Stunning Winter Solstice at Newgrange
19 December 2017: Updated with additional pictures from my second visit to Newgrange on 22 December 2016 and minor edits to the text and links.
Today, December 21st 2016, is the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, – and in Ireland, all eyes turn to Newgrange. This 5,200-year-old prehistoric monument is world famous because the interior chamber is illuminated for a few minutes around 9 AM as the rising sun clears hills to the southeast. As I write this, however, the radio is full of chatter because of new claims that the alignment actually dates from the reconstruction work in the 1960’s and 1970’s!! It will be interesting to see how this argument plays out*. Sadly, the radio is also reporting that cloud, yet again, spoiled this morning’s show.
(* See these pictures from the 1930's and 1950's and a statement from the Office of Public works stressing their view that the alignment of the roof box was in place before the reconstruction work. This post on the Shadows and Stone blog provides much more detail supporting the current alignment being the same as the ancient alignment.)
Anyway, I was oblivious to all this when I headed up there last Sunday, the 18th, to see the solstice celebrations for myself . . . hang on you say, wasn’t I three days too early? Well . . . no, because the sunbeam shines in for several days around the solstice when the position of sunrise "stands still". Newgrange's visitor centre at Brú na Bóinne runs an annual lottery for places in the chamber from the 18th to the 23rd. It’s also probable that the chamber is partly illuminated for a few more days on either side of these dates but the site is not open at sunrise then.
Anyway on the 18th with clear skies forecast, and even without one of the precious lottery tickets, I thought there would be opportunities for good landscape and people shots. And, I wasn’t disappointed! There was wonderful colour in the sky when I arrived contrasting with the controversial 1970’s reconstruction of the quartz south face of the monument. You can see here what Newgrange looked like before that - at least during the last 300 years or so - nobody knows for sure what it looked like when it was built!
Red Sky at Newgrange
The sun comes out!
This is going to be a good one!
Clouds in just in the right place!
Of course, no modern celebration is complete without selfie shots! Some grumble at this but why shouldn’t people enjoy themselves and capture their memories on a special day?
The sun is now blinding and people turn to look into the passageway to the chamber.
And get their phones out!
Lots of phones!
Even from the outside, it’s awe-inspiring to see the beam illuminating the passageway – and I’m hoping that, despite the naysayers, it was built this way five thousand years ago – and not fifty!
As the show finished, I was able to capture the joy on the faces of the lottery winners as they emerged.
And the hugs!
Once the lottery winners are out, the rest of the visitors queue to get into the chamber. Even after the sunbeam has moved on, the chamber is still relatively bright because the passage is facing the sunlight. And you can get in for FREE for an hour or so on solstice mornings! An important TIP if you ever do visit Newgrange, is to wait until the end of the of the guide’s talk. After the rest of your group leaves, following the demonstration of the beam with electric lights, ask your guide nicely if you can lie down with your face on the floor and you will be able to see out through the roof-box. The access passage slopes upwards so that the floor of the chamber is level with the overhead roof-box at the exterior. It’s not as good as winning the solstice lottery, but it was still a magical experience to see my son’s face dimly illuminated on the floor during our family visit a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, photography is not normally allowed in the chamber*, so you just have to imagine this!
* Unlike the rest of the year, visitors to the site are allowed in for free on solstice mornings after the lottery winners leave and there is no restriction on photography - or at least there wasn't on 22 December 2016.
In the previous shot, I spotted lottery winners Micaela and Simeon from Alaska and I did a quick mini-shoot with them in the rapidly warming morning sun.
And some more visitors.
Here are the three of us having a chat . . . or if you want to be dramatic, posing as the shadows of our ancestors!
Once everyone had left, I got to walk around the monument totally on my own before the first of the regular tours arrived at 11 AM. This structure to the rear is believed to a folly built in the early 1800’s from stones that slipped off the original monument.
The sun was still blinding as I came back around the west side.
Working on my leading lines!
And my foreground interest.
The massive entrance stone in front of the passageway with the famous tri-spiral carvings.
Here the shadows of two of the megaliths and yours truly are juxtaposed (great word that!) with three jet trails. What would our Neolithic ancestors have made of these?
And finally, another one showing how brilliant the light was.
I took most of these shots with my Canon 10-22mm lens – its wide angle of view was ideal for capturing the shape of Newgrange. I used my Canon 70-200mm f4 lens to get most of the shots of the access passage and of the lottery winners leaving. They were all processed in Lightroom – in particular, I used the program’s graduated filter tool to enhance the detail in the skies.
Keywords: 5200 bc, ancestors, ancient astronomy, archaeology, bend of the boyne, bru na boinne, co. neath, five thousand years ago, heritage, ireland, irelands ancient east, john coveney photography, lightbox, megalith, mobile phone photography, monument, neolithic, newgrange, passage tomb, roofbox, royal county, selfie, shadows, solstice, solstice alignment, sunbeam, sunrise, trispiral, world heritage site, www.johncoveney.ie
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