Thursday, September 1, 2011

Neolithic Tombs, Megalithic Art

Our final day  before turning in the rental car and hoofing it around Dublin, we stopped in at Bru na Boinne, located about 45 minutes north of Dublin. In one word, phenomenal! Bru na Boinne is an area of Neolithic mounds, thought to be burial tombs, but no one really knows. As our guide for one of the mounds pointed out, people were buried in cathedrals up until fairly recently, but cathedrals aren't burial structures. So these places could have been burial mounds, or worship centers, or calendars, since they're aligned with the sun, or some other use we can't imagine.

The Boyne Valley surrounding Bru na Boinne is home to over 40 of these mounds, of which visitors can tour two. The fantastic Visitor's Center is where all must begin. Visits are by guided tour only, and entry is limited, so we left Galway early in order to make sure we got tickets, this being August and all, and visions of the Cliffs of Moher dancing in our heads.

Our first tour was to Knowth (rhymes with mouth), the largest of the mounds, dating to 3000-2000 BC, and built with 127 carved stones (called kerbstones) at it's base. These stones represent 1/3 of Western Europe's megalithic (big stone) art, and in 5000 years, only three of the stones have gone missing. Only three! Combining the carved stones around the rest of the Boyne Valley, and 2/3 of Western Europe's megalithic art is right here. Knowth has a bunch of smaller mounds surrounding it, but the main mound has two passageways thought to have once been aligned with the spring and fall equinoxes. The sun would have lit the passageways, ending at separate burial chambers where basins held cremated, human remains. The site was later used for Celtic burials, then fell into disuse for a couple of thousand years, before becoming a settlement first by early Christians, then the Normans. The passageways became altered over all that time. At Knowth, we were able only to walk into a room created near the edge of the great mound, where we could glimpse down one of it's main passageways. Visitors, can however, walk on top of the mound and get a great view of the smaller mounds surrounding it.
A peek down one of Knowth's passageways
The slab over the kerbstones is modern, installed to protect the megalithic art.

Next up was our visit to Newgrange, built 5000 years ago, 500 years before the Egyptian pyramids and 1000 before Stonehenge. It was then the largest man-made structure in Ireland for the next 4000 years. Newgrange's mound has a white quartz stone decoration on the front of it (which has been restored), an impressive, carved stone at it's entrance, and visitors get to walk into the mound and down the passageway, which is aligned with the sun on the winter solstice. On that day, the sunbeam stops exactly at the central chamber, which has three recesses where stone basins are located. A standing stone circle once encircled Newgrange, with dimensions that exactly match other stone circles in Scotland and Great Britain. I found all these fun facts so interesting - how many years did these early people watch and measure the sun's movement before building the mounds? With an average lifespan of 26-29 (for women and men, respectively), did it take generations? Did the carved symbols mean something, or was it just something to doodle, like I used to do on my Trapper Keeper? Were those cremated remains sacrifices, natural deaths, enemies? So many questions, and clearly, so much knowledge they had, especially in engineering. My final fun fact is pretty impressive: The mounds are so well constructed that in 5000 years, no water leaked inside them. Now that's building something to last!
Entrance to Newgrange's passage
Standing at Newgrange and looking out over the countryside, two more mounds are in view, just sitting in the midst of farming fields.

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