Newgrange

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Newgrange

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Newgrange is a Neolithic monument located in the region of Bru na Boinne, County Meath, Ireland. The name is fairly modern and comes from the 'newer' grange (farm) of the monks of Mellifont Abbey near Drogheda 8 miles (14 km) north. Although the abbey was closed in 1539 CE, the association of the land with the 'new farm' of the monks continued. Newgrange was constructed c. 3200 BCE, pre-dating the Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge, and is part of one of the most famous and significant megalithic complexes in Europe. There are 37 tombs located in the valley of Bru na Boinne (Mansion of the Boyne), which lies at a bend in the River Boyne and includes two other enormous structures similar to Newgrange: Knowth and Dowth. The Newgrange monument is 249 feet (76 metres) across and 39 feet (12 metres) high, covering an acre of ground (4500 square metres). The entrance leads to a 62 foot (19 metres) passage, which opens to a central chamber with three recesses (sometimes also called  'chambers') in the walls at intervals corresponding to north, west, and south. Excavations have found human cremated remains in the west recess.

Although Newgrange was originally defined as a passage tomb, it has more recently been recognized as a monument whose purpose, although it included burial of the dead, was far more significant and universal. Every year, on the days around the winter solstice on 21 December, the rising sun shines through a roofbox above the entrance to illuminate the passage within and, especially, the west recess at the back of the central chamber. The archaeologist Michael J. O'Kelly was the first person in the modern age to observe this event on 21 December 1967. O'Kelly, whose work in Bru na Boinne has done the most to advance understanding of the site, is largely responsible for the re-evaluation of Newgrange as a monument rather than strictly a tomb. The monument is properly referred to as a 'cairn', a human-made mound of stones which includes water-rolled gravel.

Building Newgrange
The tombs and monuments at Bru na Boinne were built between 3300-2800 BCE. There was an older structure on the site prior to this time, which was dismantled and its stones used in the early stages of Newgrange's construction. Of the four types of megalithic tombs as defined by archaeologists - the court tomb, portal tomb, passage tomb, and wedge tomb - only passage tombs were built at Bru na Boinne. Historians George Eogan and Peigin Doyle comment on this, writing, "The builders of passage tombs represented a separate tradition to those who built portal and court tombs. This tradition developed first along the western coastline of Europe, particularly the Iberian peninsula and Brittany, before spreading to Britain and Ireland" (10). This is especially interesting because the Celts are thought to have first arrived in Ireland from the Iberian peninsula as late as 500-300 BCE, long after Newgrange was built. This has led some to argue that the Celts arrived much earlier than supposed but could also be explained by non-Celts from the same region.

A stable community must have existed in the region to have created these massive structures. They would have been skilled stone masons with considerable wealth in order to spare the time from making a living to devote to raising the great tombs and monuments. Eogan and Doyle write:
A wide range of supporting resources would be needed: timber rollers to move the huge stones . . . ropes to hold them; and boats or timber to float the stones from their source, which was often far away, to the building site. Because tombs were often built on a height, many large stones would have to be brought uphill (11).
 
Legend & Discovery
For some reason, the monument was abandoned during Ireland's early Iron Age (c. 3rd century BCE) following the arrival of the Celts. For the next 2,000 years there was no ritual activity in the region, and the fields were used by farmers such as the monks of Mellifont Abbey. Communal memory of the ritual importance of the site was strong, however, as evidenced in references to the monument in Irish legends and myths. The spirit folk, the Tuatha de Danaan (children of the goddess Dana), were said to have built Newgrange, and it is referred to as the tomb of either their chieftain Dagda Mor, his son Oengus of the Brugh, or the great god Lugh of the long arm, father of the hero Cuchulain. Cuchulainn was also thought to have been conceived at the site when Lugh visited the maiden Dechtine in a dream while she slept there. The site was imbued with magical properties and could produce food and drink (specifically ale) without end, including two pigs, one living and the other already dressed, cooked, and ready for table. In the famous Irish legend The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne, Aengus brings Diarmuid's body to Bru na Boinne for burial after the hero's death and the High Kings of Ireland, crowned at Tara, were said to be buried there up until the time of the Ui Neill's (c. 800 CE).

Newgrange Location

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