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by Irene Butler
(for Travel Writers' Tales)

My husband Rick and I are intrigued to hear of tombs dating back to 3,200 BC - making them 1000 years older than Stonehenge and 400 years older than the Pyramids of Giza!

We drive from Dublin to the archeological landscape of Brú na Bóinne, with its three major tombs - Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth (with smaller satellite tombs around). At the Visitor's Centre we are swept up in the intrigue of these Neolithic places of ritual, called Passage Tombs, for their long entries into the burial chamber. Cairns were built above each tomb and the mounds encased in kerbstones; many of these gigantic stones bearing chiseled markings. Following the Neolithics (3000 - 2000 BC), the tombs continued to be used in succession by Iron Age civilizations, early Christians, and Normans.

We line up to catch the shuttle to Newgrange, the most visited tomb. Its mound with 97 kerbstones covers an acre. Lindsey, our guide, points out that during the restoration process soil and grass were added to the cairn rocks to help preserve the tombs; ledges were also built out from on top of the kerbstones to keep them from weathering. "The white quartz, once on the ground at the entrance to the tomb, was incorporated into a side wall at reconstruction time. This type of stone is found over 70km away - so it is thought pilgrims may have brought these stones with them."

"Those who are not claustrophobic follow me," says Lindsey. Passing the mega entrance stone with its mysterious swirls, we enter the narrow tunnel. Even with my sideways crab-walk my jacket brushes the stone along its 19m length, and I often scrunch down in places where the ceiling dips. I look back to see how Rick is faring; his larger stature acts as a plug to most of the natural light from the tunnel entrance.

My breath catches as we enter the dimly lit burial chamber, with space enough to fit the dozen people in our group. Lindsey's voice resonates with an eerie echo, "The corbelled roof rising 6m from the floor is as it was 5000 years ago; it has never been restored." I look in wonder at the huge layered rock slabs with small stones wedged between to absorb the weight stress, which with another 4m of cairn stone above the roof is immense.

Lindsey draws our attention to stone basins on opposite sides of the cruciform chamber where the bones of the dead were placed during ritual, and to arcane designs on the back wall. "This chamber was discovered in 1699 by the farmer who owned the land. It remained in private ownership for 200 years," says Lindsey, "and during that time these inner walls suffered graffiti and it's not known what was removed."

It is time to envision what eyes witnessed for thousands of years. Lindsey turns off the lights. We stand in total darkness for a few moments. She then clicks a switch. A thin shaft of pale light appears through the opening above the entrance door. I watch with bated breath as it slowly moves along the tunnel with increasing brightness. Whispered "oohs" and "aahs" escape our small gathering. In this replication of the winter solstice, the light crosses the chamber floor and illuminates us in a golden glow.

In ancient times, and still today during the December 21st solstice, the chamber remains lit for 17 minutes. This heralding of increasingly longer days was no doubt met with jubilation by these ancients for its promise of spring and crops to replenish their dwindling food supply after the long winter. About one thousand years ago Newgrange was abandoned, for reasons unknown - perhaps famine or war.

Outside again, we have time to wander on our own and examine the decorative swirls on the kerbstones, their meaning now lost. Two-thirds of all the Neolithic artwork in Europe is here. Each stone weighs from 1 to 10 tons, and it is believed they were brought up the Boyne River by raft-type boats, then dragged on cut logs to the site. It recently took 80 men 4 days to move a kerbstone this distance. It is estimated to have taken 50 to 100 years to build Newgrange which, with the Neolithics' lifespan of 30 to 35 years, meant generations.

Whisked away from our captivating glimpse of long-ago human existence, we remain in awe of their engineering and astrological skills - and enveloped by an aura of mystique like a silent breath.


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More info:
Newgrange and Knowth are by shuttle bus guided tours only - arranged at Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre. Dowth site has unrestricted access, but no access to chambers. We rented a car, but Bus Eireann operates a bus service between the Visitor Centre and the city of Drogheda, in conjunction service to Drogheda from Dublin.

PHOTOS: by Rick Butler unless otherwise indicated.

1. Author and Entrance Stone
2. Burial mound covers an acre
3.Newgrange chamber: Courtesy of National Monuments Service, Dept. of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht
4.One of the 97 kerbstones
5. White quartz brought by pilgrims


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