Image: Global Grasshopper
Day Two: Drive to Newgrange
The Newgrange Heritage Site in County Meath is one of Ireland’s archaeological treasures, and one of the world’s most important megalithic sites. The Bru na Boinne complex (meaning “Palace of the Boyne,” named for the river it straddles) is dominated by three major prehistoric structures: Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth. These forgotten passage tombs were uncovered for the first time in the 1700s during quarrying, and underwent massive restoration in recent years. Today Bru na Boinne is a protected UNESCO world heritage site.
The drive from County Longford to County Meath was adventurous enough, thanks to the Garmin satnav which did a hilarious job of pronouncing the daunting Gaelic town names and navigating the winding Irish back roads. By the time we made it to Newgrange – map in hand, scratching our heads – we left with instructions to take the next 7 right turns to get to the front of the visitor center! The friendly girl at the window sounded as if she was quite used to the routine of redirecting hapless tourists…
The Bru na Boinne visitor center is full of reconstructions and replicas of the structures (since cameras aren’t allowed inside during the guided tours). Our bus took us over the Boyne River and to the Newgrange site, the best-known of the passage tombs. Nearly 5,000 years ago (before the famous Egyptian pyramids) its builders imported stone from all over Ireland for this massive construction project. Because of the quality and precision of its design, and its sheer scope and size, it is still considered an architectural masterpiece today.
When it was excavated and renovated in the 1960′s, archaeologists discovered the famous marvel of the solstice alignment, executed by these mysterious prehistoric engineers to illuminate the resting places on the darkest day of the year. The guide did a fascinating (and slightly claustrophobic!) demonstration of this during the tour.
Perhaps the most amazing part of the experience was the part I couldn’t capture in photos – the layers of artwork that surround you when you stand inside the narrow passageway. Figurative symbols are carved on every part of the stonework, even the ceiling, whose precise meanings remaining a mystery to most scholars. It was moving just to run my hands over the centuries-old graffiti from later visitors who left their names and dates engraved in the walls, from long before it was a protected site. How strange to be in a place when “1780″ is new!
And the final highlights: on a tip from a friend, I searched out the delicately-carved likeness of a fern, standing out among all the other abstract symbolism with its realism and detail. What inspired them to make this lone impression, one wonders? And finally, a small handprint, embossed into the stone in the back of the passage, perhaps the signature of a prehistoric artist, like those found in the painted caves. My hand fit it perfectly.