Newgrange: a seasonal gift to the benevolent spirits.

Update: RTE will have a link here to Newgrange tomorrow morning (before 8.56 am) after checking out the lunar eclipse.
Each year a small media circus decamps for a brief moment at the winter solstice to Newgrange in County Meath. The following is a seasonal offering to anyone who wants a bit more background than is usually offered (although obviously reading the likes of Geraldine and Matt Stout’s Newgrange also helps). 

The mound at Newgrange has a complex history, with the famous roof box that allows the rising sun to light up the central chamber on the 21st December (and a couple of days either side) merely being part of one of the earliest phases, dating to around 3100 BC. While the roof box may have remained open, later activity blocked the entrance to the chamber which was via a stone-lined passage (hence the name ‘passage tomb’). This occured some time before around 2500 BC, meaning that when Michael J O’Kelly, the UCC professor who led the modern excavations, had his Howard Carter moment, he was the first person to witness the phenomenon in 4,500 years. O’Kelly had made an educated guess during his excavations on the purpose of the re-exposed the roof box after he had removed material during his excavations that had accumulated in the passage and chamber. So, on the 21st December 1967, O’Kelly stood in the chamber and watched the rising sun cast it’s light through the roof box

Steadily deeper, farther available,
Creeping along the floor of the passage grave
To backstone and capstone, to hold its candle
Inside the cosmic hill.
(Seamus Heaney, Dream of Solstice).

After the partially restored tomb was re-opened to the public in 1968, access to witness the solstice event remained unrestricted until 1979 when the crowd of 50 was too large to fit within the chamber. From that date onwards the Office of Public Works has managed various processes to win a place (currently a lottery with, typically, 40,000 entries with several of the 2o odd places set aside for VIPs). In 1980, 200 visitors turned up hoping to get in, with those that were disappointed happily singing The Beatles song “Here Comes The Sun”. This was also the last year that O’Kelly attended before his death in 1982. The last time I was there (outside!), in 2006, the VIPs included most of the PDs anticipating the loss of their seats in the 2007 election (keep an eye out for any surprises among those VIPs who visit this year).

The interchange of officialdom and Newgrange as an aspect of Irish and our wider shared heritage is embodied in the tangled story of the facade erected at the front of the tomb following O’Kellys excavation and the subsequent restoration and re-presentation to the public (in Ireland and abroad). The huge white wall which greets the visitor was proposed by O’Kelly as early as 1966 (in this regard, O’Kelly’s work at Newgrange was in a much shorter period than that at Knowth where Prof George Eogan dug for 20 years longer). While the imposing facade which greets the visitor alludes to some prehistoric greatness, it is largely illusory. In the short time he had to consider the problem, O’Kelly assumed the bulk of the mound was as early as 3100 BC (it may be much later) and had to invoke a retaining wall (the facade) to support it. Subsequent commentators have misunderstood why he did this and rightly identified contradictions in the reported results of O’Kelly’s excavation that show the facade does not fit with the known sequence at the site (e.g. see an on-off debate on this in the journal Antiquity). Either way, the facade is a fiction although, officially it appears impossible to recognise this (possibly a metaphor of sorts for modern Ireland).

For the majority of those who turn up on the day, they do get to witness the external aspect of the solstice. From the outside, the sunlight creeps up the outer apron of the tomb, onto the external circle of huge standing stones and over the fabulously decorated entrance stone. The convergence of beliefs and values at Newgrange on the solstice is wonderfully illustrated by an episode when the edge of the sunlight was almost hampered by the sizeable crowd, later commemorated by Susan Connolly in her poem Sunpath:

The Garda
Stretched out his hand
Over a sea of people
Don’t block the way!
Let the sun shine
Into Newgrange!

Like walls of water
We drew aside.

The passage,
A prisoner of darkness
All year long,
became a shining sunpath.

One hint of how Newgrange was perceived by its ancient visitors is provided by a small fragment of a gold bracelet recovered by O’Kelly. This object had an abbreviated 3rd/4th century AD Latin inscription SCBONS:MB (for more and an image see here). This has much in common with modern txtspk and is considered indecipherable, but there is a rough parallel from a bog in Ecclefechan in Scotland which includes the formula DMB. The MB (or DMB) refers to the Manes, the spirits of Roman belief (the ‘D’ refers to the ‘gods of the spirits’). The offering at Newgrange was to the ‘spirits’, with the SCBONS either a shortened form of a name, giving something like Scribonius manibus (‘from Scribonius to the Spirits’), or the much neater sacra bonis manibus translating as ‘an offering to the benevolent spirits’.

So, if you want some inspiration for these recessionary times, check out the timelessness of the solstice on the RTE webcast (I’ll link it once the link is available) and then enjoy the rest of the festive season knowing that, even on the shortest day, the sun always rises.

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