From the outside, it has the look of some alien spaceship that’s been dumped in the green landscape of rural Ireland. But this extraordinary structure is actually the handiwork of humans who lived more than 5,000 years ago. And recent DNA analysis of remains found at the site points to some disturbing truths about these ancient Irish people.
Inside, narrow passages decorated with exquisite Stone-Age carvings lead through the ancient structure. And they end in chambers that were used as tombs for the remains of the chieftains of these long-dead people. This astonishing edifice called Newgrange is located in the Boyne Valley, where a range of ancient tombs have been uncovered over the years.
The official website for the location notes that Newgrange was built some 5,200 years ago. That gives it the remarkable distinction of being older than the ancient circle of Stonehenge, which dates back just 4,500 years, according to English Heritage. The Ancient Greek Parthenon, perched on its hill above Athens, is even younger – built only 2,500 years ago. Indeed, those dates put the extraordinary achievement of Newgrange into stark perspective.
The River Boyne runs through Ireland’s Count Meath, and the Newgrange monument stands near its banks. The location is around 40 miles north of Ireland’s capital of Dublin. The Boyne Valley is a fertile source of Stone-Age artifacts and also has evidence of Bronze Age settlement. And it’s perhaps the most important prehistoric site in all of Ireland.
A total of 97 standing stones surround the domed central structure of Newgrange, its official website notes. Furthermore, many of these – which are known as kerbstones – display intricate megalithic carving in their faces. The chamber at the end of the main 63-feet-long passageway is shaped like a cross and features a 20-foot-high corbelled roof made from overlapping stone beams. Meanwhile, the overall structure has a diameter of some 280 feet and extends to 43 feet at its highest point.
The Newgrange monument sits within the Brú na Bóinne complex of some 35 Stone-Age mounds. And the best-known locations after Newgrange are Dowth and Knowth. In fact, this entire former site lay untended and uncared for many centuries until it was rediscovered in 1699. But it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that experts extensively explored and restored the main monument to its former glory.
So, who built this enthralling building? As far as we can tell, it was built by a society which consisted of Stone-Age farmers. The complexity of the structure points towards a highly organized community which likely had a well-defined social structure with leaders at the top calling the shots. And those leaders – as the recent DNA analysis has shown – practiced some highly disconcerting customs.
The farmers who built Newgrange had obviously moved on from the earlier humans who lived by hunting and gathering. In both Britain and Ireland this transition is believed to have taken place around 7,000 years ago, according to the BBC. The settled communities that developed cultivated crops and raised animals – particularly cattle. As a consequence of this new way of living, these early humans were then able to increase their numbers.
These farmers and monument builders were of the Stone Age. That meant they had no metal tools of any kind – depending instead on implements fashioned from bone, antler, wood or stone. This makes the structures they built in the Boyne Valley all the more jaw-dropping. And as we’ll see, these people were capable of making stunningly accurate measurements of the movements of the Sun through the sky over the year.
Evidence from both archeology and DNA tends to suggest that the society which built Newgrange was highly stratified. Indeed, there are indications that the leaders of this early Irish community may have been viewed as akin to gods. This meant that some of their habits defied the normal strictures that have applied to most societies throughout human history.
For reasons that remain murky, Newgrange was abandoned during the Iron Age around the third century B.C. – nearly 2,000 years after it had been built. This happened in the same period that the Celts came to Ireland, so there is perhaps a connection between the quitting of the tomb complex and the arrival of a new wave of people.
For the next couple of thousand years, the land in the Boyne Valley where the Brú na Bóinne mounds lie was given over to farming. In the 12th century the land then came into the possession of the Cistercian monks from the Abbey of Mellifont. By the year 1378 the name Newgrange was in use, and as far as we know, knowledge of the site’s ancient history was lost at that time.
We can thank Charles Campbell who bought the land where Newgrange sits in 1698 for its rediscovery the following year. However, he wasn’t interested in the site’s ancient history. Campbell’s men had been using stone from the mound for building work. But as they dug into the apparently unremarkable hillock, the workers came across the entrance to the tomb.
This impressive entrance stone – measuring about 10 feet by 4 – weighs in at more than 5 tons, according to the Boyne Valley Tours website. Ancient masons had carved sophisticated patterns into the rock using whirling spiral shapes to create a mesmerizing pattern. And don’t forget, these ancient artisans had no metal tools to work the unyielding stone.
As we mentioned earlier, Campbell’s laborers continued to dig into the mound – revealing a passageway. This led them to the inner chamber, where the men found pieces of glass, beads and bones which they thought belonged to animals. As luck would have it, a Welshman called Edward Lhwyd happened to be touring Ireland and was staying nearby in County Meath. Apparently, he was a keen antiquarian and the Newgrange site immediately piqued his interest.
Lhwyd was reportedly not that impressed by the discovery and described what he saw as a “barbarous sculpture,” though he did write a report. And this attracted the attention of another antiquarian: Sir Thomas Molyneaux. Campbell told him that there had been two sets of human remains – something Lhwyd had overlooked. This gave an early indication that the Newgrange mound had, in fact, been a tomb.
A positive deluge of interested parties then descended on the site over the years. In many cases, they came up with theories about the purpose and origins of Newgrange. However, most of these were later proved wrong. One common theme among those early researchers can even be viewed as nothing short of insulting to Irish people.
Many of those writers from a couple of centuries ago resolutely rejected the idea that the ancient people of the Irish Stone Age could possibly have built something so sophisticated. The antiquarians theorized that it had been built much later in early medieval times by the Vikings or earlier by the ancient Egyptians or even the Phoenicians.
It wasn’t until 1962 that anything we would recognize as modern archeology took place in the Boyne Valley. One of Ireland’s most noted archeologists – professor Michael O’Kelly of University College, Cork – started work there in 1962. And his intervention at Newgrange came not a moment too soon for the integrity of the site.
Large numbers of people had been visiting this mystical site and it was becoming increasingly damaged. In fact, although O’Kelly halted the decline of Newgrange and did a considerable amount of restoration work – some of it controversial – he was in some ways too late. By the time he started work in the Boyne Valley, much valuable evidence had already disappeared or been compromised.
O’Kelly’s excavations unearthed only a small haul of the bones that presumably once lay inside the tomb in the stone basins apparently designed for that purpose. Nevertheless, the expert persevered with his task, and he returned to the site for a four-month dig with restoration work every summer for 13 years from 1962. And his efforts were repaid by a stunning revelation.
The discovery came when O’Kelly and his team dug away a mass of grass and weeds covering the summit of the mound. Underneath the vegetation, they found an aperture in the shape of rectangle which was set just above the doorway to the mound. Apparently, it was partially covered by a slab of crystallized quartz, which appeared to be a kind of shutter that could be opened and closed over the slit.
At first O’Kelly and the other researchers were at a loss to explain the meaning of this enigmatic opening set in the roof of the mound. But the archeologist recalled a local piece of folklore that talked of the Sun always shining into the tomb at the summer solstice – midsummer’s day. But the position of this box in the roof meant that the midsummer sun could not possibly shine through it.
However, a moment of inspiration came to O’Kelly about the alignment of the mound and the Sun. If not the longest day of the year in midsummer, how about the shortest day – the winter solstice? So, O’Kelly decided to test his theory in December 1967. He drove to Newgrange – arriving just before dawn. And the Knowth.com website quotes his account of that winter solstice.
O’Kelly recalled, “I was there entirely alone. Not a soul stood even on the road below. When I came into the tomb I knew there was a possibility of seeing the sunrise because the sky had been clear during the morning.” With the weather conditions set perfect, the archeologist was about to witness a stunning phenomenon.
As the morning sun rose and cleared the hills of the Boyne Valley, a bright ray of sun shone right through the roof aperture – striking the centre of the main tomb. O’Kelly described his reaction, “I was literally astounded. The light began as a thin pencil and widened to a band of about 6 inches.”
O’Kelly continued, “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 20 feet above me.” The mystery of the roof opening had been solved – it was designed to capture the Sun’s rays at the winter solstice.
Before he’d started work at Newgrange, O’Kelly and his wife Claire had journeyed to Brittany and Spain. But this was no random vacation choice – the two were keen to study the possible European origins of these enigmatic passage graves and other megalithic buildings. Indeed, similar structures were to be found at various locations around Europe.
According to The New York Times, there are some 35,000 megalithic structures dotted around Europe. These are found everywhere from Scandinavia to the Atlantic coasts of France and Spain as well as around the Mediterranean. Probably the most famous are the massive standing stones of Stonehenge in England. Scotland also has an outstanding example of a Neolithic structure – Maeshowe on the Orkney Islands to the north-west of the mainland. Here, a chambered cairn or mound dates back to 2,700 B.C.
An intriguing question for archeologists is just how the culture and skills necessary to build these magnificent monuments spread across Europe some five millennia ago. Some theories were aired in an article in the aforementioned newspaper in 2019. And one has it that these megalithic monuments may have been built quite independently of one another.
But a second theory posits that the building of these stone structures started somewhere in the Near East. The techniques and customs spread westwards from there along the coasts of the Mediterranean and Europe – possibly with the aid of a priestly class. However, new evidence uncovered in 2019 suggests that these stone tombs first emerged in France.
An archeologist at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg called Bettina Schulz Paulsson spent ten years analyzing 2,410 radiocarbon dates of megalithic structures. Her research showed that the earliest known megalithic tombs date back some 6,500 years ago and are located in the north-west of modern France. So, it seems that these stone structures did not originate in the Near East.
This gives rise to the alternative theory that after originating in France, the stone tombs spread from there along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts as well as across the sea to Scandinavia, Britain and Ireland. So it seems probable that the knowledge required to build the Newgrange tomb actually spread to Ireland from its origins in ancient France.
But it’s another recent discovery which is both fascinating and in its own way more than a little disturbing. We mentioned earlier that some of the bones recovered from the Newgrange mound had been subjected to DNA testing. Well, a team of researchers from Trinity College Dublin carried out the analysis, and it revealed something especially startling when the results were published in June 2020 in Nature.
Dr. Lara Cassidy – one of the scientists involved in the research – described to The Irish Times in June 2020 what analysis of the DNA of a male found in the tomb showed. She explained, “I’d never seen anything like it. We all inherit two copies of the genome, one from our mother and one from our father.”
Cassidy continued, “This individual’s copies were extremely similar – a tell-tale sign of close inbreeding. In fact, our analyses allowed us to confirm that his parents were first-degree relatives.” In other words, the couple who’d produced this male offspring had in all probability been brother and sister or parent and child. Therefore, this was a case of incest.
And this finding led to an interesting conclusion. As Cassidy told The Irish Times, “The only confirmed social acceptances of first-degree incest are found among the elites – typically within a deified royal family.” So, it may have been that these male remains belonged to an elite member of a society which may have been so hierarchical that the leaders were considered to be gods.
Professor Dan Bradley – also of Trinity College Dublin – further elaborated on the theme. He said, “Here the auspicious location of the male skeletal remains is matched by the unprecedented nature of his ancient genome. The prestige of the burial makes this very likely a socially sanctioned union and speaks of a hierarchy so extreme that the only partners worthy of the elite were family members.”
But this example of incest among an elite ruling class is not unique, according to the BBC. It’s said that the rulers of the Inca Empire indulged in the practice. And there’s evidence to show that the Pharaoh Tutankhamun may well have been the product of an incestuous relationship between his parents, who were brother and sister.
But what drove those ancient rulers to turn to incest – one of the most powerful of human taboos? Dr. Cassidy surmised that, “It’s an extreme of what elites do. Marrying within your kin group allows you to keep power within your ‘clan.’ But elites also break lots of rules, to separate themselves from the rest of the population… it’s a bit chicken and egg: by breaking these rules you probably make yourself seem even more divine.”