The Old Runs Deep

When I think of old, like really, really old, like ancient old, I think of Athens and Rome and the pyramids in Egypt. I don't really think of Ireland, but we had a tour of ancient Irish monuments today that left me completely impressed and feeling a bit reverent towards our Stone Age ancestors. These people built something epically cool about 500 years before those folks down in Giza put up a pyramid.

We went to Brú na Bóinne (also known as Newgrange) and Knowth, two of the three huge Neolithic passage tombs here in County Meath, just northwest of Dublin. The tour started in the Newgrange Visitor Center, which has a good exhibit showing the construction of the tombs, replicas of artifacts found in and around the sites, and depictions of Stone Age life. We learned that the people living here only lived to about 25-30 years of age. They were farmers, as were many generations before them. Living in the Stone Age as they were, roughly five to six thousand years ago, they had only stone and wood and bone tools; no metal. But they lived near a river, today's River Boyne, and they were likely skilled sailors.

a river bending through farmland

We were told that the river was about twice as wide back then as it is today, and it was also tidal. It came in handy for moving the large boulders and stones they would use to build the passages, chambers, and kerbstones of their sacred buildings.

earthen passage tombs

The three huge passage tombs are among roughly 40 smaller tombs, most of which predate the large ones. Much of the evidence archaeologists have gathered point to this site being extremely special and important. First of all, they probably worked across generations to get these things built. Now, their generations were considerably shorter than ours, but it’s still hard to imagine that kind of social commitment to a building project today. Secondly, the solar alignments are incredibly precise: the passage into Newgrange aligns with the sunrise of the winter solstice and the tombs at Knowth likely align with the equinoxes. Finally, these farmers made these things fancy. The kerbstones were carved with intricate patterns. The ground in front of the passage entrances were covered in white quartz stones quarried from 60 km away to the south and interspersed with granite orbs from northern mountains a similar distance away.

entrance to one passage at Knowth

mound of earth supported by stacked stones and large stones with carvings

The area near the mound at Knowth was inhabited by Stone Age people for quite awhile, then by no one for about two thousand years, then people started living on top of the mound in the Iron Age, roughly 3000 years after the tomb’s construction. In the early medieval period (8th-12th centuries), it was the capital of the Kingdom of North Brega.

During the Iron Age inhabitations, ditches were dug around the perimeter and soutterrains added for storage and security. The kids were invited to crawl through one of the soutterains, and Tori jumped at the chance.

girl entering soutterrain

girl crawling out of soutterrain

girl helping sister out of soutterrain

I think I’d like to go back. The weather was cool and grey on our tour of Knowth, then cold and rainy at Newgrange. We learned of a lottery the park service has for people to come to Newgrange for the winter solstice. They let about 20 people into the chamber to witness the sunrise enter through the roof box and light the floor of the passage, reaching its shine to the basin at the head of the chamber, filling the entire chamber with light, then retreating back out the passage entrance as the sun continues it rise across the sky. Now, that’s something for a bucket list!

entrance to Newgrange passage tomb

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