If the stones could speak, what story would they tell?

If the stones could speak, what story would they tell?

Perhaps the greatest enigma of Newgrange and its sister monuments, the great passage-tombs of Brú na Bóinne, is the meaning of the megalithic art inscribed on their great stones.

I often wondered if the stones could speak, and tell us their story, how many of us who have theorised as to the meaning of the arcane symbols would be correct in our speculations, and how many would be wildly wrong.

There are, as you can imagine, many theories. But one thing is clear about the megalithic art of Síd in Broga and Brú na Bóinne – it is conspicuously abstruse. 

The triskele in the chamber of Newgrange (Síd in Broga)

The triskele or triple spiral only found at Newgrange, and no other Irish Neolithic monument, draws much attention and speculation. I wrote the following of it in my book Return to Segais:

The real question is this – does the triple spiral have an explicit meaning? Was it ever intended to have a pedagogical, instructive function? Or, in its flagrant abstraction, was it supposed to lead the initiate on labyrinthine journeys into the depths of their own human fallibility and unconscious infinitude?

Yes, the megalithic art of Newgrange is flagrantly abstract.

Kerb stone 52, one of just three lavishly decorated kerb stones at Newgrange (along with K1, the entrance stone, and K67), presents a series of spirals, lozenges (diamonds), cup holes, arcs, zigzags (chevrons) and cartouches that seem, collectively, the result of an artist's exploration of objective or spontaneous imagery that does not offer a coherent narrative or visualisation.

 Kerb stone 52 at Newgrange

There is clearly something special about this stone. That something significant extends beyond its position at the rear of the monument, forming an imaginary axis dissecting the chamber, passage and entrance stone. When you process along the kerb of Newgrange, like a pilgrim might process from station to holy station at a religious site, kerb 52 screams out at you. It demands to be heard. It has a story to tell.

Among a gallery of unexceptional stones (many have barely discernible megalithic art on them, some have none at all), K52 is something of a Mona Lisa.

Spirals on kerb stone 52 at Newgrange

I cannot tell you the story of kerb stone 52. But I can speculate. My speculation derives from my study of not just the archaeology of Newgrange and its sisters, but their astronomical orientations and of course the mythology associated with these great monuments.

Anyone who claims – with even a modicum of certainty – that they know the full meaning of a stone's symbols, is most probably a charlatan, or at least someone whose expertise should be questioned, since those who have studied these monuments in the greatest detail, over the longest periods, are uncertain about almost every aspect of them.

The story of the stars

My own suggestion about K52 is that, at least in part, it tells the story of a special stellar alignment that was specific to the time Newgrange was built.

On the right-hand panel of the stone (K52 appears divided into separate panels of art by a vertical groove in its centre) are a series of three triple cup marks, each trio of 'holes' enclosed within a cartouche (the cartouches are best described as racetrack-like frames or enclosures).

 Orion and Sirius on kerb stone 52 at Newgrange

My theory (and it is just that, a theory) is that the stone features depictions of Orion's belt stars, and the 'Dog Star', Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. At the time Newgrange was built, it is demonstrable reality that in addition to the ability of the chamber of the monument to receive sunlight at dawn on the shortest days of the year, the light of the moon at certain times, and Venus (as the 'Morning Star') could be seen in the sepulchre of Síd in Broga.

But more fascinating still is the fact that when Newgrange was constructed, Sirius (by whatever name it was known by the ancient Irish astronomers) shared the same declination as the midwinter sun. In layman's terms, that simply means that an observer prostrate in the chamber of Newgrange would see Sirius transiting the aperture above the entrance known as the roofbox.

Because the three bright stars of Orion's Belt appear to 'point' to Sirius, thereby presaging its rising place, they could have been used as a sightline for Sirius as it rose over the hill of Redmountain across the Boyne Valley from Newgrange and shone its light into the interior of the monument. I'm not even sure if Sirius is bright enough to shine light into the dark inside of Newgrange. I've read that Venus is bright enough to cast a shadow. Would a keen-eyed observer inside Newgrange be able to see the dim light of Sirius shimmering on the floor?

Orion and Sirius over Newgrange

Orion and Sirius over Newgrange.

It's a tantalising possibility. Adding to the intrigue is a brief mention in Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Book of Invasions, suggesting that the goddess Ethliu (another name for Bóinn) 'came into the Brug in disguise in the form of a lapdog'.

But myths written down in the Middle Ages are no proof of deliberate or intended astronomical alignments in the Neolithic, 4,000 years earlier.

 Kerb stone 52 at Newgrange

For now, the stones are silent. They tell no story other than that which we think we hear from them.

These enigmatic remnants of a complex past sit like quiet reminders of the vivid imaginations of people of a long-distant yesterday. They are pictures at an exhibition, but the gallery is largely filled with abstract works. It is impossible at this remove (and without a 'Rosetta Stone' from which we might learn more about the meaning of the symbols) to be sure about any interpretation. There is a possibility – however slim – that the carvings have no explicit meaning. But given that the builders hauled these giant stones into place after bringing them a distance of 31 kilometres by sea and river, it seems unlikely that they would complete their gargantuan construction – one of the largest building projects of the ancient world – by simply instructing an artist to 'draw some squiggles on those stones'. 

The stones have their stories. But we can only imagine what those stories might tell...


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