Monday, September 13, 2010

A miracle of the Stone Age

The Stone Age passages of Newgrange

I follow our guide through a long, dimly lit passage way which opens up into a cross-shaped chamber. Only 50km north of Dublin, I've stepped back 5000 years into the past. "Archaeologists believe the dead were left in these chambers to begin their journey to another world," says our guide in a lilting Irish accent. It's dark and eerie. And I can feel the goose bumps on my arms, created by a combination of the chilly underground air and the mystical ambience of the chamber.

The Stone Age passage tomb of Newgrange sits among lush green farmland along the Boyne River in County Meath, on Ireland's east coast. Built around 3200BC, it is the most famous of the Boyne Valley Mounds.

With Knowth and Dowth, which are also in the valley, Newgrange is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Carbon dating shows Newgrange as one of the oldest man-made constructions on earth, older than Egypt's ancient pyramids by about 700 years and Stonehenge by 1000.

Our guide points out an intricate corbelled ceiling, with overlapping stones forming a conical dome topped by a single capstone. The ceiling has remained intact for more than 5000 years and, amazingly, it still keeps the inner chambers dry.

Outside in the sun, we walk around the mounds for a closer look at the facade of quartz and granite. The large oblong stone in front of the entrance is etched with spiral and diamond shapes. Circles, snake-like wavy lines, concentric double circles, diamonds, triangles, zig-zags - about 30 different symbols - can be seen at these tombs.

The symbols are a mystery that remains unsolved. No one really knows what they might represent, although different sets of symbols were used in different parts of the tombs.

The idea I like best is that the symbols might be signs used to connect a portal to another dimension, along the lines of the TV series Stargate SG1. But whatever the significance of the symbols, the splendour and magnificence of Newgrange and Knowth indicate the mounds were ancient temples of astrological, spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance, perhaps not dissimilar to present-day cathedrals.

Above the entrance to the passage at Newgrange, a window-like roof-box allows sunlight to penetrate the chamber during the shortest days of the year, around December 21 - the winter solstice. A narrow beam of light is guided by the roof-box's opening on to the floor of the chamber. As the sun rises higher, the beam crawls slowly along the passage until the entire chamber is bathed in light. This event lasts for 17 minutes, from 8.58am to 9.15am. The intent of its builders was undoubtedly to mark the beginning of the new year, a kind of early astrological clock.

The winter solstice event attracts a huge crowd. Anyone can come and stand outside the tomb. But a spot inside the chamber is highly sought after. In 2008 there were 34,107 applicants for 50 places that are decided by a lottery.

The lesser known Knowth is larger than Newgrange and contains about one quarter of Europe's megalithic art. Knowth consists of one large mound and 18 other satellite tombs. Archaeologists discovered unique artefacts such as a decorative flint mace head and two Iron Age men buried here together with a gaming set.

A series of inscriptions on stones that line the underground passages and chambers are a mixture of early medieval ogham scratchings and alphabetic script made around the 8th century, when Knowth was a royal site occupied by early Irish kings of the Brega kingdom.

You can't help but wonder if the Irish kings discovered the secrets of the symbols.



Knowth said...

John, the passage photo is actuall of Knowth, the sister mound to Newgrange.

Anonymous said...

Michael, It actually says that under the photo AT the site.