Newgrange is the most important the of passage tombs and megalithic monuments to be found at Bru Na Boinne, a sacred site along the banks of the River Boyne in County Meath. The monument sits on a low hill on a bend in the river about five miles inland from the old Norman city of Drogheda and a couple of miles upstream from the site of the Battle of The Boyne.

Is Newgrange Really Older Than The Pyramids?

Yes. Newgrange was built around 3,200BC, which makes it older than the Great Pyramid at Giza and 1,000 years older than Stonehenge. The construction is a remarkable achievement when we consider it was made during the Stone Age, before metal was discovered in Ireland.

Little is known about who built Newgrange. Certainly it was not built by the Celts, as the Celtic tribes did not come to Ireland until about 500BC, some 2,700 years later!

The passage tomb was discovered in 1699, when the local landowner, Charles Campbell instructed his workmen to remove stones from the mound and in so doing discovered the entrance to the passage.

What is a Passage Tomb?

Newgrange is a large circular mound covering more than an acre, in which a stone passageway and burial chambers are buried. The cremated remains of at least five people were found in the chamber along with some beads and pendants, The mound is ringed by engraved kerbstones and has been classified by archaeologists as a passage tomb or cairn.

Newgrange Passage Tomb Cross Section.
Cross Section of the Passage Tomb at Newgrange.

The people who built Newgrange must have been a rich and organized society. 200,000 tons of material was used in its construction and much of it was transported from quite a distance away. The majority of structural stones in the Boyne Valley tombs are greywacke. This stone type was quarried near Clogherhead north of Drogheda, Co. Louth. Other granite boulders used in the structure were collected from the North shore of Dundalk Bay. The facade at Newgrange consists of white quartz, which has its origins in the Wicklow Mountains. The boulders were brought by boat up the river Boyne and then moved one kilometer uphill from the river bank.

Celtic Spiral Decoration at Newgrange

The base of the mound is surrounded by 97 large boulders, called kerbstones, many of which are richly decorated with carvings etched onto the stones. A wide range of motifs are used; circles, spirals, arcs, chevrons and lozenges are among the most common. It is thought that these geometric motifs have a symbolic significance. Whatever the meaning of these motifs may be they remain as remarkable examples of Neolithic Art in Ireland.

Celtic Spiral decoration carved into the rock.
Newgrange Entrance Stone features Spiral Decoration

Carving Technique

The entrance stone at Newgrange is the most richly decorated of the kerbstones. The design is dominated by a large triple spiral surrounded by smaller spirals and lozenges. Experts believe that the carvings were done using two techniques. Firstly, the groove was roughly chiseled out using a sharp stone or flint. The design was then deepened and smoothed out using a pebble. In this way, deep designs were carved into the stone.

Celtic Spiral Wedding Ring

At CladdaghRings.com we feature a great range of handmade Celtic Spiral Wedding rings inspired by the carvings found at Newgrange.

The Winter Solstice at Newgrange

Newgrange was excavated between the years 1962 to 1975 under the stewardship of Professor Micheal O’Kelly , professor of Archaeology at University College Cork. During the early years of the excavation, locals would tell the professor that at certain times, the darkest recesses of the chamber would be filled with light from the rising sun. On a hunch, the professor visited the chamber on the morning of the winter solstice, 21 December, 1967 and was astonished to witness the dawn light begin to enter the passageway and travel inwards, ‘lighting up everything as it came until the whole chamber – side recesses, floor and roof six meters above the floor – were all clearly illuminated’. He was the first person to witness the winter solstice at Newgrange since ancient times.

For the people who built Newgrange, the winter solstice marked the start of the new year, and symbolized fertility and rebirth. Newgrange was not just a place of burial but an important ceremonial place for the people of the area.

Sunlight travels into the passage tomb at Newgrange.
Drawing by the OPW, shows the path of the sunlight as the travels through the roofbox and down the long passage into the chamber

The Office of Public Works, the agency responsible for the monument offers members of the public access to the passage tomb to experience the light filling the tomb on the dawn of the winter solstice. 60 places are allocated to lucky winners of an annual lottery for each year’s solstice. There were 28,595 entries for Solstice 2018, so this opportunity is only for the lucky few. The event is spread over the mornings of December 18 to December 23rd. Of course, If you are lucky enough to win a golden ticket, there is no guarantee of sunshine on an Irish winter morning.

The builders of Newgrange really knew astronomy!

If you wish to apply, you can fill out an application at the Newgrange visitor center, or just email your name, address, and telephone number to brunaboinne@opw.ie.