is a theory that the midwinter sun shines into the chamber of newgrange
exactly on the shortest day of the year. many people know this 'for
a fact', and could prove it to you by taking you out to bru na boinne
on the 21st december, and - advanced bookings and local weather
conditions permitting - showing you that this is so.
fact is that the sun shines in to the newgrange passage for several
days before and several days after the winter solstice. if you believe
that newgrange was a deliberate and accurate construction (and i
do) you will need to be more precise. you will need to be aware
that there was no december 21st in neolithic ireland. you will need
to be aware that the modern 22nd of december can also fall on the
(astronomically identifiable) winter
solstice (in the northern hemisphere). you will be wise to remember
that the year is 365 and 1/4 days long - and for this reason the
365 and 366 day intervals between the newgrange events mean that
no two of the newgrange sunrises are ever exactly one year apart,
nor can be.
plan of Newgrange (Click to enlarge)
plan of Knowth (Click to enlarge)
will then need to remember that the sun set a little further to
the south in the period when the passage mound was built, sometime
around 3150 b c. you would need a basic computer astronomy programme
to indicate the angle of the sunrises on the horizon in that era.
these programmes are cheap, popular, and nowhere nearly as complicated
to use as they sound.
having done all of that, you would need to show that the focus of
the construction was to identify the sunrise that was closest to
winter solstice sunrise, rather than to give a 'window' of a certain
number of days either side of the solstice.
a 'window' existed, and, though it has changed with the passage
of time, still exists. it has the value that in uncertain weather,
the approach and departure of midwinter could be monitored, even
though the day itself dawned sunless. in 3150 b c this would have
extended form 15 days before the solstice to 15 days afterwards.
this leaves open a second interpretation of the newgrange passage
- that it was focussed to answer the question :
which new moon (or full moon) is the first of the new year ?".
with our own calendar sometimes makes us oblivious to its eccentricities.
our system of european union bank holidays has added to, but failed
to obliterate, the seasons of the churches' year. the main christian
feasts are christmas - a fixed feast with regard to the calendar
year - and easter - a moveable feast with regard to the calendar
year. church seasons such as advent and lent are then fixed according
to these fixed or moveable dates.
exact date of easter was a source of doctrinal dispute over several
centuries. it was one of the issues between the roman catholic church
and the 'celtic church' tradition. but for all the disputants easter
had a formula that was based upon the first full moon to follow
the vernal equinox, as did the jewish passover from which the christian
was newgrange constructed to mark a feast or festival of a fixed
nature - or to identify a particular phase of the moon, a full or
new moon moveable feast ? we do not know.
pointer would be if the passages at knowth also admitted the sun.
the rising sun moves along the horizon from south east to north
east as the year proceeds. half way between is the spring equinox.
how neat it would be for the supporters of the fixed feasts if the
passages at knowth faced due east and due west to the rising
and the setting of the equinoctial sun !
have hoped this, or even fudged the data to try and make it so.
but the truth is different . the days at which the very long and
narrow - and thus very accurate - knowth passages point are : six
days from the equinox dawn( knowth east) and eighteen and a half
days from the equinox dawn (knowth west). this apparent
waywardness, after the very precise focus of newgrange, has been
a source of bafflement to many, and would have remained so if a
connecticut retired doctor had not come up with a solution - the
only one put forward so far.
EASTER AT KNOWTH
solution rests upon the neolithic builders of knowth being a culture
which counted the passage of time in lunar months. this is not a
big assumption - it would be most anachronistic to expect them to
have evolved any division of time other than the natural one. they
also dwelt within a mile or two of the tidal reaches of the boyne
estuary, where the tides faithfully keep lunar, not solar time.
connecticut doctor, charles scribner, pointed out the possible significance
of two days -' vernal equinox plus six days' - and 'vernal equinox
minus eighteen and a half days'.
you habitually measure out the year in lunar months - as do the
native americans, the jews, and many well documented cultures -
these two days on which the sun is aligned with the knowth passages
first : knowth east (equinox plus 6) : three synodic lunar months
before the summer solstice - six synodic lunar months before the
autumn equinox, and nine synodic lunar months before the eve of
winter solstice, respectively . second : the passage of knowth west
is thirteen synodic lunar months before the following vernal equinox
of these figures are for the period around 3300 b c. this has to
be said because the lengths of the seasons vary in a slow cycle
over the millennia.
this is how you can identify in advance the christian church moveable
feasts of the following year using knowth : observe the sun reaching
the passage of knowth west - the one that is still open - in early
there are now 13 moons until the following year's vernal equinox.
now, after dusk falls, observe the day of the moon. if full moon
is to follow in two days time then the following year's 'paschal'
full moon, the one that
defines easter, will be two days after march 21st or wherever your
vernal equinox is falling in that year of that era.
could, like the newgrange orientation, be a coincidence. but when
the opposite passage at knowth east can be 'read' to predict the
other three of the four points of the year (as they stood with the
of 3300 b c or thereabouts ) - the odds lengthen.
plan of Knowth West showing the kink in the passage.
west also has a kink in the passage. the inner few metres may represent
a slightly earlier passage incorporated into the mound. the case
is immeasurably strengthened when it is found that the orientation
of the inner passage, if projected beyond the mound, would admit
the sun on a date that is ten and a half days after equinox - or
twelve synodic lunar months before the following equinox. this too,
if it admitted light, could
be used to predict the date of easter of the year to follow.
it is a fact that both knowth and newgrange could be used to identify
lunar or 'moveable' feasts. it is however like finding an abacus.
simply because a calculation can be performed on an ancient abacus
does not follow that that calculation was the original purpose of
its maker. - to suggest that it was, can only be speculative.
the still intact and open passage of knowth (west) still functions
to admit the light and foretell the full moon of easter thirteen
months ahead. this function is less affected by the passage of the
millennia than the functions of knowth east or of newgrange itself.
to predict a festival in advance is also of more practical value
than merely to mark a solstice or equinox as it occurs. irish weather
makes such prediction vital , for - as many know to their cost -
a midwinter morning can choose to be overclouded.
DAY IN THE SUN
may still be a few conservative scholars who would be reluctant
to give scandal to the faithful by admitting that the festival of
easter is not of christian origin - but this fact is already apparent
from a cursory reading of the gospels themselves. there may even
be a lingering prejudice against the darkness, the moon, and the
number thirteen - it all smacks too much of halloween and the fairies.
but this does not excuse the researcher from taking a rational and
things stand at the present, we neither accept nor reject the orientations
of the bru na boinn passages, but make a marvel of one while dismissing
another two that are considerably longer and thus more precise.
is newgrange a solitary anomaly among passage mounds ? a clock with
only one hand ? a bell that strikes but once a year ?
is an older, more decorated, more complex passage mound than newgrange.
the instincts of the archaeologists point to an equinoctial connection.
they should trust their instincts and persist with this line of
enquiry. there is more to discover. newgrange is neither the earliest
marvel at bru na boinn nor the only one.
would be a shame to deny knowth her share of the glory, her day
in the sun.