I was recently in Meath, Ireland, for a friend’s wedding, and managed to combine the trip with a visit to Newgrange: a Neolithic passage tomb located 1km North of the River Boyne. Dating from 3200BC, the structure is older than the pyramids, and remains a baffling feat of engineering. Tests have shown that the rocks comprising the structure – vast slabs of limestone, chunks of quartz and perfect stone spheres – were sourced not only locally, but also from mountain quarries hundreds of miles away. Much like the megaliths of Stonehenge, no one knows how they were transported, and theories abound. Yet somehow, by sheer human endeavor, these enormous planks of rock were assembled, corbelled and stacked into a cone-shaped vault 6 metres in height, and insulated by a further 4 metres of rock overhead. It lay forgotten for 4000 years, and was rediscovered by accident in 1799, still perfectly watertight.
To reach the centre of the vault, we duck under a stone so-called ‘roof box’ and pass along a 52-foot S-shaped passage which rises almost imperceptibly underfoot, curving in sync with the natural ascent of the hill. Once inside, our guide draws our attention to the three alcoves and the cruciform (cross-shaped) layout of the chamber, and a sanding-stone whose basin-like, formal perfection resembles a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth. Above us, the walls and ceiling are stenciled with engravings: diamond-shaped lozenges, triple spirals and zig-zags, ancient art made by people whose way of life, and systems of meaning are lost. I felt like I had stepped into the ancient world of Genizah – the opera by my fellow Guildhall Operamakers, librettist Yashka Moore and composer Richard Melkonian, which explored the idea of lost histories, and premiered alongside Grace at Milton Court Studio Theatre this summer.
At this point, our guide turns off the lights, and we are plunged into darkness. Or so we think. After a few seconds, our eyes adjust to the gloom, and we notice that the passage we have just entered by is dimly lit; the stones reflecting the remnants of light from the outside world. There is silence. And this is when Newgrange reveals its sublime secret. The passage and tomb are built in alignment with the Winter solstice. At two minutes to nine, on the shortest day of the year, (and, we are told, one or two days either side of it), the sun’s rays enter the passage via the so-called ‘Roof box’ above the entrance. (Part of me wishes that the archeologist who discovered it had come up with a more celestial name, but little matter…) On a clear day, this golden beam of light slices along the enclosed pathway, reaching the centre of the tomb, where it remains for exactly 17 minutes.
After the tomb’s rediscovery in 1799, many visitors came and inscribed their initials into the rock, even including one of the archeologists who worked on excavating and restoring the site. Now the rocks are better protected from graffitiing visitors, but it made me ponder what these modes of inscription say about our different ages. Near Newgrange, there are hundreds of smaller, unexcavated ‘satellite tombs’, and to the East and West of the site, there are two other passage tombs, Dowth and Knowth, respectively aligned to the Summer solstice, and the Spring and Autumn equinoxes.
As I flew back from Ireland, I was travelling far closer to the sun than anyone from Neolithic – or indeed, eighteenth-century – civilisation could have dreamed possible. Yet, despite all the advances of science and technology, its movements and patterns are as alien to me as the symbols decorating the huge stones of Newgrange. The people who built it were from a community who travelled far and gazed upwards, in search of meaning, and who, it seems, gained a sense of meaning from the rhythms of the natural world around them.
As we leave the chamber, we pass the intricately decorated entrance stone, and our guide explains that the word for quartz in Irish means Sunstone. Innumerable, rough-hewn bricks of this white rock are set into the face of the barrow, and, she tells us, they glow and sparkle at sunrise.
I wonder what it meant, to capture and harness the light in this way, in a world without electricity. Cremated human remains were discovered at the heart of the chamber, prompting theories that they were left there to be transported to the next world, perhaps transformed by the light of the sun. No one knows. And as I return to London, the city is ablaze with Christmas lights on the darkest day, so that we barely notice the longest night drawing in. The shadowcasters of Newgrange, it seems, have taken their secrets with them, into the darkness… Happy Winter Solstice, all.