Brú na Bóinne
Fadó, fadó… (A long, long time ago…)
In ancient Ireland, the year was divided into a bright half, and a dark half and was plotted by the movement of the sun using monuments and satellite cairns dotted across the country. This ancestral legacy is most evident in the stone monuments built in the Boyne Valley at Brú na Bóinne where giant megalithic structures, now known as Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, stand proud in a magical landscape.
Although the archaeological landscape within Brú na Bóinne is dominated by the three well-known large Neolithic passage tombs, Knowth, Newgrange and Dowth, an additional ninety monuments have been recorded in the area giving rise to one of the most significant archaeological complexes in terms of scale and density of monuments and the material evidence that accompanies them. The Brú na Bóinne tombs, in particular Knowth, contain the largest assemblage of megalithic art in Western Europe.
The area was designated a World Heritage Site in 1993 in recognition of its outstanding universal value. The scale of passage tomb construction, the important concentration of megalithic art as well as the range of sites and the long continuity of activity were cited by USESCO as reasons for the site’s inscription.
These impressive structures, built circa 3500 BC, were used as passage tombs but they were also ceremonial in function as a lot of effort went into creating an alignment with special events on the earth calendar such as the winter solstice and the equinox, important dates for early farming communities. Much later, the Celts continued and refined these earlier traditions with festivals to mark the quarter days of the solar calendar with the feasts of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain.
Newgrange, the best known of the three monuments at Brú na Bóinne, is first and foremost a burial chamber. However, the tumulus at Newgrange also forms a solar construct and marks the winter solstice when the rising sun is perfectly aligned and shines through a roof-box, located above the entrance, to illuminate the inner chamber located at the end of a long covered passageway. Depending on the weather conditions, the chamber, which is normally in darkness throughout the year, is illuminated for a period of exactly seventeen minutes. Should the weather be bright and sunny then this phenomenon can be seen each dawn from the 18th to the 23rd December.
Granted it’s not particularly accurate, or portable, or reliable as it requires a cloud free morning sky to function correctly. It is, however, a testament to the knowledge and skills of our ancestors and tangible evidence of the foundations of modern day horology.
The tumulus and the seventeen smaller satellite tombs found at Knowth (Cnogba) are regarded as one of the most remarkable prehistoric monuments in the World. Knowth is best known for the magnitude of the engraved Neolithic rock art, with images of the Sun, the Moon, constellations and stars, found on some 261 decorated kerbstones and passage stones. The site at Knowth contains over a third of all the known megalithic art in Western Europe, much related to marking time and celestial recordings and observations.
Dowth (Dubhach) is the least well known of the three monuments at Brú na Bóinne and the tumulus is thought to pre-date both Knowth and Newgrange. The tumulus has shorter passages too but the chambers are as large and contain some of the biggest stones found at any of the sites.
The mound at Dowth hasn’t been excavated in modern times. Regrettably, the mound was a subjected to an unprofessional excavation in 1847 when two passage tombs were discovered but, in the process, the mound was severely damaged. Both passages are on the western side of the mound and the more southerly of the passages is aligned to the setting sun of the winter solstice when the setting sun illuminates the passage and inner chamber for about two hours in the late afternoon on the days around the winter solstice.