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Ireland History-
Neolithic Ireland
Part 2

The neolithic monuments of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, Loughcrew, Carrowkeel and Carrowmore are remarkable and fascinating reminders of very early Ireland history. This article will look at the building process and possible use of these buildings and the underlying religion in ancient Ireland.

The Building Process Of Megalithic Tombs

The photo below of the corballed ceiling at the largest tomb at Loughcrew (near Navan) gives an idea how much planning and forethought had to go into building these structures during the Irish stone age. The building process of passage tombs was very complex. They were no doubt built with eternity in mind. Weight, mass, gravity and the penetration of rain water were all taken into account in the design.

It is likely that the large blocks of rock (megaliths) were transported using ropes and wooden ramps. Professor O'Kelly, the excavator of Newgrange, conducted an experiment to see how long this may take.

He had four men transport a 1 ton rock 4 metres, which took them 12 hours. Professor O'Kelly estimated that building a large passage grave using these methods would have taken around 30 years.

Monuments of ancient Ireland- the corballed ceiling embellished with art work at the Loughcrew complex of passage graves, County Meath, Ireland.

The corballed ceiling at Newgrange with art work, which was most likely religious symbolism.

Some of the rock used was transported over quite a distance to the building site from where is was quarried. It may have been transported on rafts on rivers.

Construction would have taken a large workforce over probably a couple of generations. This required a high level of organisation within the society to house and feed the workers and to oversee the works. From this we can deduct that their society must have been quite evolved.

Triskel spirals on the walls inside the main chamber at Newgrange. The tombs in general and Newgrange in particular, contain a lot of art work.

Triskel art inside the Newgrange passage tomb, Counth Meath, Ireland.

Some of it was found on large slabs buried under ground, in a place where it would have never been visible. This led the archaeologists to believe that perhaps the art work was a form of communication or symbolism for rituals.

What Were The Neolithic Tombs Used For?

  • Little is known about the Neolithic part of Ireland's history because people back then did not have any form of written communication and because few artifacts will survive for such a length of time. What we do know, we know by deduction, i.e. by looking at the buildings and figuring out what their purpose might have been.
  • It is a well known fact that a lot of the tombs including those of the Boyne Valley have an astronomical function.
  • The monuments at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth are designed to track the earths’ path around the sun, the passage of the moon across the sky, as well as the rotation of galaxies.
  • This level of scientific mastery seems surprising given that this Neolithic society consisted mainly of farmers. One train of thought among archaeologists is the possibility that there may have been a religious class present who held such knowledge and oversaw the building process. The tombs might have served as a symbol of their knowledge and power.
  • Inside the tombs there is an elaborate network of passages. The interior chambers contained the cremated remains of probably a select few, perhaps an upper class.
  • The tombs might have been the centres of the communities living around them.
  • Smaller tombs could have been burial grounds for large extended families.
  • The bigger ones might have been the centres of people organised into tribes.
  • The tombs may have marked territories belonging to certain people or tribes. And, they would likely have had ritual significance within this prehistoric cultures’ belief or religious system.

Read More Ireland's History of the Neolithic

Click here to read the first part of this article 'Ireland history- Neolithic Ireland Part 1'

Check out Carrowmore and Carrowkeel here. They are sister sites of Newgrange, lesser known but older, and located near Sligo in Ireland.

Read about the history of neolithic monuments here. Read about Newgrange Facts and Newgrange special features.

Art work on the ceiling at Newgrange tomb, County Meath, Ireland.

A piece of elaborate art work adorns the ceiling of the chamber at Newgrange. On the bottom left you can see where parts of it have broken off. In the past, the art work probably covered most of the ceiling.

Neolithic Religion

It is generally accepted that this prehistoric society was matriarchal, meaning devoted to the female.

Hills and valleys were special places were the Earth mother resided. In a lot of places where you see these tombs in Ireland, they are located on valleys and the tombs themselves often look like nipples with the hill being the breast.

It seems natural that early farmers would have had this close connection to the earth, seeing it as the great nurturer. In Gaelic tradition, the Earth Goddess survived as Aine, the smiling one.

The Earth Goddess was not only the giver of life though. She brought death, too, and in their traditions she received her children in death, namely in the womblike tombs built in her honour.

What About The Art Work Found In And Around The Tombs?

  • All the tombs have slabs of rock displaying some very pretty carved patterns. The use of patterns differs from tomb to tomb. Frequent patterns are spirals and circles and wavelike lines.
  • There are also some rectilinear patterns, dots and hollows. Some archaeologists believe the sun is represented in the art work as a hollow surrounded by radiating circles.
  • Some people speculate that the radiating circles in the art work might represent maps of other, surrounding tombs.
  • The triskel spirals on the entrance rock at Newgrange in particular have become a very popular symbol in Irish culture directly taken from this part of Ireland history.
  • Some New Agers believe they represent the radiating energy of the earth. In truth, we don't know what they stand for.
  • But some archaeologists do believe that the stone slabs are more than pretty art work, that they are suffused with meaning. The patterns may have been the Neolithic equivalent of hieroglyphs. Only that we may never be able to decode this lost language.

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