Brú na Bóinne
Thursday, 24th January 2008 by Alex Turnbull
Brú na Bóinne (Palace of the Boyne) is a World Heritage Site situated in a bend of the River Boyne, County Meath, Ireland. The site contains around 40 passage graves as well as other standing stones, henges and later features. Brú na Bóinne is the location of some of the world’s most historically important Neolithic passage graves, Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth.
The Newgrange passage grave was built between 3300 and 2900 BC, making it more than 500 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Hidden for over 4,000 years, Newgrange was only re-discovered accidentally in 1699, but it was hugely restored between 1962 and 1975 and today consists of a huge mound retained within a circle of 97 intricately carved kerbstones, topped by a high wall of white quartz and granite.
Newgrange was built in such a way that at dawn on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, a narrow beam of sunlight for a very short time illuminates the floor of the chamber at the end of the long passageway.
The Newgrange mound is 76m across and 12m high, and within the mound an 18m-long passage leads to a cross-shaped chamber with an arched roof. The ceiling of the chamber rises to a height of nearly 6m, and incredibly, has remained essentially intact and waterproof for over 5,000 years.
The oldest of the three principal tombs, Dowth has been less developed as a tourist attraction than its neighbours (it was partly excavated in 1847 though it had been pillaged long before that). Quartz was found around the mound, indicating that the entrance to this tomb was surrounded by glittering white, just like Newgrange.
Dowth has two passages leading to two separate chambers, one cross-shaped, and one circular. The circular chamber is, again like Newgrange, touched by the light of the low sun around the time of the winter solstice. A convex central stone reflects the sunlight into a dark recess, lighting up the decorated stones there.
Made up of one large mound and 18 smaller satellite tombs, the large mound contains two independent passages running east to west, which both lead to a central burial chamber. This east-west orientation suggests that at one time there may have been an astronomical alignment with the spring and summer equinoxes, but this no longer occurs today.
Full scale excavations began on Knowth in 1962, and in contrast to the restoration efforts at Newgrange, it was decided that the fallen quartz surrounding the mound would not have been part of a front wall, but rather laid out to form a white “apron” in front of the entrance.
The 780 hectares of Brú na Bóinne are absolutely loaded with other Neolithic structures – I easily found Dowth Henge, and many others – and yet the reason that so many structures were built in this specific location remains completely unknown.