Context is Lost - Newgrange

September 25, 2009

Raise a glass, when you get a chance, to T.B. Naylor, who, one day in 1891, found himself or herself inside the center chamber of the passage tomb at Newgrange. This was during a time after the restoration begun by Robert Campbell in 1699, and before the government took ownership of the historic site. So Naylor, having no other compass to direct his/her actions, carved their name on one of the ancient stones. The guides there now make a passing reference to “Victorian graffiti” and ask you to ignore it.

In Newgrange, the history is markedly different from other passage tombs. In Knowth, we have evidence detailing how each successive civilization made use of the hallowed grounds. In Newgrange, however, the fortunes of time led to a entombment. For thousands of years, the mysteries of Newgrange’s passage tomb lay beneath mounds of dirt that slid off the mound. An apparently random pattern of stones lay undisturbed amidst a gentle sloping field. Campbell uncovered the passage, the odd pile of quartz (from the Wicklow mountains, some 80 miles away), and the kerbstones.

An odd aspect of this passage was an upper doorway above the walkway into the center chamber. As you walk to the center, you navigate an incline of two meters such that this upper doorway is now aligned with your feet. And aligned as well with the horizon. So precisely aligned that, for four days during the winter solstice, the rising sun shines into the narrow passageway, illuminating the chamber for 17 minutes at a time.

In a field below Newgrange lies an unexcavated passage tomb, stark in the middle of a Irish farmer’s land. Knowing Knowth, we have clues to Newgrange. Knowing Newgrange, we have clues to Tara, historically the center of Irish kingship, featuring also a passage tomb.

There are some forty such passage tombs across Ireland, many more across Western Europe – from Portugal through Scandinavia. What is the significance of these structures, what context can we reconstruct and with what tools? The guide at Knowth advised us to look to the local language for clues – the Anglicized terms belie the context of later civilizations. The Irish language, once outlawed, retains important myths and tales. To these descendants of the Celtic age, Newgrange is not simply a burial tomb, it was home to the greatest of Celtic gods, the Dagda Mor and Aengus, his son.

Of course, the Irish language represents one of the civilizations that came after the builders of these passage tombs. The oral histories that would help us understand context are absent. Artifacts are important for comparisons, and lunar and astronomic theories are important excursions – but the absence of the stories is felt deeply.

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