Older than the Pyramids: Newgrange and Knowth. Ireland’s Ancient East Amazes

Older than the Pyramids: Newgrange and Knowth
Ireland’s Ancient East Amazes
Arriving at Knowth
Highlight of last week’s few days in County Meath was undoubtedly the visit to Newgrange, to the chamber there in particular. Some people are inclined to turn their noses up at a tour of nearby Knowth (sometimes that is all that’s available) but that’s a big mistake. It is well worth visiting Knowth - it is bigger than Newgrange and has more attractions, certainly much more stone art. But is doesn't have a chamber, or at least a chamber that the visitor can access.

All access to both these magnificent sites is through the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre. No point in going to the trouble of finding Newgrange or Knowth yourself - you won’t be allowed in. All the info you need to do it correctly is here at the Irish Heritage site .

 The problem for visitors from outside Meath, and there are thousands from home and abroad, is that you cannot book in advance. You must go in person to the Visitor Centre for these passage tombs and book a tour for that day. So it makes sense. If want an early tour, you must go early. And on busy days, you may have to settle for an afternoon tour.

We had been tipped off about getting there early but, after been given some incorrect info, also after an interesting longish conversation with a Swiss film director at breakfast in Teltown House and an error on the road (blame it on the Sat-Nav!), we didn't arrive that early. It was certainly after 10.30am.

Lunch. Smoked Salmon & Leek
The car park was close to full but, fortunately, they have an overflow. We could see the queues as we entered the center. The staff were rushed off their feet. “It is our busiest day of the year so far,” one told us. The fact that admission was free - it is free to all OPW sites on the first Wednesday of each month - may have had something to do with the crowds. Maybe not; I didn't know about it and I doubt that the thousands from abroad did either.

But the staff were brilliant, right through from from reception, to the cafe, to the coach drivers, to the guides. We asked for the Newgrange tour, not expecting a good answer. Nothing available until 2.45pm. But the helpful lady didn't leave it at that. “Why not go to Knowth? You can leave your car where it is. Take a look around the display at the centre. Walk over to the bus area for 11.45. You’ll be back in time for lunch. Maybe take another look around the centre and then go to Newgrange.” Day sorted!
Knowth (left) and "satellite"
So we did just that. After all, these sites have been here for over 5,000 years so why not have a little patience, give them the full day. The exhibits in the centre are excellent, all kinds of media in use and lots of large models to explore. Loads of info on everything from clothing to food, the things that you read about nowadays under the Lifestyle section of your newspaper!

The diet was healthy too, lots of berries, nuts and apples. Fat Hen (Chenopodium album) was common and “was used much as we use spinach or cabbage today but it had even more iron, protein and calcium..”.
 Soon, it was time to head over to the bus circle. We loaded up, fastened our belts and headed up the mainly narrow country road past dwellings large and small and through farmland. Less than ten minutes later, we were being greeted by our guide at windy Knowth (we would have a walk on top later), a brilliant companion who urged us above all to have an open mind as these mounds may not have been burial places at all. After the first inhabitants, there were many others including Christians and Normans.

He pointed out the art on the large stones at the base of the mounds. These supporting stones were later covered with tonnes and tonnes of soil and stone and with all kinds of grass, bushes and trees as the centuries rolled up, so that they eventually looked like nice little hills and their true nature was hidden for centuries. Even when “discovered”, it takes about forty years for the archaeologists to do their work and then, maybe, they can be opened to the public.

Exhibit in visitor centre
 There are many “satellite” mounds in the vicinity of Knowth, none up close to Newgrange. There is a third large mound, known as Dowth, but we didn't get to see that on the day and it didn't seem to be on offer at reception even though it is mentioned at the website. It is, in any case, not yet excavated, like many more smaller mounds in the area.

Back then on the bus and we were returned to the centre. The café was busy but no bother at all in getting a decent plate of food. Took our time with that and, when finished, we returned to the exhibition area and did a little shopping as well. The shop stocks good quality souvenirs, Irish yes but not “Oirish!

In visitor centre
The time wasn't long passing and soon we were on the coach again. We followed part of the same route as earlier before splitting off to the Newgrange site. Our guide this time told us about the well known “front wall” that you see in photographs. She told us that all the stones used were found on site. The history of the place, of course, is much the same as Knowth, both older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids!

Our group had to split in two as we took turns to enter the small cruciform chamber. Before we went in we were shown the “door” and the “light-box” above it where the sunlight enters at the Winter solstice. It is narrow in there - you need to be careful but everyone got in, safe and sound.
Again there are various theories about the use of these chambers, nothing though that can be taken as definite. Were they burial sites? The remains found there, by the way, were what was left after cremation. Were they constructed in the hope of the light of the sun somehow renewing life? Was there some magic involved?

The magic that can be seen though is above your head. Here all the big slabs are laid, the ones above jutting a little out over the ones immediately below (corbelling is the term) to form a biggish dome and, at the top, there is a large capstone which, of course, is covered by hundreds of tons of soil and stones.
Newgrange stone art (in front of entrance)
 And, then another little bit of magic, this with the aid of an electric lamp. First though, all the lights are turned off. It is completely dark. And then we see the beam, on the floor, not at an angle but straight along the floor. Just like the sun light in mid December. When we walked the short distance to the chamber, we were ascending (not that we realised it) and the floor here is on the same level as the “light-box”. Five thousand years ago!

Soon we were out in the open for a walk around and, when finished, headed out to the bus, passing a car-load at the entrance trying to get in without first going to nearby Visitor Centre. Not a hope! Be warned.

See also: Meath and Ireland's Ancient East

Historic Martry Mill on Meath’s Blackwater

More stone art

Newgrange chamber entrance,
with "light-box" above the opening.