Newgrange is a 5,000-year-old Neolithic passage tomb located approximately 30 miles northwest of Dublin, Ireland. It is the most prominent feature in a complex of ancient structures known as Brú na Bóinne. Constructed around 3,200 B.C., Newgrange is 1,000 years older than Stonehenge and 600 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza.

The monument is a roughly circular cairn, or man-made pile of stones, that covers about an acre of land. The inner chamber has a cruciform layout. The top and side sections of the cross end in recesses that contain basin stones. These bowl-shaped granite stones once held human remains. The chamber’s corbelled roof has never leaked. The exterior is lined with 97 large boulders called kerbstones. These include the entrance stone, which is ornately decorated with carved swirl patterns. There are also several carved standing stones surrounding the site. Excavators discovered a rectangular “roof box” above the entrance to the tomb in the 1960s.

Entrance to Newgrange Passage Tomb Source:Wikimedia Commons
Entrance to Newgrange Passage Tomb Source:Wikimedia Commons

Newgrange is best known for its astronomical alignment with the rising sun on the winter solstice. On the morning of December 21, a shaft of sunlight enters the roof box and floods the chamber for approximately 17 minutes. This discovery suggests that Newgrange may have been used as an observatory, clock, and spiritual center, as well as a tomb. Experts speculate that the deliberate illumination of the chamber on this date might have marked the beginning of the new year, or symbolized the afterlife.

While referenced in Irish mythology and literature, the tomb became overgrown and dilapidated over the millennia. The entrance was rediscovered in 1699 when the landowner, Charles Campbell, decided to reuse stones from the grassy mound elsewhere on his farm. Once unsealed, Newgrange remained open until the 1960s.

Professor Michael J. O'Kelly excavated and restored the site from 1962-1975, finding the remains of at least five people; most of the bones had been cremated. The monument probably contained many more remains before it was disturbed in 1699. O’Kelly also unearthed beads, pendants, a flint flake, polished stone balls, a bone chisel, and parts of several bone pins.

The cairn is made up of 200,000 tons of water-rolled stones from the River Boyne. Many of the granite boulders came from the Mourne Mountains and Carlingford, up to 60 miles away. It has been estimated that the mound was constructed by approximately 300 people from the local farming community over a period of at least 30 years. According to Irish legend, Newgrange was built by the mythical Tuatha Dé Danann race for their chief, Dagda Mór, his son Oengus, or the god Lugh, father of the hero Cuchulain. Together with the nearby sites of Knowth and Dowth, Newgrange was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.