One of the world’s oldest and most beautiful tombs
Newgrange is one of the oldest and most beautiful ancient burial sites in the world. Located in what is now Ireland, Newgrange was originally constructed over 5000 years ago (around 3,200 BC) during the Neolithic period, the last part of the Stone Age, making it even more ancient than both Stonehenge and the Gaza Pyramids of Egypt.
A large, kidney-shaped mound that covers over an acre of land, Newgrange is believed to have been built by a farming community located in the Boyne Valley in County Meath. Today it has been designated as a World Heritage site along with other nearby burial sites in Knowth and Dowth.
There are many different types of ancient tombs. Newgrange is what is called a “passage tomb”, which consists of a long hallway or passage leading to the burial chamber. These types of burial sites are common across Europe – it is thought that there are more than 200 passage graves in Ireland alone, and that that many more have been lost to us or have yet to be discovered.
However, Newgrange is much more than a common passage tomb. A place of spiritual and ceremonial importance, it may be more suitable to call Newgrange an ancient temple. Its beauty and artistic decorations support this claim. Over 97 kerbstones line the base of the tomb, many of which are engraved with elaborate carvings. The inner passage is over 19 metres long and leads to a cross-shaped inner chamber, making it more complex than most passage chambers.
It is obvious that much time and labour was spent in constructing the Newgrange tomb – suggesting not only that it was of deep ceremonial importance, but that the society that constructed it was well-organized and spiritually advanced. The dead were honoured with funeral offerings such as pottery and jewellery, and in some of the chambers large basin stones were found, which would have held the bones or ashes of the dead.
Sadly, many of the artefacts originally contained in the tomb have gone missing over the past four centuries. Antiquarians began studying the site in the 1600s, and removed much of what was discovered. Subsequently these artefacts have been lost except for a few grave goods which have provided valuable evidence in discovering the purpose of the Newgrange tomb.
While a superb example of a Neolithic monument based on its appearance and sophistication alone, Newgrange is perhaps best known for being spectacularly illuminated by sun of the Winter Solstice. Like Stonehenge and other notable ancient structures, Newgrange was designed to take advantage of the sun’s position at certain times of year. In this case, an opening was built into the chamber above the entrance, allowing sunlight to penetrate only during the shortest days of the year – from December 19th to 23rd.
Though for the rest of the year the passage remains in darkness, on these days, a narrow beam of light shines through the opening and illuminates the chamber floor, gradually reaching to the back of the chamber as the day goes on. As the run rises to its peak, the beam of light grows wider until the entire chamber is illuminated, a truly spectacular sight.
This event is popular, attracting visitors every year during the Winter Solstice. Newgrange has become a well-known tourist site and the nearby visitor centre allows tourists to take guided tours and provides other information about the site.