Solstice at Newgrange

From various locations around the world, fifty odd lucky ticket holders are watching the weather forecast for the Boyne Valley, County Meath, Ireland. They are looking to the weekend, specifically the 20th, the 21st and 22nd of December. They are wishing for a clear morning; a sky free from cloud, so that when the Solstice sun greets them over the horizon, it will cast its rays upon the face of Newgrange tomb.

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

Newgrange, is a passage tomb that deservedly garners much global attention from ancient site enthusiasts. In ‘light’ (excuse the pun) of the yearly event, I have compiled a list of things you probably know about Newgrange but some that you might not.

  1. Newgrange has been dated as approximately 5000 years old – that’s older than the pyramids.
  2. Newgrane is approximately 76 metres across and 12 metres high.
  3. A massive boulder conceals the entrance from the front. It’s known as Kerb Stone 1.
  4. Kerb Stone 1 is decorated with some pretty impressive artwork, comprising of large interlinking spirals that we now call the triskele.
  5. The tomb entrance leads up a narrow corridor formed of ortholiths (standing stones), to a central chamber, with three smaller chambers situated on all sides.
  6. The smaller chambers contain large, shallow stone basins.
  7. Cremated remains were found in the tomb at the time of excavation. Some of the remains were human, some animal.
  8. The rising sun, on the winter solstice morning and the mornings either side, reaches inside the tomb and illuminates the dark central chamber. Remember when you read this that it’s 5000 years old. It was most likely constructed with this amazing event in mind.
  9. The white front is composed of quartz rock. The rock was excavated around the tomb entrance and later fixed to the exterior during restoration.
  10. Newgrange was excavated and restored by archaeologist Michael J O’Kelly from 1962 to 1975.
  11. According to ancient literature, Newgrange is the home of Oenghus, a warrior  who became immortal through his winning of the tomb from his father, or rather it seems he might have just tricked him out of it!
  12. It was local story-telling that prompted M.J. O’Kelly to investigate a theory that the winter sun penetrated the tomb and illuminated a spiral motif at the rear of the central chamber on Solstice morning.
  13. Venus is visible once every eight-year cycle through the roofbox in Newgrange tomb.
  14. Antiquarian Charles Vallancey documented his findings on Newgrange in 1776 with a survey drawing. It depicted a large triangular standing stone just before the tomb entrance. This stone was not present at excavation in the 1960s.
  15. There were Roman coins found at the Newgrange site, possibly confirming that the locals at the time knew the tomb to be a place for deities – Roman’s were known to leave tokens for their own gods but also for any gods of a local population they passed through.
Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

Now… a special treat for Newgrange fans, a taste of what it was like to step into the tomb when it returned to the attention of those intrepid early antiquarians – a description taken from a letter written by Dr. Thomas Molyneux in 1700 (approx.). He details his experience beautifully.

…the most remarkable curiosity we saw by the way, was a stately Mount at a place called New Grange near Drogheda, having a number of huge stones pitched on end round about it, and a single one on the top. The gentleman of the village (one Mr Charles Campbel) observing that under the green turf this mount was wholly composed of stone, and having occasion for some, employ’d his servants to carry off a considerable parcel of them; till they came at last to a very broad flat stone, rudely carved, and placed edgewise at the bottom of the mount. This they discovered to be the door of a cave, which had a long entry leading into it.

            At the first entering we were forced to creep; but still as we went on, the pillars on each side of us were higher and higher and coming into the cave we found it about 20 foot high. In this cave, on each hand of us was a cell or apartment, and an other went on straight forward opposite to the entry. In those on each hand was a very broad shallow basin of stone, situated at the edge. The basin in the right hand apartment stood in another; that on the left was single and in the apartment straight forward there was none at all. We observered that water dropped into the right hand basin, though it had rained but little in many days, and we suspected that the lower basin was intendeded to preserve the superfluous liquor of the upper, (whether this water were sacred, or whether it was for Blood in Sacrifice) that none might come to the ground.

            The great pullars round this cave, supporting the mount, were not at ll hewn or wrought; but were such rude stones as thos of Abury in Wiltshire, and rather more rude that those of Stonehenge: but those about the basins and some elsewhere had such barbarous sculpture (viz. spiral like a snake, but without distinction of head and tail) as the fore-mentioned stone at the entry of the cave. There was no flagging nor floor to this entry nor cave, and part of a Stags (or Elks) head, and some other things, which I omit, because the labourers differed in their accounts of them.

            A gold coin of the Emperor Valentinian, being found near the top of this mount might bespeak it roman, but the rude carving at the entry and in the cave seems to denote it a barbarous monument. So, the coin proving it ancienter than any invasion of the Ostmans or Danes; and the carving and rude sculpture, barbarous, it should follow, that it was some place of sacrifice or burial of the ancient Irish…

To those lucky visitors who are waiting to experience the winter solstice at Newgrange, have fun and I wish you clear skies.

photo courtesy of
photo courtesy of

Author of Dawn Solstice: Olivia Kiernan

Follow me on Twitter: @LivKiernan

On Facebook: Olivia Kiernan (Author)

Dawn Solstice is available on Amazon here. And at Maguires’ cafe and bookshop on the Hill of Tara, Meath.


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