Sacred Landscape of Newgrange Passage Tomb

(Image via VR tour)

Through the Newgrange virtual reality tour, I explored the Neolithic site, the Newgrange Passage Tomb. The monument was believed to be a place of worship, of spiritual significance to the Neolithic populations. At the entrance, the first thing I noticed was a large stone, carved with circular spirals. These graphic symbols might be indicative of the degree of sophistication of the religious or aesthetic systems of the Neolithic people. Whether the spirals had pictographic meaning, or were simply religiously or spiritually significant, they communicated meaning to the people who carved them at this site.

(Image via VR tour)

(Image via VR tour)

Entering the Passage Tomb, one proceeds through a narrow stone passageway into a circular inner chamber (pictured above in a screenshot from the Voices from the Dawn virtual reality tour of the Newgrange site).  The inner chamber contains what the virtual tour denotes as a “cremation stone.” Examining this stone, which sits in a crevasse off the inner chamber, I noted that the same spirals that adorned the large stone at the tomb’s entrance, were carved into the ceiling of the tomb above the cremation stone. This further highlights the apparent significance of these carvings. Of further interest in the Newgrange passage tomb is the way in which the tomb was built to interact with the natural landscape. As the video “Winter Solstice at Newgrange” informs us, the tomb was built with precise astronomical knowledge concerning the angle of the sun, so that on the winter solstice at sunrise the entire passage, from the entrance all the way through to the inner chamber would be lit by the rising sun. This careful calculation and building indicates the probable religious significance of the solstice and the sun, but also indicates the way in which building interacted with and altered the natural world. In a kind of reciprocal relationship, the tomb drew significance and meaning from its interaction with the winter solstice sun, while at the same time altering the natural landscape in order to confer sacred meaning onto the land itself. 

This Neolithic site, creating meaning for Neolithic peoples with both its potentially semasiographic carvings and interaction with and alteration of the natural world, illustrates the ways in which we might today draw historical and cultural meaning not simply from written systems, but from “reading” the landscape of Ireland itself, much like Eavan Boland reads from the physical scars of the famine roads on the landscape in her poem. History and culture are reflected in the landscape as much as the landscape influenced the path of history and culture for the first peoples that lived there.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Alexa, I am similarly fascinated by Neolithic and pre-Christian belief systems in Ireland. The Newgrange Passage Tomb experiences just as much foot traffic from tourists as Stonehenge in England, and I am always amused by people who believe in alien theories- as if earlier civilizations couldn’t live in synchronicity with their natural environments and design these landmarks themselves. I think because we are so removed from this way of living with the cycles of nature, studying them closely, it’s a struggle for some to consider that earlier peoples could live this way. As a side note- the lifted cremation stone fascinates me as I learned in an Anthropology class about a limestone slab in a cave in Italy which was carved out to house a Neanderthal body. The tomb was also lifted off the ground in a similar manner. The comment you made that tombs were built to interact with pre-existing natural structures, is what was noted in the Neanderthal burial discovery as well. Now to my question: what is your opinion on whether the designs here are purely aesthetic or religious, or both?

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