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Newgrange - the Big Winter Solstice Fake?

Just how much of the winter sunrise tradition is modern invention?


Newgrange - as it looked a few thousand years ago?

Newgrange - as it looked a few thousand years ago?

© Bernd Biege 2013

Let us open a can of pre-Celtic worms and start with a very blunt statement - everybody with the slightest interest in prehistoric Ireland knows Newgrange, has a mental image of its white walls and can tell the story on how at sunrise during the winter solstice the inner chamber is, as if by magic, illuminated with a thin shaft of light making its way through a precisely engineered opening and passage. But here is the crunch: before 1967 nobody knew about this phenomenon. Because for hundreds and thousands of years prior to that it simply had not existed. 

Calm down ... I did not say it never existed!

But it is a strange story indeed. Because Newgrange, as we now know it, is a modern construction. Billed as a reconstruction. And controversial in a number of ways. But a beacon of all those who are convinced that "the Celtic race" was immensely advanced. With the slight problem that the Celts did, by all accounts, not even know about the existence of Ireland around the time Newgrange was granted planning permission. We do not know who built Newgrange, it was a pre-Celtic culture that has all but vanished. Or absorbed into what today is identified as "Celtic Ireland". 

All we know for sure is ... the pre-Celtic inhabitants of Ireland built huge things. Witness Newgrange and other monuments in County Meath, like the cairns of Loughcrew, but also numerous other passage graves and burial mounts dotted around the island. An immense effort must have gone into this building work, which may even have been spanned generations. And the technical ability and precision engineering, just imagine!

Imagine, that is the key word - we do not really know how precisely engineered Newgrange was. Because what we can visit today is not the original. Seek out old images of the site, from before the 1950s. What you will see is a rather unkempt mound with a modern gate. And a big stone in front of it. Compare to images taken today. You'll notice that only the big stone with its spiral carvings seems to be unchanged. Everything else is new, literally. Because the Newgrange of today is a reconstruction that might just be a re-imagination. 

Let me quote a passage from the Irish Times of December 20th, 2008:

On the eve of the winter solstice celebration, several leading Irish archaeologists have discovered that a controversial reconstruction of Newgrange passage tomb four decades ago led to the accidental detection of its key feature – the roof box.

Now here is a slight conundrum - why does it take "leading archaeologists" to discover what actually happened during building work undertaken just four decades before? Not a huge temporal distance, is it?

But reading on, one discovers the truth. Behind the so-called "roof box" (which actually lets the sunlight in during the winter solstice sunrise). And the passage. And the whole spectacle that makes modern Newgrange such a tourist magnet:

The box, a 25cm-high opening which captures the dawning sunlight on the shortest days of the year, was only found during the rebuilding, according to a new book by Boyne Valley archaeologists Geraldine and Matthew Stout.

Ironically, the rebuild of the tomb by the late Prof MJ O’Kelly of University College Cork might never have been permitted under today’s archaeological standards.

The rebuild involved some ‘liberties’ with several key features – including the roof box, the authors note. However, examination of drawings and records kept by the Prof O’Kelly shows a ‘transparency’ in the nature of his decision-making.

In 1967 he made the first observation of the mid-winter ‘solstice phenomenon’ which would make Newgrange the best-known of all the world’s megalithic tombs due to its alignment, the authors noted.

This was after the dismantling and replacing of the box under Prof O’Kelly between 1964 and 1967, during which slight changes turned it into a ‘narrow passage’.

The quartz wall surrounding the passage tomb which was erected between 1967 and 1974 was also based on Prof O’Kelly’s interpretation, rather than documentary evidence, the authors note. One Danish archaeologist has even questioned whether a quartz wall ever existed.

Let me try to paraphrase this - basically the archaeologists state that O’Kelly's "reconstruction" of Newgrange is historically correct. But at least his decisions made during the building work, which would apparently not satisfy today's more stringent requirements for an archaeological dig, were "transparent". While at the same time he was taking liberties with key features. And discovered the phenomenon of the winter solstice sunrise right at the end of his reconstruction, when he had already "slightly" changed the very fabric of the tumulus that made the phenomenon possible.

Harrumph ... so two of the main characteristics that make the reconstructed Newgrange such a unique specimen of prehistoric man's (or woman's, it might have been a matriarchal society for all we know) ingenuity are down to the interpretation of Professor O’Kelly?

First of all the striking, at time almost blinding exterior of Newgrange. The quartz cladding with its nicely done accents in dark flint (marred only by the brutally widened entrance to facilitate tourism). True, loads of those white stones were found surrounding the remnants of Newgrange. But using them to clad the exterior in such a massive way is a modern interpretation, as is the "design" with the darker stones. Compare Knowth, just a few hundred yards away - the interpretation here is much more low key, with the stones simply surrounding the tumulus on the ground. Much easier to accomplish. No problems with statics. Unfortunately not even half as spectacular.

But as Newgrange is at times heralded as being on par with the pyramids of Egypt, pure design features won't do anyway. Here the scientific bit comes in - a civilization of note can easily make the point through astronomy. Align your buildings with a (regular) celestial phenomenon and you are right up there with the best of them. 

There is no doubt, the passage into the tumulus of Newgrange was always aligned with the rising sun at midwinter. While this may have happened by accident, other alignments of tumuli in Ireland tend to disprove the "accident hypothesis". Or the pre-Celtic Irish were extremely accident-prone. 

Yet such a simple alignment does not really shout "extremely high developed culture" at you. So O'Kelly's discovery that not only were the entrance and passage aligned, but that as if by magic on a few mornings the otherwise dark inner chamber would be illuminated ... that really dragged the unknown builders into the same league as the ancient Egyptians. 

Unfortunately this "discovery" came at the end of the proceedings. Basically O'Kelly ripped the very fabric of Newgrange apart, assembled the bits and pieces according to his own ideas, interpretations and with "liberties" ... and then discovered an ancient miracle. Playing the devil's advocate here I might remark that Julius Caesar already said "fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt". Men prefer to believe what they wish for. And O'Kelly might just have wished too much for such an astronomical discovery, therewith influencing his interpretations and adjustments.

Professor O’Kelly first started his work on Newgrange in the early 1960s and states that "I feel that it will probably be very dull."

Fast forward a few years and the very dull excavation and reconstruction has morphed into a breathtaking venture on a scale Ireland (and probably the world) had not seen before. Not only did the pre-Celtic Irish build big, they also built with such astronomical precision that the Egyptians could be henceforth regarded as runners up. And it was Zeitgeist at its best - Spyridon Marinatos discovering Atlantis in Akrotiri. Ancient civilizations with immense knowledge were all the vogue ... just ask Donovan Leitch.

So, is Newgrange a fake?

Not really - the alignment is there, the whole construction was well documented before the 1960s, it is impressive enough as it was. What can be discussed is, first and foremost, the exterior. And what can be doubted is the light-show during the winter solstice. Was there ever such a precise shaft of light before Professor O'Kelly turned a very dull venture into a worldwide sensation? Or was there just a glimmer of light? 

Will we ever know? Not likely.

Does it diminish the fascination Newgrange holds? Not really - the engineering feat is there, the alignment is there, it is just the details that might have been airbrushed by O'Kelly during the International Tourist Year of 1967. 

Then again O'Kelly may have been totally right ... 


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