Some of the most spectacular archaeological sites from the Neolithic period are in the Boyne Valley in County Meath. These sites are called Brú na Bóinne, which means “Boyne Palace.” They consist of large stone tombs built around 3200 B.C.E., several centuries before the great pyramids of Egypt. The three main components of this site are Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth.
People have known about these tombs for centuries; Vikings plundered them and Victorians hunted treasures there and carved their initials on the walls. The sites gradually deteriorated and were even quarried at one point. The Republic of Ireland has become very interested in its history, however, and consequently, the tombs have been extensively restored.
Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth were built around the same time that Stonehenge was erected in the south of England. They have generated nearly as much speculation as to their purpose as their English cousins. The most convincing theory about their use is the suggestion that they functioned as an ancient form of a solar calendar.
The tombs at Newgrange are built inside a huge, grassy mound of earth. The stones at the entrance and some of the stones holding the tomb together are elaborately carved with spirals.
These stones are not local; some of them came from Wicklow, 50 miles away, and others from Northern Ireland. This indicates that whoever built them was very organized — it's not easy to assemble the manpower to transport big rocks over that many miles. The tomb might have been surrounded by a ring of giant stones, though only twelve of these now remain.
Inside the mound is a long passageway leading to a subterranean burial chamber. Inside this chamber are three recesses for holding bodies; when the tomb was first excavated by experts, archaeologists found the remains of at least three cremated bodies and some human bones. Offerings of jewelry were probably once there as well, but these were stolen long ago.
The front door of Newgrange, solar observatory extraordinaire.
Solar Miracle Sites
No one knows exactly why these mounds were built. They might have been a burial place for kings; ancient legends certainly suggest that as a possibility. Or they might have served as calendars. Many megalithic sites are constructed to catch the sun at particular times of the year, and they are astonishingly accurate.
Newgrange is the best-known example of this. Every year during the winter solstice (December 19–23), the rising sun shines through a slit over the entrance and lights up the burial chamber for seventeen minutes. At the time the tomb was built, the sunlight would have shone directly onto a spiral design carved into the wall.
Similar solar phenomena happen at other megalithic sites. The light of the setting sun at winter solstice illuminates one of the chambers inside Dowth. At Knowth, the eastern passage seems to have been designed to catch the rising sun of the spring and autumn equinoxes, while the western passage might have caught the setting sun on those same days.
Mystical Site on the River Boyne
The tombs at Brú na Bóinne are an extremely popular tourist destination. The tour of Newgrange features a fake winter solstice sunrise, so that visitors can see how the sun illuminates the chamber. But don't get your hopes up about seeing the real thing; Newgrange at sunrise in December is booked solid for the next fifteen years, and the waiting list has been closed.
The River Boyne, which flows past these mound tombs, has long been very important spiritually to the Irish people. Legend says that the first occupant of Newgrange was named Elcmar. His wife was Boann, the spirit of the river.
The Boyne was said to be both magical and earthly, and that it flowed from the well of Segais in the otherworld. Segais is the source of all wisdom. It is surrounded by seven hazel trees, and hazels periodically drop from their branches and flow down the Boyne.