NEWGRANGE: Rock Art and Celestial Influence

Newgrange – a mysterious site dated six hundred years older than the Egyptian pyramids, prior to Stonehenge – is one of the oldest and best examples of a megalithic passage tomb found in County Meath, Ireland. Little is known about Newgrange and its erection. Some argue that it is an astronomical observatory religious in nature whereas others believe it to be a territorial marker. Besides archeological studies, an ethnographic reading of folklore and oral history passed down from generations could assist with its deciphering. Myths and legend are often disregarded, but they may be the best insight into understanding this man-made structure as well as Ireland’s earliest civilization. Celtic legend absorbed much of the beliefs of the Tuatha Dé Danann, an ancient line of people preceding the Celts who are said to have built Newgrange. Thus, Celtic mythology can link history and meaning to this early monument through correlation with megalithic petroglyphs.


It is popularly believed that Newgrange was built as a massive funerary mound. While the remains of five bodies were excavated from the site, the most unusual feature of Newgrange is its connection with the winter solstice and the natural landscape. This physical feature suggests planned construction for a sacred environment beyond burial. Newgrange blends in with its surroundings and is almost hidden within the environment as grass completely covers the top (Fig. 1). This megalithic structure is thought to exist near an early settlement and has substantial importance to Neolithic culture, though it is unlikely that Newgrange was intended for daily use. If it were so, other materials from the area could have been used, such as wood. Quartz and granite stone were used instead, which indicates that the passage tomb was constructed to withstand the test of time and that it was specifically designated for spiritual, memorial, or ceremonial uses.


The exterior wall wrapping around the passage tomb is exceptionally decorated (Fig. 2). Celtic folklore says that the Milky Way (Fig. 3) and Cygnus constellation (Fig. 4) inspired its construction. Small stones protrude all around the exterior in a random pattern. But are these stones references to stars in the night sky? Or are they simply added enforcement to keep the structure in place? It is not easy to dismiss this detail as mere accident based on the information found in traditional Celtic lore that surrounds Newgrange. Sometime after Newgrange was erected, the wall collapsed and required reconstruction; thus the existing quartz exterior is actually a replication. Yet its original design is an important feature referencing starry constellations.



The problem with folklore is that it often shrouds the past with embellishments making it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. For example, there is strong speculation and confusion whether Newgrange was built as a place of communion with the Heavens and Celtic gods or if it was simply a tomb. Chris O’Callaghan, author of Newgrange: Temple to Life, says there is no proof that Newgrange was a tomb or crematorium at all. Neolithic communities would often cremate their dead instead of using traditional burial methods. In addition, several artifacts were found at the site, such as pendants, which could indicate that Newgrange was used as a ceremonial monument rather than the common passage tomb. A site made entirely from stone would take great efforts and many years to complete. During excavation of the site, white quartz was found directly placed within the soil but no traces of the stone were found beneath. The people who built Newgrange needed to transport massive materials to the designated site. Thus, it would make sense that these efforts could only be made for ceremonial purposes.


Celtic folklore says that the Tuatha Dé Danann built Newgrange (“Brugh Na Bóinne” in Gaelic ) as a funerary tomb for their leader Dagda Mór and his sons. The story of “The Dream of Aengus” associates Newgrange as a resting place for Dagda’s son Aengus. Dagda and Aengus are referred to in the story in a god-like manner, but whether or not Newgrange is a monument to ‘The Dagda’ god or simply to historically heroic men is debatable. According to Celticist John Carey, legend tells of a monument based on the sun obtained by Dagda in a battle of wit and riddle. In the story, Dagda is considered a protector of earth and provider of food. If Newgrange was built for Dagda, it may have been a monument to cultivation marking the movement of crops and the availability of resources as the seasons changed. Even so, there is some truth to the tales of astronomical importance. In 1967, the archeologist responsible for excavating Newgrange, Michael J. O’Kelly discovered the natural occurrence of light (Figs. 5 and 6) beaming through the tunnels at around the time of the winter solstice. It is likely that Newgrange was designed around the annual solar routine for worship of a guardian figure.



Aengus is more prominent than Dagda in association with Newgrange and stories of the River Boyne. Legend says that Aengus dreamt of a woman named Caer and searched for her for years. She was eventually found, but was shackled to a group of 150 women who were soon to be swans. To stay together, he too transformed into a swan and they migrated to Brugh Na Bóinne for their final resting place. Many mythical stories surround the Cygnus constellation, but the Celtic tale of Aengus and Caer is somehow linked to the swan in the northern sky. The authors of Island of the Setting Sun: In Search of Ireland's Ancient Astronomers, Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore believe that this connection is the core influence in Newgrange's design. It also happens that Whooper swans come to Newgrange to rest in the wintertime—the only place these swans migrate to in the entire area. Is this coincidence or proof of careful planning? This natural link between the solar clock and astronomical phenomena might be the reason why the Tuatha Dé Danann built Newgrange in the first place.


The art decorating Newgrange’s exterior and interior involves abstract petroplyphs with circular, spiral, and diamond motifs (Figs. 7, 8, and 9). These petroglyphs are so large and deep that they are more reliefs than engravings. The surfaces do not appear to be prepared prior to petroglyphic decoration using pecking and incision. Incision is the most common technique where a pointed edge is used to carve and create detailed line-work. While most of the rock art involves spiral motifs, archeologists have also found some cup-and-ring markings at the site (Fig. 10), which are largely abundant in megalithic rock art of the area. It is unknown whether these cup-and-ring petroglyphs are entirely artificial and man-made or if they were enhancements of the natural rock formation. Because of extreme simplicity and lack of explanation, cup-and-ring rock art is commonly overlooked in analysis.


The majority of decoration is found on the passage walls, which places significance on the marked surfaces as light hits the interior. There are ninety-seven decorated kerbstones outlining the base of the exterior quartz wall, but the most well known stone is at the entrance to the passage (Fig. 11). Reasons for these carvings and motifs are unknown. Most petroglyphs are highly visible and likely oriented based on the solar conditions of the winter solstice where geometric symbols serve as mental imagery for an altered state of consciousness. Perhaps for this reason the spirals and diamonds were created for the effect of optical illusion. Yet meaning of the petroglyphs at Newgrange is open to each person’s interpretation as they enter the passage. If the structure was, in fact, erected as a burial mound, the idea of inducing altered states of consciousness is a relevant explanation. Some petroglyphs are located in doorways and on kerbstones possibly marking areas where spiritual lines are being crossed.



However, these petroglyphs are not similarly mapped throughout the passage. The placement of these motifs may only be meaningful to those who created them or to exclusive individuals who were chosen to walk the passageway. The triple spirals, in particular, have a definite link with Celtic history symbolizing the three realms of land, sea, and sky. In this case, land can be interpreted as Earth and sky as Heaven. Spirals are also traditionally said to signify growth, eternal life, and the cycle of life and death. It is possible that the artists were trying to express psychic knowledge passed down to persons entering Newgrange. The design of the passageway is said to replicate the tunnel experience of entering the spirit world where a near-death experience has the same vortex effect. Megalithic artists used repetition as a means for entoptic imagery connecting entranced individuals to the spiritual realm. But other motifs were discovered hidden behind stones and were not intended to be visible. The choice to decorate some areas and not others may never be known, as the builders are the only ones retaining this knowledge. Looking at the folklore of Dagna, Aegnus, and Caer might allow for a unique understanding of the particular importance placed on this imagery. On the other hand, it is difficult to set aside existing cultural readings to allow inquiry into the past.


Aligned with the winter solstice, the sun illuminates the inner chamber of Newgrange once per year on the morning of December twenty-first, and very rarely by moonlight on lunar eclipses every four hundred fifty years. There is no doubt that the planning and construction of Newgrange is powerfully linked to astronomy and solar or lunar phenomena. Whilst it is unlike any site on Earth, there are other astronomical sites around the globe, both ancient and contemporary. In 1974, artist James Turrell conceived his greatest work-in-progress: transforming a four-hundred-thousand-year-old crater in Arizona into a “naked eye observatory.” The project was in some ways inspired by Newgrange, but Turrell envisions a grander scale with twenty chambers (Fig. 12) rather than one. He explains:
[Roden] is a volcanic crater located in an area of exposed geology, the Painted Desert, an area where you feel geologic time. You have a strong feeling of standing on the surface of the planet. Within that setting, I am making spaces that will engage celestial events. Several spaces will be sensitive to starlight and will be literally empowered by the light of stars millions of light years away (Fig. 13). The gathered starlight will inhabit that space, and you will be able to feel the physical presence of that light.
Roden Crater was purchased in 1977. Today, the project is still ongoing, as it requires several stages of development, carving out soil, and construction as well as fundraising efforts.



Newgrange was finally opened to tourism after its restoration in the late seventies. Reservations are made throughout the year for individuals to experience it in the present and commune with the past, although entry during the winter solstice is limited by lottery to fifty persons. Its geometric and simple rock motifs are similarly interpreted long after its construction, which apart from the solstice makes Newgrange a universal experience for all. Its purpose may remain a mystery. On the other hand, Newgrange still offers an unparalleled experience in context with the natural landscape and day and night skies. All that is known about megalithic passage tombs is from cultural folklore. Factual proof is questionable at best, yet mythology offers a perspective worthy of consideration. Ethnography can enhance science by providing context. If oral history, myths, and legend were abandoned, human narrative would be an incomplete history.