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Newgrange tomb in Ireland with its entrance stone and roofbox

The penultimate day of our Exploring Ireland tour, was dedicated to three sites. Before returning to Dublin, we saw the monastic site of Monasterboice, with its famous High Crosses and Round Tower and Newgrange and Knowth in an area that medieval Irish calls Brú na Bóinne, in English 'the Palace on the Boyne'. It is a Neolithic passage tomb cemetery set within a bend of the River Boyne in County Meath.

Passage tombs are a very distinctive type of Neolithic monument, both in Ireland and elsewhere, and they are the most elaborate structures we know in that period (probably about 3,200 to after 3,000 BC) in Atlantic Europe. Usually, a passage tomb is a circular mound of earth and/or stone, with a linear passage (sometimes several) built of large stones, penetrating the mound and culminating in a central chamber that once contained burials - in Ireland they include inhumations and cremations. The chambers are sometimes complex in shape (linear, with multiple recesses or even cross-shaped) and often have corbelled (false vault) roofs. The Boyne passage Tomb cemetery is made up of three major tombs (Newgrange, Knowth - we visited those two - and Dowth) and over 40 smaller 'satellite tombs' clustered around them. In some cases, the passages are aligned with key astronomic events, such as the winter solstice (December 21) at Newgrange, when the rising sun shines right into the main chamber, but we will keep this subject apart for another post.

In some instances, the tombs are decorated with 'megalithic art', namely with carvings hewn into the stone blocks.  This art occurs either within the passages and chambers, or on kerbstones outside the mounds. The motifs include abstract patterns like spirals, wavy lines, zigzags, rhomboids (also called lozenges), triangles and other geometric patterns. They do not depict figures of humans or animals. Broadly speaking, megalithic art is the earliest form of large-scale stone sculpture in Western Europe, and it occurs in a few discrete areas: especially the Boyne Valley, one or two other regions of Ireland, the Orkney Islands, and Brittany (Bretagne) in western France, all at the same time, indicating contacts between those regions. The Boyne Valley contains about a third of all of this megalithic art across Europe, and the mound of Knowth itself nearly a quarter.

Our picture shows the so-called 'entrance stone' at Newgrange, one of the most celebrated examples of this form of art, decorated with connected spirals, wavy lines and rhomboids. There are countless published attempts to interpret the meaning of these patterns, from maps to constellations, from religion to astronomy, and so on. They are futile: the patterns are too abstract and to general to be directly legible, but that said, it is almost certain that they did bear specific meaning or meanings. Was the meaning of those spirals clear to the Neolithic observers, or were they meant to engage in fluid and manifold interpretation themselves? We'll probably never know, but we can safely assume that people from all over Ireland, perhaps even from further afield, came to these sites to participate in ceremonies or rituals, and perhaps to admire the art.

Find out more about our expert-led cultural and archaeological tour of Ireland.

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