Have you heard about Knowth and New Grange? No? Have you heard that Ireland contains some of the most mysterious and ancient ruins in the known world? 500 years older than they pyramids of Giza? 1,000 years older than Stonehenge? No?? Oh, I see…
Well, Becki and I didn’t know that either. Not until we rented a Rick Steves’ video on Ireland anyways. And once we learned more about them, we knew they were a must-see of the Emerald Isle.
Mysteries of the Ancient Burial Mounds
It amazes me that so few people have heard about these passage tombs. Constructed out of massive stones each weighing between 2 and 20 tons, layered on top of each other in a pyramid shape (now hidden by the earth that grew on top of them), they’re every bit as spectacular and inspiring as the pyramids, Stonehenge, or the Great Wall.
I think part of the problem is that they’re a mystery. And not the good kind of mystery.
There are passage tombs all over various parts of the U.K., and parts of Scandinavia. For various reasons, the tombs of Newgrange and Knowth are two of the largest, best preserved examples of them.
Some of the older tombs are carbon dated as far back as 6,000BC. Kind of like the pyramids, the construction of them advanced and evolved over the millennia, until you end up with greatest expression of the building – like the great pyramid of Giza, or in the passage tombs’ case, Knowth and Newgrange.
There are no clues; there is no inkling of what their purpose was or who built them, and that’s frustrating. The pyramids were lucky; like the the passage tombs, they were full of a mysterious ancient writing that told us nothing. However, once the Rosetta Stone was discovered, all the mysteries of the ancient Egyptians could be understood.
There is no Rosetta Stone for the Irish tombs. The people that made these things had no written language, and pre-dated the Celtics and Gaelic by thousands of years. It’s hard to comprehend, but these passage tombs around certain parts of the U.K. were made in the Neolithic period – the last part of the Stone Age.
Not the Bronze Age, not the Iron Age… the Stone Age.
Let’s Talk About Their Construction
No one knows how the pyramids were built. No one knows how the giant heads of Easter Island were erected. And likewise, no one knows how the passage tombs were put together.
The stones used to shape the buildings are massive, with the largest weighing in at 40,000lbs.
It’s assumed they were brought in from all over the area – presumably floated down the nearby Boyne River – rolled up the hill to the building site.
Then they were somehow lifted and stacked to form a rough cone/pyramid shape. The large stones weren’t the only thing trucked-in though; there is also a ton (many tons, actually…) of bright white quartz laid into the front of the structures.
There’s only one place to get that quartz in Ireland, and it’s close to 100 miles away.
No mortar has been used to hold the buildings together, and to help them last longer in Irelands climate, they carved water grooves into each massive stone, channeling the water away from the inner chamber and down the sides. Essentially, they have built-in rain gutters.
It’s easy to get a stone building to last thousands of years in the Sahara desert – in Ireland though? Not so much. Nothing changes in the dry heat of Egypt, but Irelands landscape is alive, wet, green, growing, changing… and yet somehow these buildings have survived the millennia.
And This is Where They Get Amazing
That’s right, these things are huge, their construction made from hundreds-of-thousands-of-pounds of disparate materials sourced from all over Ireland, but it doesn’t end there. They have a secret that only shows up one day a year:
They’re aligned with the sun.
Each tomb has its opening passage aligned so that sunlight will streak down the tunnel and fill the interior chamber with light on a prescribed day.
The day is different for different tombs, so it’s presumed that they go hand in hand with different celebrations. For example, New Grange fills with light in the last hours of the Winter Solstice.
That day is of course incredibly important for ancient peoples (and modern ones alike, if we’re honest), because it’s when days start getting longer again. It’s the return of the sun, and while we still need the sun just as much as they did then, it was more symbolic for them.
In a life where very little was certain, it signified a return of warmer weather, of longer days, and of green and growing things.
Want to know something really crazy though? Back then, it was aligned with the sun, but today, the chamber is barely filled with light for a few seconds on the Solstice.
“I bet that’s from the building settling”, you might think to yourself, and you’d be partially right. However, there’s another reason, and it’s a mind-blowing one:
It’s out of alignment because the planet is no longer where it was 6,000 years ago.
If you think back to science class, the Earth both rotates around its axis, and revovles around the sun, right? But what people often forget is that it also precesses about its axis – think of it as spinning a top. Sure, it spins, but as it slows it also wobbles a little while still spinning, right? That wobble is the precession of the planet, and it reaches it’s complete opposite position over 13,000 years, returning to its starting point (one full wobble) every 26,000 years. (Source: Scroll all the way down).
That’s right, that’s the kind of time-scale we’re talking about with these things. They’re so old, planetary movement has made their position in the solar system change.
It’s All Still a Mystery
For better or worse, who created these ancient tombs and why, all remains a mystery to this day.
Much of the buildings – what the carvings mean, why the interior is laid out like a cross, why the Eastern chamber is always the most decorated… even how the white quartz was originally placed – is all open to interpretation.
Though we don’t know much for certain, our guide still did her best to take us back in time and put it all in perspective.
The artificial lighting inside the cave was turned off, and in the cool, damp darkness, she set the mood. After a long and hard winter, full of fighting, famine and disease, a streak of light entered the cave.
With the light came hope. It was a sign of longer days, of the suns warmth returning, of fields becoming fertile again, and the comfort of a full belly.
* * *
Whether you join a tour-bus from Dublin, or drive into the Boyne Valley yourself, there is only one way to see the tombs: taking the tour offered by the visitor center.
We’d recommend driving yourself, and making a day or two of being in the Valley area. The passage tombs are only one of the amazing sites to see in this unique area of the world.
No picture taking allowed of the inside of New Grange, so if you want to see what it looks like, you’ll have to head to Ireland and take a tour yourself, which is well worth it, believe me :)