* yes, there should be FIVE sets of boots but Allen ignored my advice to get adequate rain gear...

Monday, October 22, 2012

Knowth and Newgrange

waiting to go into Newgrange

hills, dales and streams surrounding
Knowth and Newgrange share the odd trait of being both ideal and completely unsuitable for touring with young children.  Both involve quite a bit in the way of wide open spaces suitable for running around in.  Knowth even has a child sized secret tunnel.  But, if you actually want to have any idea what you are looking at, you need to be able to listen to rather lengthy explanations by tour guides.  Or, in our case, buy the 50 cent visitors' guide and find out what everyone else was listening to while you tore off over hill and dale.

central and little mounds
This is the sort of site I really enjoy.  The history of the place is palpable.  This is where we started to come together as people.  We started to have concrete ideas about the afterlife and how to honor it.  We were at the precipice between the straightforward connection with the land and a more metaphysical connection with the greater cycle of life and death; the season of plenty and season of scarcity; dark and light.  We developed the skills to settle and farm rather than chase our food.  We grouped together in large enough settlements to require leaders and permanent structures.  We added beauty to our lives.  We started being a civilization.

some of the kerbstones
Knowth's chambers line up with and the kerbstones are shown to best advantage at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (so we were lucky we happened to go in October).  Newgrange is oriented toward the winter solstice.  There doesn't seem to be a major monument to the summer solstice.  I feel like I can readily grasp how that could come about.  As I watch the daylight dwindling, I can feel that mild primal panic that the light is forever leaving us.  The days are currently shrinking at the breakneck pace of 4 minutes a day.  By December 22, the day will be a meager 7 and a half hours long.  I would be marking the time until the light triumphed as well.  But, I can also see how in the very long days of plenty (17 hours on June 22) it seems that the light could never fail.  Plus, you have already done all you could to ensure a good crop and got all the souls where they should be back in the spring.  {to add context longest:shortest in Virginia is 9hr 39min:14hr 40min}

main cairn at Knowth
storage tunnel

Knowth consists of a massive dirt mound (cairn) with a stone base and carefully aligned passageways with other largish mounds surrounding it.  The site was likely used for burial rituals and probably some other religious rituals as well.  It's about 5,000 years old making it older than the pyramids AND stonehenge. The kerbstones that line the base of the mounds are just as old meaning that they were carved during the neolithic period with only simple tools of stone.  There are also remains of a circular timber monument along the lines of stonehenge built around 2500 BC.

hiding from invaders
and out the other side!
Knowth was completely abandoned for 2000 years or so for unknown reasons.  Once it got re-occupied in the early Christian era (around 400 AD) it was generally used for military purposes.  By this time, the kerbstones and tunnel entrances were mostly covered with dirt and grass and the old religion had come and gone so the spritual significance seems to have been lost.  It was surrounded by a moat and various tunnels were built to use for both storage and escape.  It eventually became the royal seat of the Kings of Northern Brega and they eventually ascended to the position of High King.  The Normans weren't fans of anyone else being King of Ireland.  So, they overthrew the King and gave the land to the Cistercians since no one trumped The Church.  The land has mostly been used for small-scale farming ever since.

Newgrange is the winter solstice site.  It has somewhat similar features and history (stone circle, given to the Cistercians) but also has a narrow passage that is illuminated only by the winter solstice sunrise.  Newgrange remained a sacred site or at least undisturbed due to superstition well into the Christian era.  Presently, only about 20 members of the public for the 5 days that surround the winter solstice to be in the passage to witness it.  People are selected by lottery.  However, a tour guide takes groups in and you get to experience a faux-solstice via the guide extinguishing all the lights and then turning on special lights that mimic the sunrise.  I found the roof of the chamber the most interesting aspect.  It's carefully stacked stone that soars above your head and it has stayed stable for thousands of years.

There are all manner of theories and what not for how neolithic peoples came by all this knowledge.  It makes for a rather intriguing trip down the rabbit hole.

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