Newgrange and the Irish ‘Passage Tombs’

Has Their True Age Been Drastically Underestimated?

Traveling through Ireland (June 2018), I had the opportunity to visit many ancient megalithic structures, including a number of “passage tombs,” the greatest and most famous of which is Newgrange. According to standard archaeological analyses, these so-called passage tombs date to the fourth millennium BCE (Newgrange specifically is conventionally dated to circa 3200 BCE) and were constructed by the Neolithic people who inhabited Ireland at that time. Some of these structures include beautiful “abstract designs” and “ornamentation” pecked, engraved, and carved on various surfaces of the stones used in their construction. Overall the monuments can be enormous. Newgrange, for instance, is about 279 feet (85 meters) at its widest dimension (it is a slightly flattened circle in aerial view), approximately 40 feet (12 meters) high at its apex (it was once even higher), and consists of an estimated 200,000 tons of rock and debris. Megaliths, referred to as kerbstones, delineate the outer perimeter.

Newgrange is famous for its southeast-facing entrance marked by a now iconic carved kerbstone. The interior passage extends some 62 feet (19 meters), ending in a chamber 17 feet (5 meters) long with two side chambers or niches. Capstones cover the passage, one of which is estimated to weigh some ten tons. But the most significant aspect of the construction is that on the winter solstice, barring cloud cover, just as the Sun rises above the local horizon, a beam of light shines down the passage to the back chamber. It is described as a stunning, mystical, and deeply moving experience when observed in person.

White quartz stones were found in abundance around, in front of, and on either side of the entrance, leading some to speculate that Newgrange was once either covered with white quartz or had some sort of retaining wall of white quartz. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Newgrange—which up to then had the external appearance of a grass-covered mound—was “restored” with a near vertical wall of reinforced concrete on the southeastern portion covered with white quartz, but this is certainly not what it looked like originally. It has been considered one of the “world’s worst archaeological reconstructions” (G. Stout and M. Stout, Newgrange, 2008/2016, Cork University Press, p. 6). If they got something as fundamental as the external façade wrong, could the archaeologists be wrong about the date as well?

As compared to the conventional archaeological chronology, the traditional—admittedly “mythological”—history of the passage tombs and other megalithic structures of Ireland provides a very different chronology, one going back to the end of the last ice age (circa 12,000 years ago). Jack Roberts writes:

“Mythology tells us about how the sacred sites on the landscape of Ireland were created and of how the goddesses and gods came into being. At first the great shaping of the earth is done by the many-legged armor plated monster Mata, or Muc Dubh, the Black Pig, who is said to have carved out the Boyne Valley and other large-scale sculpting of the land. This might be a memory of the last ice age, for such long-term retention of the memory of the flood of ice does exist amongst indigenous people in parts of the northern world. Next came the great mother goddess, the Cailleach Mór, who flew across the land scattering stones from her apron on those special places where the sacred centers would be. This declared the places where the deities would reside and the places from which the earth goddesses would rule the land.” (Jack Roberts, 2016, The Sacred Mythological Centres of Ireland, Bandia Publishing, Ireland, p. 4)

It is more than a little interesting to me that the author, Jack Roberts, of the passage above suggests that the mythology includes recollections of the last ice age. Likewise, a local interpreter/guide mentioned the idea that the great mother goddess was a recollection of the glaciers leaving piles of stones behind as they melted and retreated at the end of the last ice age. Speculatively, I suggest that we might even entertain the thought that perhaps these myths not only refer to natural changes in the landscape caused by glaciers that covered much of Ireland during the last ice age, but refer to people and their sacred sites during this early period as well.

The standard dogma among archaeologists, however, is that people did not settle in Ireland until around two thousand years after the end of the last ice age, during the period known as the Mesolithic. It is true that much of Ireland was covered with glaciers during the last ice age, but this does not mean that the island was completely uninhabitable. There was a glacier-free zone in southern Ireland (C. Cofaigh, M. Telfer, R. Bailey, and D. Evans, 2012, “Late Pleistocene Chronostratigraphy and Ice Sheet Limits, Southern Ireland,” Quaternary Science Reviews) that could well have been amenable to human populations. As the late Irish archaeologist Peter Woodman (1943–2017) wrote in his magnum opus (2015, Ireland’s First Settlers: Time and the Mesolithic, Oxbow Books, UK, p. 175), when archaeologists have a preconceived notion that something does not exist, then they tend to not recognize evidence for that something.

“If there is an ingrained assumption that no human settlement took place before the Mesolithic, then a self-fulfilling prophecy that there is nothing there will ensure the chance of the discovery of earlier settlement will remain minimal… The presence of the informed amateur or the field archaeologist who is prepared to look beyond conventional wisdom may be as important as the chance survival of evidence.”

Only a year after his book was published (and in the year prior to his death), Professor Woodman’s words took on new meaning. Definitive evidence of human occupation in Ireland during the late ice age was identified. An ancient bear patella (kneecap) with ancient cut marks due to human butchering of the animal was identified from a cave in southwestern Ireland and radiocarbon dated to circa 10,860 to 10,640 BCE, well within the time frame of the late ice age (M. Dowd and R. F. Carden, 2016, “First Evidence of a Late Upper Palaeolithic Human Presence in Ireland,” Quaternary Science Reviews).

This specimen had actually been discovered in 1903 and stored away in the National Museum of Ireland collections, but was not properly analyzed and dated for over a century! One has to wonder what other unrecognized evidence for the early human habitation of Ireland may be packed away.

Visiting Newgrange, as well as the site of Knowth and other so-called megalithic “passage tombs”, several things continually came to my mind. First, everywhere I looked, it seemed I found evidence of rebuilding and reuse of earlier materials. Perhaps the overall structures we see today (taking into account the modern excavations and reconstructions) date to the period of about 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, but quite evidently the people at that time were not the first. Many of the stones, for instance, show evidence of having been carved, re-carved, and re-carved again; and, in many instances, older carvings are hidden behind structural elements, evidence of the reuse of older rocks in what to us are now extremely ancient structures (R. Hensey, 2015/2017, First Light: The Origins of Newgrange, Oxbow Books, UK).

Second, the ornamentation and engravings found on the kerbstones and within the passages and chambers remind me of solar images, which is not unexpected. As one author points out, “Most visitors to Newgrange say that they feel the spiral designs represent the sun” (Liam Mac Uistin, 1999/2017, Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth, O’Brien Press, Dublin, p. 69).

I would go further, however, and suggest that these depict various aspects of solar events and, in particular, events that occurred at the end of the last ice age—a subject that I am currently analyzing in detail.

Third, these were not merely tombs. Archaeologists virtually unanimously agree that Newgrange and other so-called passage tombs were being actively utilized by living humans during the fourth millennium BCE. Yes, human bones and ashes from cremations have been found in the structures, but this no more means that they were primarily tombs than it means that Medieval and Renaissance churches were simply tombs because they contain burials under their floors along with monuments to the deceased.

Anthony Murphy, in his book Newgrange: Monument to Immortality (2012, The Liffey Press, Dublin), has made an observation that I find quite intriguing. Newgrange is known for, above all, its orientation to the winter solstice. Murphy points out that in the present day (twenty-first century) the winter solstice occurs when the Sun is located between the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpio. On the summer solstice the Sun is located between Gemini and Taurus, and the outstretched arm of Orion (whose body is below Taurus) seems to reach up and catch the Sun. However, due to precession, some 13,000 years ago (near the end of the last ice age), the situation was reversed. At that time Orion appeared to be grabbing the Sun on the winter solstice, and on the summer solstice the Sun appeared in the region of Sagittarius and Scorpio. Orion is known to have been an incredibly important constellation for many ancient peoples. Some 12,000 to 13,000 years ago, Orion was marked and memorialized on the Giza Plateau of Egypt by the positions of the current three major pyramids (as discovered by my colleague Robert Bauval and formalized in his Orion Correlation Theory for Giza; see R. Schoch and R. Bauval, Origins of the Sphinx, 2017, Inner Traditions). Likewise, at this same early period some of the major structures at Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey were oriented toward the region of the sky containing Orion, but in this case, on the vernal equinox (Robert Schoch, Forgotten Civilization, 2012, Inner Traditions).

In Egypt, Orion in the sky was equated with the god Osiris and with the epoch of Zep Tepi representing the “first time,” a primordial “golden age,” a time when the “gods” inhabited Earth and spread civilization among humanity. This, in my assessment, refers back to the cycle of civilization that existed at the end of the last ice age (and was decimated by the solar outburst(s) and attendant calamities that occurred circa 9700 BCE, ending the ice age). We do not know for certain who or what Orion represented for the people of Göbekli Tepe, but the giant anthropomorphic faceless pillars with prominent arms, hands at their navels, fancy belts (the belt stars of Orion form one of the most prominent asterisms in the sky), and fox-pelt loincloths suggest that these are representations of Orion as some form of towering god—possibly a harbinger and provider of laws, technologies, and civilization to an until then relatively “primitive” society. In Ireland, according to Anthony Murphy, Orion in the sky was associated with a number of gods and founding heroes, including Lugh who brought (or was associated with) arts, crafts, laws, truth, and so forth—the attributes of civilization—to Ireland. Lugh was, interestingly, also sometimes associated with both storms and the Sun; could this be a remembrance of the solar outbursts that ended the last ice age?

Returning to Newgrange, is it significant that there may be an Orion correlation here also during the late ice age? Many of my academic colleagues would argue that such a notion is nonsensical, as Newgrange was not constructed until the late fourth millennium BCE, more than 6,000 years after the end of the last ice age. However, I would respond with: while there is plenty of evidence that Newgrange and other “passage tombs” and megalithic structures were being used 6,000 to 5,000 years ago, they did not necessarily originate at that time. As acknowledged even by status quo archaeologists, there is considerable evidence that at least some of the stones in Newgrange and other “Neolithic” monuments were reused from older constructions. Embedded within the current structure we refer to as Newgrange, is an earlier mound; “what it [this earlier mound] covered remains one of the enduring mysteries of Newgrange” (Stout and Stout, p. 13). In at least some cases the people inhabiting Ireland during the fourth millennium BCE were appropriating, rebuilding, building over, and reusing earlier structures—just as the dynastic Egyptians appropriated, reused, repaired, and re-carved an older statue of a lioness (the goddess Mehit) to create the Great Sphinx (see RobertSchoch.com). In maintaining the orientation of Newgrange toward the winter solstice over 5,000 years ago, these ancient people were commemorating an even earlier epoch, the memory of which was passed down through their collective traditions.

Regarding Orion, something else that Anthony Murphy points out is that from the vantage point of Newgrange 12,000 to 13,000 years ago, only the upwardly extended arm of Orion would have been visible above the horizon. Many millennia later, due to changes caused by precession, the entire constellation rose above the horizon. However, many millennia earlier, well back into the ice age, the totality of Orion would also have been visible. Possibly, very ancient traditions remembered when Orion had been seen in full view, and also recorded how Orion slowly sank below the horizon; they expected Orion to emerge once again. That is, they were making careful astronomical observations and passing down this information from one generation to the next. Regarding the association of Lugh with Orion, as discussed above, I find it telling that Lugh is sometimes referred to as Lámfada, which means, “long arm.” Could this be a reference to the long arm of Orion rising above the horizon (as viewed from Newgrange) at the end of the last ice age?

As far as traditions in Ireland being passed down reliably over many millennia, conventional scholars have marveled that this indeed appears to have been the case. For instance, the acknowledged authorities on Newgrange, Geraldine Stout and Matthew Stout, have noted that Newgrange was apparently “abandoned” before 2000 BCE, yet thousands of years later, during the early centuries of the Christian era, pilgrims were visiting the site. They write (p. 94), “It is difficult to imagine stories being passed down about a place for over seven hundred generations, but how else can the maintenance of the special place accorded to Newgrange right into the historic period be explained?” Yes, they wrote “seven hundred generations,” and if we allow twenty years per generation, this comes to an astounding 14,000 years! Perhaps they meant to write “seventy generations.” If so, their point, that oral traditions can be passed down accurately over centuries and millennia, is still made.

Putting all of the evidence together, I am convinced that Newgrange (as well as many similar ancient structures in Ireland) is much more than a “Neolithic passage tomb.” It has a much deeper and richer history, with its origins going back to a much earlier era, than is standardly acknowledged by the archaeological mainstream. I agree with Professor Woodman’s assessment (quoted above) regarding the importance of looking “beyond conventional wisdom.”

 

Robert M. Schoch, Director of the Institute for the Study of the Origins of Civilization at Boston University, a full-time faculty member at B.U.’s College of General Studies, and an Honorary Professor at the Nikola Vaptsarov Naval Academy, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale University. Best known for re-dating the Great Sphinx, he is the author of Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future, and many other books. Website: http://www.robertschoch.com.

By Robert M. Schoch, Ph.D.