The History of Newgrange

History of Newgrange



Newgrange is part of a collection of monuments built along the River Boyne known collectively as Brú na Bóinne. The other two monuments are Knowth (the largest of the three) and Dowth, there are as many as 35 smaller mounds throughout the area.

Newgrange is a Neolithic (Stone Age) passage tomb in the Boyne Valley, it was constructed in approx. 3,200 B.C. making it the oldest building in the world. It is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated Newgrange along with Knowth and Dowth a world heritage site.



Around the Tomb

The Newgrange mound is a massive 85 metres (93 yards) in diameter and 13.5 metres (15 yard

Engraved entrance stone and roof-box in the background

s) high and covers an area of over one acre. The base is surrounded by 97 kerbstones, some of which are richly adorned with megalithic art. As you head up the hill towards the mound the view of the huge standing stones that are circling the monument is quite impressive, some of the larger stones measure as much as 2.5 metres high. There are currently twelve standing stones remaining on the site, originally it is believed to have been thirty five. The remains of many of the other stones have been broken off near the ground but are still visible. It is believed the alinement of the stones had some astrological significance too.



Inside the tomb

Upon reaching the entrance the huge entrance stone is one of the first noticeable things: approximately three metres

Corbelled roof
Corbelled roof

long, 1.2 metres high and weighs about five tonnes. The entrance stone is covered in a range of carvings from circles, spirals and arcs. In particular the triskele design which is probably the most recognizable symbol from the Newgrange monument.  It would have taken a tremendous amount of skill to produce these designs. Beyond the entrance stone you see a doorway with a narrow opening above, this opening is called the roof-box. As you enter you are met by a narrow 19 metre long inner passage, the walls of the passage are made up of large stone slabs (forty three in total all roughly 1.5 metres in height) at the rear of the chamber one of stone slabs is engraved with a twelve inch Triskele symbol that is illuminated during the winter solstice sun. The passage leads to a cruciform (cross shape) chamber with three recesses; each recess houses a basin stone, the basin stones are large smooth flat stone slabs used as part of the funeral ceremonies, such as preparing the bodies and to lay the dead to rest. Above is a corbelled roof 6 metres high covering the chamber. To construct the roof, the builders overlapped layers of large rocks until the roof could be sealed with a capstone and thousands of years later the roof at Newgrange is still watertight.



The Winter Solstice


First rays of sunlight shining through the roof-box

Newgrange is not just a passage tomb but a place of astrological mystery, built with absolute precision to align with the winter sun. The winter solstice is on the 21st December, from the 19th – 23rd December the winter solstice phenomenon happens at Newgrange. At dawn as the sun is rising low in the sky the sunlight shines through the roof-box creating a narrow beam of light that gradually extends to the rear of the chamber. As the sun rises the beam widens to illuminates the entire chamber before gradually receding as the sun moves on, the mysterious event only lasts for approximately 12 minutes. It truly is a magnificent feat of engineering when you consider that Newgrange was built over 5000 years ago.




The construction of Newgrange

The Neolithic people who built the monument were native agriculturalists, growing crops and raising animals. The blocks were possibly transported to the Newgrange site by sea and up the River Boyne. They had somehow transported the stone and boulders from the banks of the river Boyne a mile away mostly uphill, to the point where the construction was taking place. In all they would have had to transport 200,000 tons of stone and rock. It is no coincidence that the winter sun shines through the roof box to ignite the chamber with sunlight during the winter solstice, after all Neolithic Irish worshipped the sun. It is likely the builders sat on the hillside watching the sunrise moving southward along the horizon, possibly for a number of years before construction began. The roof box had to be in line with the horizon, so each of the huge slabs had to be determined before building commenced. The thought, precision and skill that went into the construction was astounding. It is believed that the construction of Newgrange could have taken up to thirty years to complete.



The rediscovery of Newgrange

Over the next three millennia, Newgrange fell into a state of deterioration.

Newgrange 1930 before reconstruction

In 1699, a local landowner, Charles Campbell, ordered some of his farm labourers to dig up a part of Newgrange, which then had the appearance of a large mound of earth. The labourers soon unearthed the entrance to the tomb within the mound. When exploring the find Charles Campbell discovered two sets of human remains inside. In 1890 archaeologist Thomas Newenham Deane began a project of conservation and over the subsequent decades a number of archaeologists preformed excavations of the site and came up with their own conclusions as to the purpose of Newgrange and ascertain who built it. In the 1960’s, archaeologist Professor Michael J O’Kelly was brought in to excavate and restore Newgrange, he and his team took thirteen years from 1962 -1975 to complete the excavation and restoration. It was during this period that they uncovered the roof-box, It was confusing to them at first, too small and too far from the ground to be an entrance. Professor O’Kelly had heard rumours around the town of the sun rising and lighting up the chamber. One mid-winter morning Professor O’Kelly drove to Newgrange before sunrise to discover the secret that Newgrange held for hundreds of years. As the first rays of the sun appeared above the horizon on the far bank of the River Boyne, a bright shaft of orange light struck directly through the roofbox into the heart of the tomb gradually illuminating the entire chamber.

Professor O’Kelly said upon first seeing the winter solstice sun illuminating the chamber.

‘I was literally astounded. The light began as a thin pencil and widened to a band of about 6 in. There was so much light reflected from the floor that I could walk around inside without a lamp and avoid bumping off the stones. It was so bright I could see the roof 20ft above me. ‘I expected to hear a voice, or perhaps feel a cold hand resting on my shoulder, but there was silence. And then, after a few minutes, the shaft of light narrowed as the sun appeared to pass westward across the slit, and total darkness came once more.’ ( 1980,  Simon Welfare & John Fairley, Mysterious World , Arthur C Clarke) 

I think it is clear the intent of the Stone Age farmers who build Newgrange was undoubtedly to mark the beginning of the New Year. In addition, it may have served as a powerful symbol of the victory of life over death.


Megalithic Art

Carvings from inside the tomb
Carvings from inside the tomb

Newgrange contains many examples of  Neolithic art carvings. These carvings fit into ten categories, five of which are curvilinear (circles, spirals, arcs, serpentiniforms and dot-in-circles) and the other five of which are rectilinear (chevrons, lozenges, radials, parallel lines and offsets). They are also marked by wide differences in style, the skill-level that would have been needed to produce them, and on how deeply carved they are. One of the most notable examples of art at Newgrange are the Triskele (triple spiral) found on the entrance stone and inside the tomb. The true meaning of the designs is not known but for the Neolithic people who built Newgrange the Triskele most probably represented sun, moon and stars due to their astrological beliefs.


Visiting Newgrange.

Newgrange attracts as many as 200,000 visitors each year. Access to Newgrange is by guided tour only. Tours begin at the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre where visitors are taken in groups to the site. Everyday visitors to Newgrange are treated to a re-enactment of the winter solstice through the use of electric lights situated within the tomb. The finale of a Newgrange tour results in every tour member standing inside the tomb where the tour guide then turns off the lights, and the light bulb simulating the sun as it would appear on the winter solstice. Anyone visiting the historic site can experience an approximation of the phenomenon any time of year, and is often the highlight of the tour.


I’ve been lucky enough to have been choosen to be inside the Newgrange tomb on the morning of the winter solstice ( more importantly had a clear, sunny morning to get the full experience).  The feeling is virtually undiscribable, errie, spine tingling are a couple of words that come to mind. If you get the opportunity to experience this spectacular event take it. The demand to gain entrance to the tomb on one of the mornings of the winter solstice is so great that it is by lottery only but its free and you can enter year after year, It took me eight years before I was finally picked (well worth the wait). To enter the free lottery, you can fill out an application form in Brú Na Bóinne Visitor Centre when you visit Newgrange. Alternatively you can send your postal address, a contact telephone number and an indication whether or not you have visited Newgrange by e-mail to

Private tours to Newgrange and other historical sites in County Meath are available from

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