Getting Into History

By Ernie Witham   |   February 21, 2023
The decorated stonework at the ancient burial site Brú na Bóinne is filled with possible symbolic meaning or alien graffiti

There are several things I dread hearing when I’m on a docent-led excursion. “If anyone here is acrophobic, you may want to reconsider today’s steep hike up Mountain Goat Trail.”

Or… “If anyone here is aquaphobic, you may want to skip the kayak experience down ‘Devil’s Muse Rapids.’”

But I wasn’t worried today. We were on a dry hillock, surrounded by sane-looking people. We’d had a jaunty bus ride with a historian telling us all about the Boyne Valley, which lulled me right into a nap. Then we had a nice lunch at the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre followed by a short hike where we saw some Irish sheep drinking from the Guinness River. “It’s the Boyne River,” said Pat.

Now we were admiring one of the oldest known burial sites in the world. Older even than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza. Fortunately, our group was going to get the chance to enter the 5,200-year-old chamber of Newgrange. 

“Cool, huh?” I said to Pat. She pointed at the docent who was holding up her hand, about to give us a bit more valuable information. I figured I’d wander off and grab a few photos. Pat always pays attention, so I don’t really have to.

“If anyone is claustrophobic,” the docent began, “be sure to stay in back of the line.” Wait what?! “The chamber entrance is way too narrow to even think about turning around and squeezing by in case you panic.” 

I suddenly regretted having the double-burger deluxe with cheesy fries and thick shake for lunch. I quickly headed for the back of the line. Six people lined up behind me. I thought about letting them all pass until they said: “Don’t even think about it.” So I settled into place behind a tall, thick guy. If he made it, I could make it. If he got stuck, we could all back out and look for some grease or something. 

Newgrange, which is west of Dublin, was built during the Stone Age by farmers who only had tools made of stone, wood, antlers, and bones, according to the docent. “So, if you made the mistake of complaining about leg pain in the Neolithic era,” I whispered, “they probably chopped it off and used your femur for digging.”

“Shh,” Pat said. “You’re frightening the others.”

Newgrange is almost 300 feet in diameter and about 45 feet high and the domed mound is covered in grass. The front of the mound is covered with white quartz stones. Archaeologists discovered the stones on the ground, thought it looked like a fallen wall, so they put the stones up as they found them, and voila! They fit. Surrounding the entire structure are 97 large kerbstones, which are carved with circles, spirals, chevrons, and other art. Some archaeologists think they are decorative, others think they have a symbolic meaning. Alien messages, some of us think. 

The passage into the chamber is almost 65 feet long and they only allow 12 people at a time to enter. I just hoped the first person didn’t trip and domino us all. 

Somehow, we made it! Once inside the circular chamber with three alcoves and a layered rock roof with no mortar, the docent showed us where they think the cremated remains had been laid, then she told us how the passageway was aligned, so that upon sunrise during the winter solstice the sun would shine in and light up the chamber. I would have liked to see that, but the solstice was months away and I doubt the bus would wait. She told us on the solstice hundreds of people show up, many dressed as druids, dance about, and pray to the sun god.

“Everyone stand perfectly still and don’t move,” the docent said. Then she shut off all the lights. 

“She didn’t ask if we were nyctophobic,” I gasped. “Shh,” a ghost, or one of the other tour members said. Then the docent clicked on a flashlight near the floor. “This is kind of what it looks like when the sun lights the chamber.” Wow! Cool! A Stone Age thrill indeed.

Back at the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre, we had a few minutes to shop for souvenirs. I bought a headlamp in case we ever come back.  


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