People of the Passage Tombs
It is damp
and chill in the passage grave as the small group huddles together.
Waiting. Suspended in space and time. Watching. Apprehensive about the drama
about to unfold and yet confident in their preparations.
Outside the throng had grown past hundreds into the thousands. Men, women and
children standing in the bitter pre-dawn air. White hoarfrost clings to grass
blades, tree limbs, bushes. And yet the cold was welcomed. Still frigid air
means no clouds would mar the celebrations.
Finally a murmur went up from those highest up the mound as a rim of light
appeared on the horizon. It was time. Soon their offerings would be made, their
faces filled with hope. The world had turned. Once again the sun would climb
high into the sky.
Who were these people gathered on the hillside at Newgrange, the passage grave
built 5,000 years ago in a crook of the River Boyne in Co Meath? Why did they
build this colossal monument and what did they expect from it?
Irish archaeologists and scholars have studied the passage graves in Meath for
more than 60 years, and antiquarians have visited
and wondered about
it ever since the entrance into the tomb was rediscovered more than 300 years
ago. They have learned much about the Newgrange complex, and others linked to
it, by studying clues that its makers left behind. They have established that
the three primary tombs around Newgrange, including
, are part of
a much wider network that stretches over many counties and occupies mountain
tops at Knocknarea, Slievenamon, Seefin and Baltinglass Hill among other
locations, including Tara.
But what of the monument's architects and builders? Who were they and what
caused them to assemble this network at huge cost, in terms of the scale of the
The people who built these wonderful monuments are a near total mystery, says
Prof Muiris Ó Súilleabháin of the school of archaeology at University College
“They are extremely elusive,” he says. There are tantalising clues about
activity at the sites at the time they were built, but also for several
centuries beforehand at locations such as Baltinglass Hill and Knowth. Yet there
is no evidence of a large-scale community having lived near the tomb complex
around Brú na Bóinne, the largest and, arguably, one of the most important
megalithic sites in Europe, he says.
“One of the great anomalies of the Boyne Valley is the contrast between the
magnificent and enduring ritual monuments and the somewhat ephemeral evidence
for daily life,” he says. The region has been studied using radar, aerial
photography and, of course, on the ground over decades. “Nevertheless, there is
no evidence of a large-scale settlement such as would explain the organisation
and sophistication indicated by the tombs. So the people of the Middle Neolithic
remain elusive,” says Ó Súilleabháin.
Building the passage graves was a mammoth undertaking and would have required a
great deal of labour over a prolonged period of time. We typically think of Brú
na Bóinne as the focus of this activity, but there are tombs as far away as
counties Armagh, Sligo and Kilkenny that appear to maintain a geographical
alignment not necessarily with the astronomical points of solstice and equinox
but with the other tombs.
This indicates that the influence of those who built at Newgrange must have
extended over vast areas of Stone Age Ireland. “The network of passage tombs
across the countryside, reinforced by the alignment patterns, suggests extensive
social control on the part of those responsible for the passage tombs,” says Ó
There are layers of complexity associated with the building of and later use of
the passage tombs, he says. “One of the difficulties in differentiating evidence
of daily life in passage tomb contexts is the care with which the ritual
activity was carried out. Traces that were formerly considered to be casually
discarded tools or fires lit by work gangs involved in the building process are
now known to have been deliberately incorporated as part of the ritual.”
The pyramids were used as tombs for individual kings and important people, but
the evidence from Brú na Bóinne, including interred, cremated bones and skulls,
shows that burial at these places was communal. There was cremation material
there from many individuals, with small deposits that could not have been the
full remains left after cremation. This indicates that burial in this context
was not a simple disposal of the dead.
Given the very limited space in the tombs, it also seems likely that only small
numbers of people entered the confines of the tomb to pursue whatever rituals
were performed. “I believe, therefore, that any assemblies there must have taken
place outside, with presumably a representative or two journeying into the
bowels of the site to perform mysterious ceremonies or commune with the
ancestors,” says Ó Súilleabháin. He also believes that those assembled outside
likely stayed back from the monument entrance, in the way that a religious
congregation today tends not to crowd the altar.
He envisages a lone representative entering the tomb, mindful that the cold
interior was peopled by the spirits of the dead. This person, if in Newgrange
passage tomb, would have been waiting to mark the turning of the year, the point
where the days gradually grow longer and carry the countryside back into the
warmth and rebirth of spring and summer.
“I imagine the moment when this person re-emerged to announce possibly that the
great solar event had happened and all would be well, or that it had not, a
portent of worrying consequences,” says Ó Súilleabháin.
Whatever the ritual, these tombs give us a tantalising view of a complex past
Christmas comparison Celebrations of 1699 were not that different
The Newgrange monument lay buried and forgotten for thousands of years as
Ireland's population and political landscape evolved. It was not until 1699 that
estate workers digging up buried stones from the monument uncovered the
By then profound social changes had taken place, and yet the local people still
had reason to celebrate on a date close to the winter solstice. Christianity had
co-opted the festival, now celebrated as the birth of Christ.
“Christmas was the dominant festival in the Christian era in Ireland,” says
Crístoír Mac Cárthaigh, an archivist at University College Dublin.
By the time Newgrange
was rediscovered the lands around the monument were held
by a Charles Campbell, who acquired them after the Williamite confiscations. But
the established lifestyles of the local population would have continued.
Farming was still the dominant activity and, as in the UK and on the Continent,
housing clustered together to form villages. These would have have been fairly
large elsewhere, but not here. “These [in Ireland] would be far smaller. There
would have been no churches or shops,” he says.
Land management was structured under the Rundale practices, he adds. “This was
effectively a co-operative way of farming where land was held in common.”
The size of your village didn't matter much once Christmas tide approached,
however. “That would have been the biggest festival of the year,” says Mac
Cárthaigh. It was unrivalled by Easter or any other Christian festival, partly
because farm work was least during the winter months.
This in turn opened up other opportunities, he says. “It was a great time of
courtship, right up until Shrove Tuesday.”
The society of the day placed emphasis on social interaction at Christmas, with
families coming together much like today, but also neighbours visiting
neighbours. It was a time when those within the wider community reconnected and
helped define their sense of place with the land and those living on it.
“That was the glue that held the community together,” says Mac Cárthaigh.
A range of practices had their roots in the winter solstice festival, for
example hunting for the wren. The hunt was particularly a feature of the
southwest, but the idea of the wren as king of the birds is from the pagan
tradition and dates back thousands of years, he says.
But as Christmas descended upon the people living within the loop of the River
Boyne that encompasses the Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth monuments, the holly and
ivy decorations and the feasting and drinking would have looked very familiar to
- The Irish Times
Science Editor - December 2011.
Boyne Valley Private Day Tour
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Visit Newgrange World Heritage site, explore the Hill of Slane, where Saint Patrick famously lit the Paschal fire.
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