on my first visit to Bru na Boinne, my budget-conscious self opted against the extra expense of adding Knowth to my ticket. probably for the best in the end as the weather turned dismally drizzly by the end of my hour on-site. Newgrange, with its impressively restored facade and amazing equinox illumination, certainly seems more impressive at a cursory glance, but now having seen both I stand equally, if not more, impressed with Knowth.

of the passage tombs in the area, Knowth is the largest, both in terms of its primary mound and because of the smaller satellite tombs that surround it. construction of the primary mound dates to sometime between 2500 and 2000 BCE, making it slightly younger than Newgrange. unlike Newgrange, however, the primary Knowth mound has two interior chambers accessed by passages from opposite sides of the mounds. the two chambers are mere feet from one another, but the passage does not extend all the way through the mound. also unlike at Newgrange, visitors aren’t allowed down the passages. because of its history, Knowth is not considered structurally safe enough to allow the average person access.

some speculate that, after falling into disuse, a layer of dirt from the top of the mound at Newgrange cascaded down over the entrance and decorated and decorative stones, preserving them and sealing the passage and tomb securely until farm laborers excavating for stone unearthed the entrance in 1699. (Charles Campbell, the man responsible for Newgrange, was part of Cromwell’s plantation plan and had leased the land from the government in England.) at Knowth as well, dirt covered the entrances and stones circling the mound at Knowth but whereas Newgrange went largely untouched in intervening centuries, all manner of people built atop the mound at Knowth. sometime during the Iron Age, it became a hill fort, beginning a period of long habitation. (those inhabitants must have found the passages as some of the stones sport graffiti in ogham symbols.) a branch of powerful early-Irish clan made their home around and atop the mound around 800 CE and several hundred years later the site came under the jurisdiction of the monks at Mellifont, who constructed a number of stone buildings on the site, which further affected the structural integrity of the interior passages. once the monks lost the land it was used as farmland for centuries, primarily for grazing, until being purchased by the Irish government in 1939 with early excavations beginning a few years later and a major one getting under way in the early 1960s.

the primary mound at Knowth is about 95 meters across at its widest point and is surrounded by 18 smaller mounds. a ring of 124 elaborately carved kerbstones — with artwork on both sides and some evidence they may have been appropriated from earlier sites based on carvings — circles the base of the main mound and represents the largest collection of neolithic art in Europe; they are remarkably well preserved because they remained covered by dirt for so many centuries. the passages are 40m (eastern) and 34m (western) in length and were constructed along an axis to align with sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes. excavations of the site began in the 1960s and took some 40 years to complete and took the mound down to its base. (Newgrange, on the other hand, hasn’t been dismantled as its interior has remained sealed since its construction. Dowth has yet to be excavated – I recall our guide saying something about leaving sites for future generations to investigate.)


 the other night we stumbled upon a NOVA episode exploring the logistics of constructing Stonehenge and how it connects to Durrington Walls up the River Avon. the heart of the portion we watched centered on one scholar’s theory about how the stones got to the famous site in the Salisbury Plain — placing the several-ton stones on platforms on tracks of milled timber with the equivalent of wood or stone ball bearings to allow the contraption to glide towards the destination. it was an interesting idea … for an age when modern milling and ball-bearings might be common, but I was inclined to agree with the criticism that it was perhaps a bit over-engineered for the Neolithic architects of Stonehenge. logs and lots of people with ropes seemed just as effective and perhaps more expeditious. but then, most of what we know about Stonehenge comes from educated guesses at best.

the earthwork enclosure that encompasses the site dates from about 3100 BCE while radiocarbon testing and other evidence suggest the stones were erected sometime between 3000 and 2000 BCE, with the bluestones (the smaller ones) perhaps going up towards the beginning of that period and the remaining sarsens (the larger ones) later on. Stonehenge was constructed in several phases over a some 1,500 years, replacing monuments that previously stood on the site.

one of the more impressive facts about the site is the distance the stones traveled. while the precise origin remains unknown, it seems the bluestones came from the Preseli Hills in southwest Wales more than 150 miles away from Stonehenge (another theory posits they were glacial erratics left much closer to the site by the Irish Sea Glacier). in 2011, researchers at the University of Wales announced they’d identified the exact source from which the earliest stones were taken — 140 miles away in Pembrokshire in Wales. the sarsen stones are made of a type of sandstone found throughout southwest England but most archaeologists believe these stones came from the Marlborough Downs about 30 miles distant. as I mentioned, the bluestones were erected first, likely in a double-circle, and show signs of human efforts to shape them to fit together in some fashion. the sarsens were worked at the site using handmade tools; the NOVA program included excavation of some of the tools and stone shards carved off the sarsens.

the first signs of inhabitants on the site, however — four or five pits (some which held pine posts) — were discovered in the site’s parking lot between the 1960s and 80s and date to sometime between 8500 and 7000 BCE (the Mesolithic era!). recently uncovered evidence suggests the site may have been used for burials from the beginning, with cremains found in and around pits along the bank and ditch; in the 64 identified burial sites archaeologists have found remains for as many as 150 individuals. the NOVA program also chronicled excavations along the banks of the River Avon by archaeologists, seeking to determine whether the avenue did, in fact, continue all the way to the river and thus, presumably, symbolically and physically connect Stonehenge with Durrington Walls up the river. based on the positioning of the two sites, the researchers proposed Durrington Walls as a “site of the living” (as it aligned with sunrise) while Stonehenge was a “site of the dead” (as it aligned with the sunset and was a site for burial).

beginning in the 1920s, the National Trust began purchasing land around Stonehenge to preserve the setting around the monument as early in the 20th century land nearby was increasingly turned to cultivation. since the 1980s, the National Trust has worked with local landowners to revert some of this previous farmland back to chalk grassland. the setting-preservation effort was undermined somewhat by the two roadways — the A344 and the A303. over the last several decades plans have repeatedly been advanced then shelved to close or reroute the two roads in order to return the atmosphere of the site to how it might have been millennia ago. in 2010, the Wiltshire Council approved plans for a new visitors center to replace the one built in the 1970s, but forward progress is currently held up by getting acquiescence to close the A344 and two other nearby roadways.

of course, the sheer volume of visitors will still affect how one experiences Stonehenge. at the turn of the 20th century, concern for visitor safety (coupled with the toppling of an outer sarsen and its lintel) prompted the then-owner to begin the process of re-erecting fallen stones and stabilising the bases of others. the site was donated to the nation in 1918 by Cecil Chubb (who’d purchased several years earlier in an auction) who became responsible for its upkeep and providing access. between 1938 and today, annual visitors to the site increased from 38,000 to over 900,000. in 1978, erosion of the earthworks due to the increased number of visitors and acts of vandalism to the stones resulted in access to the stones being restricted. today, visitors are only allowed to tour Stonehenge from roped-off paths that prevent too many people from accessing the stones at any given period.

even though access to the stones is restricted, it isn’t prohibited; it just requires some planning, forethought, and approval from the National Trust. my dad was one with such foresight and managed to coordinate an early-Sunday-morning visit for us when my parents came to visit me while I was studying in London. it’s a truly unique experience to get such remarkable access to a monument so impressive, so old, and so shrouded in mystery. the first time I visited England, we focused more time on Avebury and (if I recall correctly) just stopped along the road and looked through the fence at Stonehenge, rather than paying the entrance fee to walk around the roped-off path. it was worth the wait, though, to get to to stand so close the stones, to touch them and walk among them. if you’re ever in the vicinity, I highly recommend taking the time to visit and, if you’ve got some foresight, too, plan ahead for one of those outside-operating-hours access spots.

some final thoughts:
if you’re in Ireland, you should definitely make the effort to visit Brú na Bóinne (it’s on the itinerary for the next trip to Ireland this summer!) another remarkable Neolithic site.
check out the NOVA program, Secrets of Stonehenge, for more on all the projects I referenced above.
lastly, one of my favorite travel blogs, Twenty-Something Travel, posts “Friday Postcards” and the one from this week was, coincidentally, Stonehenge at sunrise!


having some experience with sacred neolitic sites, I was very much looking forward to visiting the monuments at Bru na Boinne. the monument at Newgrange is over 5,000 years old, making it 500 years older than Stonehenge, and a century older than the Pyramids at Giza! it’s a marvel of engineering and complex calculation; the planning that went into ensuring the openings aligned in the way that they do at the precise moment that they do … it’s a cliche to say it boggles the mind, but instances like this necessitate such language.

briefly: at sunrise on the winter solstice, rays of sunlight enter through the opening above the door — the roofbox (the top gap in the photo), filters down a passage some 18m long and into the central chamber. for seventeen minutes on the Solstice (and the one day preceding and succeeding it), the chamber is flooded with sunlight. while this illumination now occurs several minutes after sunrise, calculations indicate that, when the monument was built, illumination coincided precisely with sunrise.

obviously, the calculations to achieve this effect were something complex. there is a hill across the River Boyne that mirrors that on which Newgrange is constructed, and, to start, the architects had to calculate when and how the sun would rise over that hill to know when and how it would hit the hill at Newgrange. the monument itself is built on a slant over the hill. that is to say, the bulk isn’t distributed evenly over the top of the monument, but rather sits oblongly. if you were sitting next to me right now, I’d give you a little demonstration with my hands, but hopefully you get what I’m trying to explain. the chamber inside has a corbelled ceiling and rises to 6m — and has remained more or less intact and sealed against water since its construction 5,000 years ago. it’s often presumed that “neolithic” implies uneducated or unsophisticated, but as our guide pointed out, working out the details of constructing Newgrange and other nearby sites demanded incredible technological sophistication. and unimaginable dedication.

once the architects sorted the physics of where to build the monument, it took 50 years to complete construction. fifty years in a time when the average lifespan was 20 or 25 years. it took three generations to finish this! not only did it take decades to complete, the stones used on the facade were not quarried locally and had to travel rather significant distances in a time before wheels. the white ones (quartzite) came from the Wicklow mountains, some 70km south of Bru na Boinne — on the other side of Dublin. the black granite interspersed with the quartzite came from the Mourne Mountains in the north of Ireland, some 50km away. most impressively, however, the 97 large, carved kerbstones came from 20km up the Boyne valley. it took eighty men four days to transport a stone four kilometers.

there’s no record as to the precise use for the monument, and there are about as many theories as people who study the site. some are pessimistic as so the intent of the designers (it was built by slaves as a temple for despots) but others are more optimistic. our guide believes it a memorial for spiritual ceremonies that were held once a year. cremanes of community members were taken inside to a place of honor during the three days a year when the monument was used, but the rest of the year the site was left alone. and those who used the site had voluntarily constructed it for their spiritual practices.

whatever it was used for, standing inside is an incredible experience any day of the year. (they do hold a lottery every 1st of October for slots to be present for sunrise on the Solstice. there’s never a guarantee that you’ll get sun, but thousands and thousands of people sign up for the opportunity.) they day I visited was probably the soggiest day I had my entire time in Ireland, but I could not have cared less. even wandering around outside for twenty minutes (our group was far too big for all of us to fit into the chamber at once, so our guide split us in half and we were left to our own devices in the elements in the interim), the place was amazing.