Thursday, May 6, 2010

Newgrange: A 5,200 Year Old Passage Mound

We made it to Dublin airport, by the grace of God, as the airport was closed by the volcanic ash before and after our landing.

We went north by bus and stopped at the Bru na Boinne passage mounds in County Meath.

I was thrilled to be in that space again...among the massive stones lifted and placed for some mysterious purpose...

But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let me take you along on this visit:

Our guide explained that the grass covered mounds were built five thousand years ago, before the pyramids in Egypt actually.

That's certainly old enough, but I wondered how could a pile of dirt compete with the great geometric monuments of Giza?

I studied the rounded hill beyond our guide with stones inset in the base. The mound covered about an acre. Each oblong stone was about two yards or meters across with a flattish side facing out. She explained the stones had been etched, painstakingly pinged actually, in patterns.

We walked toward the passage entrance in the wet grass and stared at the stones.

The relief was low but I could make out these odd patterns of crescents, diamonds, zig-zags, arcs, circles, and spirals. Our guide said these stones were hidden by soil until dug up in recent times to reveal their faces. She added no one knows for sure the meaning of the megalithic art on the stones, or indeed if there is a meaning.

She pointed out the mounds were built by people who were farming because the hunter gatherer lifestyle would not support 100 people taking 50 years to move all these massive stones, approximately a quarter million tons in all.

Our guide said. “As you heard in the short fill-em inside the visitor center, (I love how the Irish make a two syllable word out of that single syllable word – film - as it becames "fill-em" when they say it and I hear it) Newgrange has a passage lined up with the rising sun on the winter solstice. We ask that you each take turns in each of the features at the end of the passage and then let the next person get a chance.”
Outside the entrance, when we saw a special kerbstone covered with interlocking etched spirals, our little group quieted.

Mechanical and digital clicks sounded as the assembled group took their last shots before entering where all photos were prohibited.

Passing one at a time within the opening, we had to duck carefully beneath the stone that framed the bottom of the opening over the entrance. This opening was designed to let in the sunrise light to the passage. As we made our way up the artificially lit narrow stone hall, some 19 yards, our guide explained that we were literally walking slightly up hill.

When we got to the wide area at the end, she told us the horizontal rays from the rising solstice sun would fall onto the base of the wall at our feet even though the orange shafts entered that opening above the outside doorway. She pointed out the three alcove areas or chambers at the end of the passage form a cruciform chamber with a corbelled roof. As small as they were, the alcoves completely relieved the claustrophobic impression left by moving up the narrow passage.

Our guide turned out the general illumination and everyone shifted around nervously in the total blackness. She explained that this was the darkness that the old ones found when they entered before the rising sun. Then she turned on a floodlight to imitate the sun at winter solstice. Part of me laughed at the inadequacy of a spotlight to imitate the powerful rays of the sun, but I had to admit it did convey the wonder at the specialness of the alignment the ancient architects created so that once a year the light penetrated the chamber and struck the far end for about seventeen minutes.

She turned on the general illumination and asked us to look up. The roof had not leaked in 5,000 years, though made simply of arranged stones.

Out of nowhere, my brain delivered a math fact: since I am 50 something years old, I had only lived one percent of the age of this 5,200 year old structure.

When my turn came to examine one of the chambers, a sense of spiritual reverence settled within me as I examined the smooth edged stone basin. This basin was the proverbial elephant in a room, though its exact use and implications were not precisely obvious. Then I looked up and saw the ceiling was a galore of etchings on old stones, stones that had hung there for five millenia.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I felt all these facts, that would make great conversation some day, suddenly fall away, and I was just... there...
where the sun can reach only once a year...

on a lucky cloudless year...on winter solstice.

There in that spot, built so long ago,

my mind assembled a thought:

I could feel the old ones there.

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