Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Newgrange Passage Tomb - Drogheda

Today was Chris' last day before returning to London, and being quite cool weatherwise was pretty much ideal for an excursion to Newgrange as it meant Bondi could snooze in the car safely. We checked out of our B&B and got to Brú na Bóinne around 11.45. This is the visitor centre shared by a number of passage tombs in the area. From this centre, one is bussed to one or more of the tombs and escorted around the site(s).

We had an hour to kill at the centre before the next bus tour, so we looked through the very well furnished museum and watched a short film about the construction of the site. At just 5000 years old, this tomb is older than the Egyptian pyramids.

Out at the site, set on a high hillside our guide took us through the history of the region, and of the much shorter recorded history of the site. Much like the Mayan pyramids at Tikal in Guatemala, this site had become overgrown and its exact nature shrouded by history. Newgrange, the two other large tombs and dozens of other smaller satellite tombs, became wrapped in Ireland's own mythic lore and associated both with its kings and with tales of its faerie folk. About 300 years ago, the entrance to the passage leading underneath was uncovered, and then for about 200 years access was uncontrolled - leading to some damage and graffiti. In the late 19th century, the government took control, but systematic extensive archaeological work did not commence till the 1960s. The site became open to the public in the last decade or so.

It was only during the late 60s that it was found that the tomb had an astronomical significance: at sunrise on the winter solstice (Dec 21) a thin pencil of light enters through a "roof box" over the main entrance, travels up the 19m passage to the small chamber inside the tomb, and then recedes after about 17minutes. A brief simulation of this is carried out with each small visiting party of ~15.

The narrow passage and small chamber inside are believed to be the only open space within the approximately one acre taken up by the tomb, so the cremated remains of those brought to be housed in it must have been very significant. Think of a site the size of a modern sports complex where you can basically walk through a small entrance to a ticket office, and then find that there is actually nowhere else to go in the entire building.

The creation of the tomb required considerable planning, and would have taken place over a several short generations (expected lifespan being in the 25-30yr range). Thousands of tons of rocks were assembled, and arranged via the corbelling method that I saw in the Gallarus Oratory on Dingle a few weeks before, keeping the insides dry for 5000 years. Certain types of rock were brought from other areas: the quartz on the front side of the tomb exterior came from Wicklow, 80km to the south. The present quartz arrangement is a reconstruction as it had collapsed around the base of the fort, and of course the builders had long since scarpered. The main archeologist on this site rebuilt the wall and collapsed it several times until it matched the fallen state. The little round river rocks dotting it have been placed at random: it's thought that they may have formed a pattern initially, but there are no clues to what that might have been.

After we'd finished there, I thought we could go into the nearby large town Drogheda for a late lunch. That turned out to be an unfortunate choice, and the place just seemed too awful to stand for more than an hour. Getting out of there proved more difficult - I think road-signs for exits were discouraged so that residents didn't escape. When we finally did make our way out, and had passed through several dismal coast towns, we were quite desperate for anywhere we could sit down for a decent meal.

Finally, as we passed through Skerries, I spotted somewhere that looked quite nice, and Chris screamed for me to stop with (probably understandable) great intensity. 'The Olive' turned out to be a very good choice, and an amazing oasis after the Drogheda experience. After lunch we looked for the Skerries Mill/Tourist Centre, which had a huge car-park and a lone taxi parked in it. The centre seemed to be very lovingly put together but without anything substantially interesting to see. There was a photographic exhibition which seemed to be comprised mainly of archival photos of train-spotting enthusiasts celebrating their day's recordings in various pubs. It all seemed like taking local history to an unusually ridiculous end.

1 comment:

  1. I'm pretty sure that the actor Christopher Ryan (Young Ones "Mike", Ab Fab "Marshall") was in our tour group for Newgrange.