Brú na Bóinne

Today is Lá Saoire i mí Lúnasa (August Bank Holiday) in Ireland, but I thought I’d pop into the Department at Maynooth University to say farewell to the guests at the Quark Confinement Conference, the last of whom depart today. As I mentioned on Saturday I helped guide a party of around 40 conference participants around the prehistoric sites at Brú na Bóinne.

There’s a huge amount of information on the official website for this site and there’s no point trying to repeat it here, but I will say a few things. First of all, the site is about 5 miles inland (west) along the River Boyne from Drogheda. There is a huge amount of archaeology in the Boyne Valley and it’s impossible to see all of it in the half-day trip we had on Saturday, so we went to just one of the three major megalithic sites in the area, at Knowth. The two other sites are Newgrange and Dowth (where another passage tomb has just been discovered), neither of them far from where we were but we didn’t have time to visit them. In order to restrict numbers, access to all three of these monuments is by guided tour only. You have to take a shuttle bus from the main visitor’s centre, which is near to the oldest site at Newgrange. You could see all three in a day but you need at least an hour at each one to appreciate it fully, plus time to get to and fro by shuttle bus.

Anyway, people do say that the main Knowth monument is the most impressive not least because the main passage tomb has never collapsed. You can see from the above picture that the main structure is surrounded by many smaller structures. The `passage’ is about 40 metres long:

Guests at the site are not allowed into the depths of the site, but there is an antechamber with a display explaining what the interior looks like. The passage is quite constricted and oppressive: anyone over 5 foot tall would have to crouch. It’s also not inconsiderably creepy!

I took the above picture with my mobile phone. Here is one with a better camera and a flash which gives you a better idea of the construction:

Incidentally, this and the other structures nearby are all called `passage tombs’ because evidence of cremation has been found inside them, and (in the case of Knowth) a basin stone on which remains had been placed, but it is generally accepted that they were much more than just graves. They were probably temples of some sort. Each of three major monuments at Knowth, Newgrange and Dowth, has a convincing astronomical alignment but each is different: there are alignments with sunrise at the winter solstice (Newgrange) and summer solstice (Dowth); there are two alignments at Knowth for the two equinoxes.

The people who built these extraordinary buildings are thought to have been the first farmers in Ireland (as opposed to the hunter-gatherers who preceded them). It seems likely that the astronomical alignments were to do with some kind of rituals that marked the seasons of the year; the spring equinox would be associated with planting crops and the autumn equinox with harvesting.

The generally good state of preservation of Knowth is partly accidental: at some point in the Iron Age, a Celtic chief decided to build a fort on top of the main tumulus and dig a ditch around its perimeter. The soil removed from the ditch was used to build an embankment on the inside and that provided protection for the right of about 130 kerbstones that surrounds the tomb. Only three of these are missing. They are weathered and worn, which is hardly surprising given that they are 5000 years old, but can be seen in place:

The stones are all carved in different ways – a complete gallery can be found here – but their meaning is lost. As well as the kerbstones there are pieces of quartz and smooth granite stones like large round pebbles, which may have been used for some sort of ritual magic. There are also carved stones inside the monument, including one thought to depict the moon.

For me, it’s the fact that sites like this are so mysterious that makes them so fascinating. Five thousand years is just the blink of an eye on a geological or astronomical timescale, and no doubt the people who lived at Knowth were not all that different from you or I, but what they have left behind is unknowable. If there is life on Earth in 5000 years’ time, what will they think of our civilization?

The stones used at Knowth came from as far away as County Wicklow. It was once believed that these were lugged overland to their current location (which is in County Meath) but the land would probably have been heavily wooded at that time and it is now thought much more likely they were transported by river and sea, probably using log rafts.

As an added bonus you can climb on top of the monument. The view is grand. This is the view to the South, with the hills North of Dublin visible in the distance.

This is to the West; you can see the River Boyne.

The countryside, as you can see, is lovely. Irish agriculture is much less intensive than in England, with the result that woodland and hedgerows are much more abundant. It’s a pity that in so many minds the name `Boyne’ is just an excuse to use a battle that happened over 300 years ago to stir up sectarian conflict.

Anyway, that will have to do. I will definitely return to Brú na Bóinne in the not-too-distant future as I still have to see Newgrange and Dowth. I thoroughly recommend a trip there to anyone visiting Ireland. The professional guides were really good and the visitor’s centre contains excellent reconstructions of everyday life in the neolithic era.

No doubt for a group of particle physicists the site had a particular resonance:

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5 Responses to “Brú na Bóinne”

  1. david Whitehouse Says:

    Encounter with the moonstone!

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1205638.stm

  2. Thanks for yet another interesting post !

  3. As someone who has spent many a day in late December on the east coast of Ireland there is something very puzzling about Newgrange…the Sun rarely shines on the 21st of December so why bother?

    • telescoper Says:

      The climate was a bit warmer 5000 years ago, both in Ireland and the Western Isles of Scotland where megalithic structures are also found. Perhaps it was less likely to be cloudy at the solstice?

      • Simon Kemp Says:

        It’s a good question, as even with better climate, you’re going to get clouds lining up on the horizon at high airmass, blocking out the Sun. Though I think the rising Sunlight enters the passage at Newgrange for a week either side of the solstice, which improves the chances of seeing something.
        The equinox alignments at Knowth are interesting as there seem to be few significant alignments for equinoxes in the British Isles. I assume that if you are marking the daily sunset/sunrise positions then the solstices are interesting as they are the extreme positions but the equinox is just the midpoint between the extremes so it doesn’t seem so interesting. And if you don’t have clocks then you probably don’t realise that day and night are both 12 hours at the equinoxes. I wonder if equinocial alignments have more to do with significant dates for climate/agriculture and the association with equinoxes is coincidental.

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