Newgrange Tomb

April 2, 2010 — To be timely, I should’ve published this article on Irish oddity back in March. However, I consider calendars to be general guidelines and not binding contracts. Plus, I’d have missed out on the opportunity to cover an oddity that thematically combines two consecutive holidays, in this case St. Patrick’s Day and Easter. The oddity? An Irish tomb. That’s right. I’m slightly re-interpreting Easter as a celebration of famous tombs. But that doesn’t mean I won’t still eat a chocolate Christ and meditate on resurrected bunnies.

One of the oldest still-standing man-made structures on this entire holiday-celebrating planet of ours is the Newgrange tomb in County Meath, located on the eastern coast of Ireland about 30 miles north of Dublin (or about 50 kilometers as their crows fly over there). At around 5,000 years old, Newgrange is older than Egypt’s pyramids, older than England’s Stonehenge, and slightly younger than this or that very old celebrity who I won’t name because if I do they will die as soon as I hit Blogger’s “Publish” button. That’s not a threat, just an indictment on my timing. I feel like I’ve made that joke before somewhere.

Newgrange also predates Ireland’s Celtic inhabitants, although when they finally did come along, they incorporated structures like the one at topic into their mythology as fairy mounds and populated them with the entire range of Irish faerie folk that, in the context of the rest of the world’s supernatural creature myths, have historically come off mostly as “cute.” Except for maybe the banshee. My only experience with that one is Darby O’Gill, and I still see her as a retina flash when I close my eyes on windy nights.

Archaeologically speaking, Newgrange is a megalithic passage tomb, which just means that it’s made of large rocks and has a hallway. The circular mound of the tomb is 40 feet tall and spans about one acre of ground. The top of the tomb is covered in a smooth cap of green sod, while a reconstructed vertical wall of white-colored quartz and granite form a crescent around the front arc of the mound. Surrounding the tomb at various points are large kerbstones that ancient peoples erected to avoid backing their cars into their tombs, some of which are inscribed with unique concentric swirl patterns.

Newgrange was rediscovered in modern times at the very end of the 17th Century, but it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that they excavated and restored it, at which time they apparently found human remains inside. That’s how they knew it was an ancient tomb and not a gateway to a Leprechaun-infested underworld. In addition, as with everything else that is old and made of giant stones, there are theories that claim it’s an astronomical calendar or sacred place of worship. I can’t wait until future peoples attempt to see if our graveyards align with stars and solstices.

Unless you’re a trespasser, highly connected, or the guy who mows the top of the tomb, you can only visit Newgrange as part of a tour group, accessing it by way of the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre. While you wait at the center for the bus that will take you to the actual tomb, you can wander through various exhibits on Newgrange and its nearby sister tomb sites such as Knowth and Dowth.

After arriving at the tomb, you and your fellow passengers are divvied up into smaller groups and eventually led inside the tomb after a bit of guide chatter in front of the doorway.  Part of that guide chatter centers on the roof box, an aperture above the tomb entrance through which light enters the tomb once a year on the winter solstice. Before Edison, people did ungainly stuff like that, I guess.

Inside, you squirm single file down a cramped 60-foot-long Edison-lighted passageway to a slightly less cramped chamber at the end. There, after more guide chatter, the guide turns off the lights to show you what it’s like to be buried alive, and then after your terrified scream dies in the void, cheerfully turns on a recessed bulb to show how the chamber is illuminated by the sun during the winter solstice. They hold a popular lottery every year for the chance to attend the actual event.

After being resurrected from the tomb, you’re free to walk around the exterior and among some of the surviving kerbstones before jumping on one of the regularly scheduled busses back to the visitor center.  Apparently we didn’t do much of that, though, because these are basically the only pictures we took to memorialize our moment with ancient history.

And while in hindsight I wish we had taken more, I’m at least consoled by the fact that I didn’t have to parse my way through that many strangely accented Celtic words for this article. Happy tomb day, everybody.