I must admit, there is nothing like going to a Neolithic archeological site on one’s birthday to make you feel young! Standing beside carved stones and structures that have stood for over 5000 years will make anyone feel like a new born babe (too bad that feeling doesn’t translate into actually becoming more youthful!).
Sometime today 29 years ago in the world famous town of Springfield, Illinois, I was born. The world stood still for a second as it took in the momentous occasion and contemplated all the future changes in the universe that my birth heralded……Ok, so maybe it wasn’t that much of an earthshaking occurrence, but it was a pretty special event for my family and a huge deal to me!
Today I found myself with my amazing husband in a stunning part of Ireland standing by stones and earthen structures built in the Neolithic era; Knowth and Newgrange, two of the most well preserved structures from that time. I would also like to point out that these burial mounds or religious grounds are older than Stonehenge and most of the pyramids at Giza. Pretty ancient! It really is a mystical experience.
It is difficult to describe the structures. They are on two different sites on two different hills not far from each other in the Boyne River Valley. The tour started at Knowth and then went onto Newgrange. I shall start at Knowth.
The Knowth site has one large structure and 18 smaller satellite structures. They are a man-made mound of layered sediments, rocks, dirt and topped with grass. The base is ringed by over 100 massive carved stones. There are two entrances to the Knowth structure that lead to two passages. At the end of these passages there were huge carved stone basins where cremated human remains were found, hence the thought that they were burial structures.
This site was not only used in the Neolithic era, but also then later by early Christians who settled on the top of the large mound for defensive purposes.
The stones surrounding the base of the structure are all examples of Megalithic art. The stones in Knowth and Newgrange make up about 60% of remaining examples of Megalithic art in all of Western Europe (if I am remembering correctly, it was something amazing anyway). There are no clear answers to what the designs, whirls and squiggles mean. It’s all open to interpretation.
At Knowth, we went to the top of the structure. From there, it was a stunning 360 view of the surrounding lush river valley. We also saw the back of Newgrange from the top. We were supposed to have also been able to see another famous hill top called Tara hill, but we couldn’t identify it.
After wandering around and being amazed by the sheer mass of the structure we went to Newgrange. At Newgrange we are allowed to enter the passage. It has in its thousands of years, never collapsed and has stayed watertight. It was incredible to be in such an ancient structure breathing the dry ancient air and brushing against stones carved by human hands from so long ago. Part of what makes Newgrange so impressive, on top of having its inter passage survive, is that it is perfectly aligned with the sunrise of the winter solstice. Only on that day from between 9 am and something like 9:17 am sunlight floods into the central chamber of Newgrange (if it’s sunny!). How was that mapped? The sheer precision is amazing to think about without any kind of help from machinery. All just from observation and calculation. It was also amazing because some of the stones used in the facade or decoration of both Newgrange and Knowth aren’t from areas anywhere near where they are built. There is white quartz from the Wicklow Mountains over 70 miles away and then rounded granite balls from Drogheda 30 miles away. The logistics of that boggle my mind anyway.
Each of these structures also would have taken 60-70 years to build. In that day and age, that would have been generations spent erecting the monuments.
Needless to say, anyone who comes to Ireland should go and see Knowth and Newgrange. There is definitely no equal to them anywhere in the US at least!