Astronomers and pagans mark solstice at Newgrange

In ancient times…
Hundreds of years before the dawn of history
Lived a strange race of people… the Druids.
No one knows who they were or what they were doing
But their legacy remains
Hewn into the living rock… Of Newgrange.

Well, not quite, but the Newgrange monument, a 5000 year old passage tomb, gets its annual fifteen minutes of fame this morning as the first rays of the winter solstice sun flood the chambers.

We know very little about the people who built the monument, or even what their motives were. Earlier theories that the site had a religious significance have been set aside in recent years in favour of newer ideas that the prehistoric monument had scientific, archaeological and astronomical functions.

Newgrange: Ancient observatory Image via Wikimedia Commons
Newgrange: Ancient observatory
Image via Wikimedia Commons

The two beliefs are not in direct contradiction. To an agricultural people, an accurate astronomical reading, necessary to plan when crops should be laid down, would be intimately bound up in beliefs about the gods who governed the elements.

But whoever the Newgrange builders were, they were not “druids”. The earliest traces of Celtic culture do not show up in the archaeological record until almost 2000 years after the monument was built, in the Hallstatt region of Austria. It is another 500 years before the culture makes its way to Ireland. The Newgrange builders were not so much Tuatha Dé Danann as Fomóraig, or Fomorians.

A few lucky people will crowd into the central chamber at Newgrange this morning to witness the solstice, but don’t hold your breath if you’d like to see it for yourself. The waiting list for the annual display is years long, although it is recreated every day at the Newgrange visitor centre.

Quite what the ancients would have made of today’s astronomical coincidence is anybody’s guess. A lunar eclipse coincides almost exactly with this morning’s dawn, meaning that both sunlight and moonlight will flood the chamber.

The sun’s rays will stop several metres short of the main stone at the back of the central chamber, though 5000 years ago, the light would have illuminated the stone. Calculations to account for shifts in the Earth’s rotation in the intervening centuries show that it would have originally reached the back of the chamber.