Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Speculation

To celebrate Nana’s anniversary, we took her to Newgrange on Sunday. OK, we took a tiny little speck of her ashes because when I finally opened the very attractive little urn-locket my mother gave me, it turned out to have a tiny sprinkle of very fine Nana powder. Given the size of the locket, I was expecting a thimble of ashes.

Newgrange, an ancient tomb 600 years older than the pyramids, is the kind of place Nana would have loved. She was fascinated with just about everything in life, but in particular with different cultures and time periods. She had a life-long love of learning and discovering, which she fed with PBS, National Geographic and the nightly news.

This was my third time visiting Newgrange and my second time since I moved over here in the spring. Access into the tomb is by guided tour only, but I think you could visit Newgrange every day for a week and still learn something new, especially if you had a different tour guide each time.

This is what we know about Newgrange for certain:
  • It’s big, but only a small section of it is actually used for the passage tomb.
  • It is made out of a lot of rocks, most of which came from a fair distance from the site. The largest rocks, the kerbstones, came from 15 km away and weigh between one and ten tonnes.
  • The roof of the inner chamber consists of a corbelled ceiling that was built with huge slabs of rocks with small rocks filling the gaps. The roof has stood intact, without leaking, for 5,000 years.
  • The light box about the entrance is constructed in such a way so that on the 5 days around the winter solstice, the light from the morning sun enters the passage and bathes the inner chamber in warm winter sunlight.
  • The Stone Age people who built Newgrange didn’t even have the wheel yet, but they were still able to complete a complicated, labour-intensive monument.

    The tour guide on Sunday was in to the speculation. Since Newgrange was built over 5000 years ago, no one really knows exactly what it was used for and why it was built the way it was built. You can make some pretty good inferences – fragments of bone from 5 distinct individuals were found in the tomb, so it was used as a burial place. But you don’t know the whole story. Was it only a tomb for the most special people in the tribe? Was it the tomb for a single family? Were more individuals buried in the tomb but were their ashes so well cremated that no bone traces were remained? Did treasure hunters in the 1700s carry the bones away?

    In front of the entrance to the tomb sits an intricately carved kerbstones, known in archeological circles as K1. The guide expounded on some of the possible interpretations of the carvings. Could the three interlocking circles on the left half represent the three stages of life: birth, death and rebirth? Are the carvings simply what was popular art back in the Stone Age? My favourite theory is that the carving is a map.

    At first, I didn’t get it. It looks like swirls and squiggles. But then the guide suggested that the three interlocking circles could represent the three large passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. The smaller interlocking circles could represent the smaller tombs visible in the surrounding fields. The diamond shapes could represent fields and the squiggling lines at the bottom of the kerbstones could represent the Boyne, which snakes around and surrounds Newgrange on three sides. It’s certainly something to think about.

    Inside the tomb, the tour guide provided a demonstration of what the inner chamber is like on the winter solstice. At 9.02 am, the sun peeks over the horizon and its golden rays enter the window box. As the sun rises higher in the sky, the light floods into the chamber. By turning off all the lights and then strategically turning on the passage lights, you get an idea of what it would be like.

    It is this aspect of Newgrange that fascinates me the most. I imagine this ancient civilisation, dependent on the earth and the weather for their survival. I imagine what the winter must have been like for them. Cold. Dark. Frightening. Nearly interminable. Those nights around the shortest day of the year – did they see it as a turning point, a celebration? Did they fear that if the sun got angry it might continue to give them short days?

    Why did they build the window box in alignment with the winter solstice sun? Did the light play a role in some sort of religious ritual. Did they believe the hand of god was coming to collect the souls of their dead? Was it just an elaborate calendaring system, marking the end of one year and the beginning of the next?

    I told Peter that I would love to have a time machine, just so I could go and observe the people who built and used Newgrange. I wouldn’t have wanted to live at that time (how would I survive without the Internet and indoor plumbing?) but I’m curious about the whys of Newgrange. I wonder what Heaven is like and if you can go back in time and get these questions answered. I’d love that sort of afterlife and I know that Nana would too.

    I wanted to leave some of Nana’s ashes inside the tomb, but I felt funny doing it. (I don’t want to get haunted by some angry ancient god.) Practically speaking, given the paltry dusting of ashes that I had, I needed to be creative about how to get the ashes to wherever they were going to go. I put a few specks from the urn-locket in an old medicine container (sorry, Nana) and then filled it with water.

    To get from the visitor centre to the loading area for the tour bus, you cross a bridge over the River Boyne. I ceremoniously emptied my jar of diluted Nana into the river. I figured she’d enjoy the trip out to the Irish Sea, the very trip the Newgrange builders made to collect the smaller rocks used to build the tomb’s façade.

  • 5 Comments:

    At 29 September 2005 at 01:22, Blogger Career Guy said...

    Oh yeah--time machine. Definitely. That's why I liked the premise of that one Crichton novel. I'd love to hide out and watch how people did things like build Newgrange and the pyramids. I wouldn't want to get caught, though, because they'd probably figure me for some sort of evil supernatural being and kill me (in my sleep with a big rock).

     
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