I’ve always been fascinated by very old human artifacts. I don’t mean LPs from the sixties or paintings from the Renaissance, although they certainly are interesting. No, I mean really old things; things that are old enough to have a thick air of mystery about them. Things so old that sometimes their purposes and creators have been forgotten. Like many matters of taste, it’s hard to explain why—even to myself. I have a few theories. Here they are, in alphabetical order:
- The Admiration Theory: nothing today is built to last for millennia; in fact, many things are built to purposely fail after a set amount of time. I can really admire the skill of ancient craftsmen who created buildings and art that outlived not only themselves, but sometimes also their entire civilizations.
- The Extreme Theory: am I big or small? Fast or slow? Important or insignificant? I can’t answer these questions with absolute certainty, but I can place myself on a continuum. To do so requires knowledge of extremes. Learning about the oldest human creations can help me to understand where I stand in the universe.
- The Limitless Theory: people are stuck to the Earth, can only move one direction in time, and eventually die. Knowledge and imagination are the only ways for us to extend beyond these limits. By learning about the distant past, I can pretend as if I had experienced it; my lifespan artificially increases by thousands of years.
- The Nostalgia Theory: technologies like computers, medicine, and plumbing ensure that life is better today than it has ever been in the past. But at the same time, the simplicity of our ancestors’ lives calls to me. I have an inkling that the people of the past were more in tune with themselves and with nature than I am right now—and therefore more satisfied, in a way. I can’t return to this time for a visit, so the next best thing is to study whatever remnants are left.
- The Significance Theory: ancient people had to spend most of their time finding food and protecting their families. They had even less free time than we do today—but they still somehow made time to build impressive monuments. Even if we don’t always understand why they were built, these things still deserve our attention and reverence. They have the power to fill us with a sense of mystical wonder.
The reason I bring this up is that I was recently able to visit Newgrange—one of the best very old things on the planet. Newgrange is an ancient Irish passage tomb. Carbon-14 dating places its construction around 3200 BCE, making it over five thousand years old—older than Stonehenge, the Pyramid of Djoser, Mohenjo-Daro, the Easter Island statues, and nearly anything else famous for being old and mysterious.
I first learned about Newgrange in high school, either by finding it on the internet or by studying it in art class. (I’m not sure which came first.) I always thought it was amazing, but it never occurred to me that I might be able to visit it some day. It turns out that Newgrange is less than an hour-long bus ride from Dublin. So when Heidi and I planned our trip to Ireland, I made sure that we would visit this ancient site. While Skellig Michael was probably the most dramatic and awe-inspiring thing I saw in Ireland, Newgrange was the most exciting to me, since I had known and wondered about it for so long.
We happened to visit on a beautiful, cloudless day. Even though I had been
drinking awake until 4:30 AM the night before and was running on about two hours of sleep, the combination of the perfect weather and the excitement of being at Newgrange made my mind crystal clear. Colors even seemed brighter than usual—I’m not kidding!
You can read all about Newgrange elsewhere. I’m just going to mention a few things related to my trip and my pictures. (Otherwise I think I’ll end up writing a book instead of a blog post, and no one will want to read it.)
Here’s a picture of the whole thing:
Newgrange is essentially a stone chamber buried under a huge mound of earth. A passageway leads to the outside, a stone wall surrounds it, and there are a few standing stones near its entrance. It was sealed and abandoned a few hundred years after its construction, and it remained hidden until 1699. People know a lot about its physical presence, but essentially nothing about its builders or its purpose.
The current wall is a reconstruction—and a controversial one at that. It is held up by concrete because it won’t stay up on its own. Many people believe that if the wall requires concrete to stand, there is no way the ancient Irish could have built it. A popular alternative theory is that the stones of the wall were originally arranged on the ground as a kind of skirt.
Most of the wall is made of white stones, but there are a few areas with gray stones. I liked the contrast in this shot:
The entrance is perhaps the most famous part of Newgrange. One striking feature is the large carved stone, which features a three-spiral pattern. This is a rare symbol in ancient art, and Newgrange is one of its earliest expressions. The other important item is the small window above the door. The interior chamber is pitch black for most of the year, but the small window is built to let in the sun’s light during dawn and dusk on the winter solstice.
Although the passageway and exterior wall have been restored, the inner chamber is completely original. Visitors can go inside, and can even touch the walls. What an electric experience! Cameras are not allowed inside, so you’ll just have to imagine what it’s like in there. I think it’s better this way. No camera could ever begin to capture the feeling of being inside a hill’s womb; no camera could capture the feeling of meeting a five-thousand-year-old ancestor through a stone medium. A camera would only weaken the magic by adding an extra veil between visitor and reality.
Now, for my last picture: since I can’t show you the inside, I thought I’d show you the back of Newgrange. It’s certainly beautiful, but it never shows up in Newgrange photo galleries. The absence of the white wall makes it more authentic in a sense.
I left Newgrange feeling fuzzy and happy. I hope this post has at least partially explained why, and I hope you’ve picked up a little bit of the awesomeness of Newgrange.