time of its construction in 3200 BCE was in the heart of the Stone Age in Ireland, meaning that those who built the tomb would have had access to only stone tools, as the consistent use of metal was still hundreds of years away. Despite this, they were able to construct a cairn, or mound of rocks or stones, comprised of an estimated 200,000 tons of materials, complete with a corridor made of decorated stones that gives way to an inner chamber with 3 stone basins on the floor to hold the remains of those buried in the tomb and other grave goods.
Perhaps the most impressive feat of engineering at Newgrange was the waterproofing of the passage, created by adding sand and burned clay to the stones at the top of the structure. No other mortar was used in setting the stones. These materials, along with the grooves made into the stones, were responsible for keeping the passage dry, even in the damp climate of the Emerald Isle (an undertaking that is easier said than done, as any homeowner with a leaky basement could attest). On the exterior of the tomb, large kerbstones, most likely transported to the site by the River Boyne, line the base of the structure with the remnants of yet another larger stone ring further outside the cairn. All of these features have drawn intrigue from people over the years, but they are not the main draw to the tomb. That distinction belongs to the roof-box, the open space above the entrance that allows the sunrise to sneak into the otherwise-dark tomb for a short time at the Winter Solstice. The alignment of Newgrange allows for just 17 minutes of illumination to flood through this opening and down the 19 meter passage, where it spills into the inner chamber of the tomb. However, this feature was left covered much longer than the rest of the cairn.
It was not until 1699 when the landowner, Charles Campbell, unknowingly directed workers to reopen the tomb’s passage that had been closed for generations, making the first discovery of the ancient structure. Campbell was making improvements to his property when, in need of more stones, the large mound of earth seemed perfect to excavate to meet that need. To the surprise of Campbell and the workers, they began removing stones and discovered the entrance stone to the tomb carved with distinctive spirals. This discovery led to small excavations of the tomb to get a basic understanding of the structure, but it would still be centuries before all of the features were unearthed.
Excavations began in earnest from 1962 to 1975, led by Michael O’Kelly. It was during this time that the roof-box was finally uncovered and O’Kelly became the first to see the Winter Solstice phenomenon in hundreds, if not thousands of years. To preserve the structure of the tomb, O’Kelly first needed to shore up and straighten the walls of the passageway. This required completely removing the roof-box which would later be rebuilt. This rebuilding has been the subject of controversy ever since, as the roof-box now seems to have been rebuilt in a slightly different position than it was originally; a position so accurate that it could easily have been used by ancient people to determine the exact day of the Winter Solstice. But it is not just the reconstruction of the roof-box that has drawn ire in the last half century. The quartz facade of the tomb is most likely not as it once was either. Today there is a 3 meter tall and mostly vertical wall that O’Kelly had to reinforce with cement. Because the original builders would not have had access to this material over 5000 years ago, it is highly unlikely that the facade would have had such a vertical wall, making the current view of Newgrange different to that of the initial structure.
Controversial or not, Newgrange remains one of the most visited sites in all of Ireland, bringing hundreds of thousands of tourists annually. At the end of each September, a lottery is held to determine the 50 lucky people, chosen by local school children, who can bring one guest and enter into the inner chamber of Newgrange. They are invited to gather at sunrise on a day surrounding the Winter Solstice to see the roof-box at work, illuminating the passageway and chamber with the morning glow. Chances of winning this lottery are slim, as over 30,000 people entered in 2019. Those who are not lucky enough to see the sunrise inside Newgrange’s chamber are still welcome to gather outside the tomb. Visitors can also make a day out of it and travel to Dowth, another passage tomb along the Boyne River, to see the sunset light up the passage and chamber in the evening.
By Hanna Gish