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Newgrange: History, Function & Construction

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has taught high school history in several states with a master's degree in teaching.

At Newgrange, Stone Age people built a massive tomb and monument to honor their dead. In this lesson, learn about the history, legacy, design, and construction of the Newgrange monument in Ireland.

Ireland's Ancient Tomb

What first comes to mind when you hear the phrase ''Stone Age?'' To many people, this ancient time period brings to mind people living in caves who used primitive stone tools and spent most of their time simply trying to survive. Would it surprise you to know that people form this era also constructed a very large passage tomb that aligns with the winter solstice and is decorated with cave paintings? This is exactly what Newgrange, a passage tomb and ancient temple in Ireland is. Let's talk about the history and design of Newgrange and the unique event that happens on the winter solstice.

History and Legacy

Located in County Meath, in Bru na Boinne, Ireland, Newgrange is an ancient tomb that is also believed by some to have been used as a temple in Neolithic times. The region of Bru na Boinne has several other ancient burial sites. It was constructed around 3200 BCE. This means that it predates the great pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge monument! Historians have always known that Newgrange was a place to bury the dead, but recently they've been focusing on its significance with the winter solstice. Don't worry, we'll talk about this more, later!

The oral legend of Newgrange claims that it was built by the Tuatha de Danaan as a tomb to their leader and his family. The site is said to have magical properties, including producing limitless food and drink (mainly ale and pig). With the rise of Christianity in Ireland, the tomb was all but forgotten until its rediscovery in 1699. Thorough excavations began in 1962 and Newgrange was deemed a World Heritage Site in 1993.

Design and Construction

The exterior of Newgrange

Newgrange has a circular shape with a diameter of 249 feet and is 39 feet tall. It covers approximately one whole acre of land. Within Newgrange, there is a long passageway which leads to an open chamber that has three recesses off of it facing north, west, and south. Archeologists have found human remains in the western chamber. The human remains are placed inside basin stones located on the floor of the chamber. Additionally, the entrance stones include ornate sculptures that many historians have deemed the greatest accomplishment of Neolithic art.

Based on what archeologists have discovered, it is believed that the people who built Newgrange deconstructed a building that was previously in the same place and reused those rocks to build the tomb. We know that a massive construction undertaking like this means that there was a well-established community in the area. The community's ability to devote the time and money to this project shows us that they were a group of people who were comfortable with their living situation--they were able to do much more than just try to survive!

Although the people who built Newgrange used some stones from a previous site, they needed to find additional stones to complete the project. Some of these stones came from as far as 70 miles away! The stones came from mountain ranges to the south and north of the Newgrange site. To transport the stones, builders placed the stones on ships on the Irish Sea and then moved the ships inland. In total, Newgrange has an estimated 200,000 tons of stone. Imagine moving all of that without any modern technology!

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