Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Diary of a World Traveler

Dublin Day 2: "It really is a lottery." 

Today, I took a step back in time 5,000 years. We visited the Neolithic monuments of Newgrange and Knowth and got to learn all about how the tombs were constructed, how they were used, and why they are so important to the history of Ireland. Any time I get to encounter the past is a good time for me. This was an absolute privilege to see, and definitely worth moving our Norway tickets for!

The day started at 9AM like always. We made the 40 minute drive up to Navan again, then got checked in at the Newgrage visitor center. There, we received stickers that told us when our buses would depart for which site. We had a little time to wander around the museum and gift shop area before our tour started, so I got some postcards and a keychain. The most interesting parts of the museum were the scaled models of the entire countryside that showed where the important monuments are in relation to the land around, as well as the forensic anthropology exhibit. This basically displayed a replica inhumated body found on site, with magnifying glasses identifying various bone markers of diet, occupation, etc. It was straight out of an episode of Bones and reminded me how much I used to want to do that as a job. It is truly fascinating work. I loved it.

Moving on, we boarded the buses that would transport us to the Newgrange monument itself. Also called Brú na Boinne, Newgrange is an ancient burial tomb dated 3000-2500BC, which makes it older than both the pyramids and Stonehenge. There is an elaborate front that was put in during modern times to help the entrance to the inner tomb, which has three separate basin chambers where cremated remains would have been placed. Extensive Neolithic artwork is present throughout the monument—the kerbstones on the outside are elaborately decorated with unique designs, the basins have inscriptions from floor to ceiling, and even the outer stone walls have patterns using light and dark stones. Much of the lighter stone came from around the sea almost 20km away via the Boyne River, whereas the alternating dark stones are local to the monument.

Above the stone walls are a series of earth and rock layers that create the mound shape. The mound is almost 250ft at its widest, 39 feet tall, and covers just over an acre of land. Since this is a portal tomb, the area within the walls was used to bury cremated remains, as well as bury bodies in small graves during later times. Various items have been found within these graves or around remains, such as jewelry, gaming pieces, and bone pins. The original purpose of the monument is constantly debated, but many agree that it must have some sort of powerful influence over the way the ancient people viewed their dead and death in a spiritual, or at least natural way.  

Seeing inner tomb was quite the special experience for me. This is where every year on the six days surrounding the 21st of December, the rising sun illuminates the chamber and the light hits the wall at the back. In the winter, the tomb is in complete darkness, so seeing the sun slowly climb up the tomb must be stunning. Unfortunately, no one is allowed to photograph the inside of the monument, so I can only use my words to describe how amazing it was to stand this far back in time. The hallway into the central chamber is small, covered in artwork, and slightly graded uphill. This is the passage or “portal” part of the portal tomb. The chamber opens up at the back, where three little basins have even more decorative artwork on the walls. The ceiling is corbeled, watertight, and has not been disrupted since its construction. That is truly astonishing. Walking around the site and seeing the simulated sunrise gave me chills. Bing able to see what those ancient people saw and felt… that was a once in a lifetime moment. Being at ancient sites like this always brings me back into focus.

Our next stop was Knowth, a similar but larger monument to Newgrange. This complex also has various smaller portal tombs built up with cairns, making a satellite around the larger one. Thus, these little mounds are called satellite tombs. There are two inner tombs that have entrances on opposite sides of the monument, one with basins and one without. The straight tomb is not actually straight, however—the final fourth of the passage makes a turn to the right for reasons unknown.

The amazing thing about Knowth is how long it has been consistently occupied by ancient people throughout history. This complex dates 2000-2500BC, so a little later than Newgrange. Even so, it was used for much the same purposes as Newgrange: ritual and burial. But after it was used for rituals in the late Neolithic period and the cairn slipped and covered the entrances to the passages, it was transformed into a hill fort in the early Christian period. During that time, houses and souterrains were added to the complex, making it a period of habitation rather than just ritual. It also became the seat of the king of Cnogbha—Knowth’s Gaelic name.

The site was then taken over by Anglo-Normas, who expanded the habitation and added agricultural elements to the surrounding area. An example of this would be the corn kiln near the satellite tombs, used to store and dry grains of any kind. After that, the site fell into ruin until the excavations starting in the mid 20th century.

Neolithic artwork abounds at Knowth, as well. The entrance stone had to be removed to allow excavation and archeological work to be done, but it rests on its side and has fascinating designs carved into it. The fifth stone in from the doorway is a very special one—it has a stunning circular design that many think was used for calendar keeping. Other kerbstones have chevrons, serpentines, concentric circles, diamonds, and all sorts of other unique designs on them, similarly to Newgrange. Though access to the central tombs in blocked, it was very interesting to hear all about the history from our awesome tour guide Jimmy.

After our guided tour finished, we headed up to the top of the cairn to the viewing platform. We could see the Wicklow Mountains in the distance, Newgrange very close, the Hill of Tara, the Boyne River, and the ruins of Slane Abbey. After some time reveling in the 360° view, a group of us went down to a neighboring pasture to make friends with some fluffy cows. It was a great way to end a beautifully sunny day filled with time traveling adventure.

The bus ride back to Dublin was smooth and uneventful. I am using the time to catch up on work, get everything caught up, and pack before we leave for Norway tomorrow. We catch the 10AM bus to Dublin Airport, so we have lots of time to get everything situated tonight and in the morning. I cannot wait to experience a new part of Europe and learn more about how Scandinavia works as opposed to the other places I have been so far on my journey. Though it isn’t exactly the homeland of my ancestors, it is close enough for me. I am so excited!

photo credit Diana Cleveland

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