Three Ancient Observatories
The Boyne Valley, some 20 miles northwest of Dublin in County Meath, is one of the most remarkable sites on the planet, for there stands three monuments to the early settlers of Ireland, and their civilization. At first they appear to be huge mounds or hills, but closer investigation reveals them to be man-made structures. They are, in fact, more than 5000 years old and a celestial manifestation occurs there each December.
The oldest mound, Newgrange, is about 262 feet in diameter, surrounded by a border of 97 stones, some elaborately carved with one magnificently carved stone lying in front. The front of the mound is also ringed by enormous standing boulders. Behind the front stone is the entrance to a 65-foot passage to the center of the mound and a three-cove cruciform chamber. The entire structure is formed of interlacing corbeled stones without a bit of mortar, angled in such a way that no matter how wet the covering soil becomes, seeping water is directed away and the interior remains perfectly dry. The passage is the most interesting part of the structure as it is inclined at precisely the correct angle, and horizontally aligned to allow the rays of the rising sun to shine through a small opening above the entrance and illuminate the chambers. The remarkable thing is that this only happens at one specific time of the year – the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year and the point at which the power of the sun begins its annual return. The ancients who built the mound called it Bru na Boinne.
Ancient Irish manuscripts say it was built by the Tuatha De Danann, early inhabitants of Ireland who were such an advanced civilization that the Celtic settlers, who came after them, considered them possessed of magical powers and guided by the heavens. Today, it is obvious that their`guidance’ came from their advanced knowledge of astronomy – a knowledge unmatched in the known world at that time. To the Celts, Bru na Boinne was a domain of the gods, a palace of the otherworld, and a place of special offerings. Less than a mile on either side are two similar mounds: Knowth and Dowth, which are also astronomically aligned with celestial events.
Knowth, the second oldest of the three, is about 275 feet in diameter and outlined by 127 massive curbstones. There are two passages in Knowth, facing east and west. The west-facing one is curved while the east-facing one is cruciform-shaped like the one in Newgrange. These passages are reportedly aligned with the rising and setting sun on the Vernal and Autumnal equinoxes. Knowth has a huge amount of stone carvings which are said to be one quarter of all of Europe’s neolithic art!
Dowth, known as the fairy mound of darkness, also has two passages and shares the Winter Solstice alignment with Newgrange, but at the setting sun. Beginning in November, the rays of the setting sun move along the left side of the western passage, then into the circular chamber, where, at the winter solstice, it lights up three stones. The convex central stone of the three then reflects that sun light in to a dark recess, lighting up the decorated stones there. Then, until February the rays slowly recede along the right side of the passage and the sun withdraws from Dowth.
With the coming of Christianity, pagan monuments fell into disrepair and were eventually overgrown. In 1142, the land on which the mounds stood became part of the Cistercian Abbey at Mellifont. Farm fields were called granges and Bru na Boinne simply became the new grange. During the Williamite confiscation of church property, the now overgrown mounds were used as a source of stones for fences. In 1699, as workers were gathering stones from the new grange mound, they discovered the magnificent entrance stone. Further digging revealed the long narrow passage which led to the center of the mound and the three chambers. Authorities were notified and Welsh Naturalist Edward Lhuyd came to investigate. He was thus credited with the discovery of a monument that had been in the ancient Irish manuscripts and local tales for centuries. Mr. Lhuyd concluded that the great monument was a passage grave built by visiting Danes since nothing requiring such sophistication could ever be attributed to the Irish. In 1750, General Charles Vallencey, a British Army Engineer discovered its astronomical alignment, and advanced the theory that Newgrange was an astronomical observatory. He explained the standing boulders in front of the entrance as sun stones positioned tocast shadows on the carvings on the entrance stone to indicate the seasons. He credited considerable astronomical skill to its early Irish architects, but was ridiculed by colleagues who had never even seen the mound. In spite of local tales and writings which verified this phenomenon, no archaeologist took the time to investigate it until 1969, when MichaelO’Kelly entered the chamber before sunrise on the winter solstice and became the first modern archaeologist to witness that exciting event
Subsequent studies revealed that the structure was built around 3700 BC making it the oldest, still-standing, man-made building in the world. Since the average human lifespan at that time was only 35 years and it was estimated to have taken 70 years to build, we know that they weren’t built as tombs. Finally, in 1989, the New York Times, which is ever slow to credit Irish accomplishments, noted that a British journal had announced that the astrological alignment of Newgrange appeared to be by design rather than by accident and in 1993 the megalithic monuments of the Boyne Valley were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Welcome aboard!
In spite of the amount of verified information available on this remarkable historic site, some still stand with their backs to the Boyne Valley and stare in mock amazement at Stonehenge, marveling at the antiquity of a site constructed 1,000 years later. Or they wonder at the pyramids which were only started hundreds of years after the astronomical observatories in the Boyne Valley were already operating. It’s now December, and on the 21st, the mound at Bru na Boinne will again receive its annual message from the sun telling man that the days will now be getting longer and the long winter nights are over. How long will it be before the long night of ignorance is over as well and Irish intellectual significance is recognized?