The Dead of Winter

by Kieran Healy on December 22, 2007

It’s the Winter Solstice. Ancient Celtic mummery is tedious—woo, I am teh Morrigan!—but that shouldn’t distract you from the fact that Newgrange is one of the wonders of the world, and never more than at this time of year. Here’s a reprint of an old post of mine about it.

Newgrange is a megalithic tomb in County Meath’s Boyne Valley, in Ireland. It is more than five thousand years old. Built around 3200BC, it is five hundred years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza and about a thousand years older than Stonehenge. When it was rediscovered in 1699, it looked like an ordinary hill. It was properly excavated beginning in 1962, when archaeologists thought it was a particularly fine example of a passage grave, but nothing more. Then, Prof. M.J. O’Kelly of U.C.C. discovered the roof box, a small opening in the hill above the passage entrance, which led to a shaft that ran to the chamber at the center of the tomb. He had an idea about what it might be for. On the morning of December 21st 1967, O’Kelly sat in the central chamber and, as the sun came up, saw the first rays of the rising sun run down the shaft and strike the floor of the chamber.

Newgrange is a clock. The shaft leading out to the roof box is precisely aligned so that on the morning of the Winter Solstice the first light of day will run directly into the middle of the tomb. Or, at least, it was precisely so aligned. It is so old that changes in the Earth’s orbit have affected its operation. When it was built, the sun would have struck the back wall of the chamber, rather than the floor, and the light would have remained in the chamber for about four minutes longer than it does now. It was very accurate. The people who built Newgrange knew what they were doing.

A society—a civilization, if you like—is a hard thing to hold together. If you live in an agrarian society, as the overwhelming majority of people did until about two hundred years ago, and you are on the western edge of Europe, few times are harder than the dead of Winter. The days are at their shortest, the sun is far away, and the Malthusian edge, in Brad DeLong’s phrase, is right in front of you. It’s no wonder so many religious festivals take place around the solstice. Here were a people, more than five millennia ago, able not only to pull through the Winter successfully, but able also to build a huge timepiece to remind themselves that they were going to make it. It’s astonishing.

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O, Happy Solstice, and Business | thirdbIT
12.23.07 at 4:45 pm

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1

paul 12.22.07 at 3:45 am

Thanks for sharing this. I had never heard of it and would have gone to see it had I known about it on my trips to Ireland.

2

Brad DeLong 12.22.07 at 4:18 am

I think it’s Greg Clark’s phrase…

3

lemuel pitkin 12.22.07 at 5:06 am

What a lovely post. I hope I have a chance to see this one day. Thank you, Kieran.

4

foolishmortal 12.22.07 at 5:49 am

There’s a similar structure over in the Orkney Islands, which IIRC was built by beaker people rather than Celts, which is odd. Very small folks, the beaker people, if their clearances are anything to go by.

5

Chris Bertram 12.22.07 at 7:34 am

Kieran’s initial posting of this led me to plan a trip to Ireland, which turned out to be one of the best holidays I’ve ever had. Newgrange is wonderful, just as Kieran says.

6

Nicholas Whyte 12.22.07 at 7:37 am

You do realise that the sunrise was webcast this year?

7

notsneaky 12.22.07 at 7:49 am

If it’s older than Stonehenge I don’t think the Ancient Celts had anything to do with it. Ok, just nitpicking the intro paragraph.

8

Roy Belmont 12.22.07 at 9:40 am

wikipedia:
“and predates Stonehenge trilithons by about 1,000 years (although the earliest stages of Stonehenge are roughly contemporary with Newgrange”

DeLong’s “Malthusian edge” is a zingy phrase but his consideration of the wonder of his friend’s buying a bag of flour for .69 cents, “four days’ worth of food, or a value equivalent to three days’ worth of total production” for “the overwhelming bulk of our ancestors half a millennium ago” betrays a myopic understanding of the true costs of things – topsoil loss, family farm loss, the loss of land health and human community – that becomes dangerous in proportion to the seductive zing of its delivery.
That said this is far and away my favorite post here, and I’m sorry I missed it the first time round or I would have said so then.

9

bad Jim 12.22.07 at 9:46 am

I took my mother for our daily stroll down the boardwalk around noon, and the tide was lower than any I could remember. You could walk to Bird Rock without getting your feet wet; other rocks surfaced that I don’t recall ever seeing before. The moon is full, so of course the tides are extreme, but this seemed a little over the top.

10

derek 12.22.07 at 11:40 am

in the Orkney Islands, which IIRC was built by beaker people rather than Celts, which is odd.

I would call it odd if a passage grave was built by Celts, rather than the other way around.

I visited the passage grave at La Hougue Bie in Jersey just before closing time, when everyone else had left, so the staff let me wander around for a bit while they were shutting up, before giving me a lift back in to town. So I got the full eeriness of going deeper and deeper into the dark under the hill, while the outside world shrank to a dot in the distance. It’s easy to see why it would have felt like a different realm to the people who used it.

11

chris y 12.22.07 at 12:21 pm

What (if anything) is/was an Ancient Celt anyway? [lights blue touchpaper and retires immediately.]

12

chris y 12.22.07 at 12:23 pm

Which in no way detracts from the awesomeness of Newgrange and the people who built it.

13

Slocum 12.22.07 at 2:07 pm

Thanks, for the post. A trip to Ireland is on tap some time in the future, and a visit to Newgrange has been added to on the list.

DeLong’s “Malthusian edge” is a zingy phrase but his consideration of the wonder of his friend’s buying a bag of flour for .69 cents, “four days’ worth of food, or a value equivalent to three days’ worth of total production” for “the overwhelming bulk of our ancestors half a millennium ago” betrays a myopic understanding of the true costs of things – topsoil loss, family farm loss, the loss of land health and human community – that becomes dangerous in proportion to the seductive zing of its delivery.

Yes, for all his impeaching of Bush and Cheney, I do believe that Delong harbors a subversively positive view of the benefits of modern market economies and an inexplicably unromantic view of life near the “malthusian edge”. He seems equally oblivious to the evils that lurk in that 69 cent bag of flour and the moral, social, and spiritual benefits of periodic starvation.

14

matt mckeon 12.22.07 at 2:26 pm

I visited Newgrange about 20 years ago. It was a wonderful experience I can still remember vividly. Kudos to the interpretive staff there, who did an effective job explaining the site.

15

Witt 12.22.07 at 2:27 pm

This is just lovely. Thank you so much. I shared it with a number of people.

16

jim 12.22.07 at 3:33 pm

It’s a nice post, and I don’t mean to undermine it, but . . .

To call Newgrange a clock (or Stonehenge an observatory) is like calling medieval churches signposts, because they’re oriented east-west. Newgrange and Stonehenge were built for some (probably religious) use — now opaque to us — and given an alignment relative to a solstice because that had some (probably religious) meaning. They weren’t built to have that alignment; they have that alignment because they were built.

While Kieran’s musings about the meaning of a solsticial alignment are true, they may not have been the surface motivation for the alignment of Newgrange (or Stonehenge). A naive observer without knowledge of church history asking why medieval churches are aligned east-west might come up with a surmise about the equinoxes. That wouldn’t be untrue: the sun shining through the east window during mass as Easter approaches or at harvest makes the alignment feel right. But the people who laid out those churches thought they were aligning them in the conventional direction of Jerusalem. If we could unearth the designers, the architects, of Newgrange or Stonehenge and ask them why they aligned their creations with the solstice, we might be surprised by their answers.

17

Mrs Tilton 12.22.07 at 3:48 pm

Slocum @13:

Yes, for all his impeaching of Bush and Cheney, I do believe that Delong harbors a subversively positive view of the benefits of modern market economies

Why, Slocum, you say that as though it were a bad thing…

Seriously, why on earth should people with negative views of the benefits of market economies enjoy a monopoly on the desire to see Bush & Cheney impeached (and extradited to the Hague, and clapped into irons for the rest of their naturals)?

18

theophylact 12.22.07 at 4:08 pm

Actually, the Sun is closer at the [Northern] Winter Solstice than at the Summer Solstice.

19

A. Y. Mous 12.22.07 at 4:33 pm

Jim, it is you who is confusing definitions. “Clock” and “Signposts” also mean different things today. Whether it was “Winter Solstice” or whether it was merely “Bad/Good Change From Today” does not, not make it a clock.

20

JakeB 12.22.07 at 4:49 pm

“Actually, the Sun is closer at the [Northern] Winter Solstice than at the Summer Solstice.”

Not to Ireland.

As my girlfriend said after having slightly frozen for two weeks there and then looking at a globe, “Hey! It’s the same latitude as Alaska!”

21

jim 12.22.07 at 5:00 pm

@19: My point wasn’t semantic. It’s a question of the purpose of Newgrange. I claim it wasn’t built so that the local community could tell when the solstice occurred. Neolithic communities had better, easier, cheaper ways of determining the solstice than clambering in to a tomb before dawn to see if the sun’s rays hit a particular mark on the back wall. They had to have them in order to get the alignment of Newgrange so accurately. Plus, there was a great big rock blocking the entrance to the tomb. It’s been conjectured that the slit exists so that the sun’s rays would strike the back wall at dawn on the solstice even when the rock was blocking the entrance — even when the tomb was closed. This implies that the sight was there either for the dead — the remains of five bodies that were entombed there — or possibly some privileged person who had been shut in to commune with the dead and would get to see the dawn illuminate the mark at the end of his (her?) ordeal.

22

John Emerson 12.22.07 at 6:23 pm

As we know, the Celts are recent interlopers, probably originating in Moldava or Bessarabia, and never produced anything more substantial than myths, poems, jokes, and so on.

23

notsneaky 12.22.07 at 7:40 pm

John Emerson, don’t forget the ‘magic strength potion’!

24

Barry 12.22.07 at 7:46 pm

“Actually, the Sun is closer at the [Northern] Winter Solstice than at the Summer Solstice.”

Posted by JakeB: “Not to Ireland.

As my girlfriend said after having slightly frozen for two weeks there and then looking at a globe, “Hey! It’s the same latitude as Alaska!””

Yes it is, even to Ireland. The Earth is (IIRC) two million miles closer to the sun at the Winter Solstice than at the Summer Solstice (Northern hemisphere).

Not even Ireland’s extreme northerly placement can make up for that.

On second thought, the weather in winter *might* make up for that – what’s two million miles to the Irish rain?

25

stostosto 12.22.07 at 8:33 pm

Amazing. Why have I never heard of this..?

26

Mitchell Young 12.22.07 at 10:14 pm

You can read about the DNA of the people of the British Isles here.

http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/this_britain/article1621766.ece

The overwhelming contribution is from neolithic fisherman/farmers. That point is, there is a great deal of genetic continuity between the people that built New Grange and todays Irish…same goes for English/Stonehenge

Of course, with Britain and Ireland’s immigration policies, that continuity will cease in, oh, about 40 – 60 years. Heck, its already gone in London.

27

JakeB 12.23.07 at 12:04 am

Barry & Theophylact–
That more sensible explanation occurred to me only after I had my morning coffee. I must remember to avoid making noncaffeinated assumptions in future.

28

Joshua Holmes 12.23.07 at 12:13 am

As if the world needed more proof that the Celts are the handsomest, smartest, most advanced, most wonderful people ever to walk this blessed Earth.

29

wood turtle 12.23.07 at 2:01 am

Maybe our days are a little off. I wonder if another day close gives the desired effect.

30

wood turtle 12.23.07 at 2:17 am

We still have the Malthusian edge. I think it’s called the food shelf.

31

PK 12.23.07 at 3:58 am

I took my mother for our daily stroll down the boardwalk around noon, and the tide was lower than any I could remember. You could walk to Bird Rock without getting your feet wet

It will be even lower Sunday 12/23, 3pm PST. Depending on which Bird Rock in the world you are speaking of, naturally.

32

Jonathan Edelstein 12.23.07 at 3:31 pm

Naomi and I were there last summer. Newgrange and Knowth are awesome in the most literal sense of the word – more so than the Pyramids given the level of social organization their builders had to work with and the fact that they were projects of several generations rather than one.

33

Marshal 12.23.07 at 5:02 pm

The Earth is at perihelion on January 4th, so the Sun is indeed closer to all of us at the Northern hemisphere winter solstice.

The tilt of the rotation axes drives the seasons, not the Earth’s orbit.

I would say that Newgrange is not a clock, but an astronomical observatory. To make a structure like Newgrange or Stonehenge means that they already had decades if not centuries of astronomical observations behind them. I think that Astronomy is truly the oldest profession; in most cultures, the first structures built tend to have an astronomical purpose or understanding behind them.

34

stostosto 12.24.07 at 12:25 pm

Regarding the Malthusian Edge: I read that the most critical time of the year in ancient agricultural societies wasn’t winter solstice but in fact more often summer – right before the autumn harvest. If the previous years’ yield was meager, stocks ran empty in the course of spring and early summer.

Lacey & Danziger: The Year 1000

35

JanieM 12.24.07 at 4:13 pm

marshal @34: Is the fact that the Earth is at perihelion on 1/4 part of the reason why the latest sunrise is at about that time? If so, then why is the earliest sunset a couple of weeks before the solstice? (I suppose I could google it, and probably will, but I thought you might know off the top of your head.)

36

Roy Belmont 12.24.07 at 11:41 pm

slocum, John Berger:
“Yet the positivist utopia was not achieved. And the world today is less controllable by experts, who have mastered what they believe to be its mechanisms, than it was in the nineteenth century.
What was achieved was unprecedented scientific and technical progress and, eventually, the subordination of all other values to those of a world market which treats everything, including people and their labour and their lives and their deaths, as a commodity. The unachieved positivist utopia became, instead, the global system of late capitalism wherein all that exists becomes quantifiagble – not simply because it can be reduced to a statistical fact, but because it has been reduced to a commodity.
[…]
…the sacralization of Progress as Comfort…”

Gasoline costs 3.27gal where I live. What it’s really going to cost us looks to be a bit more than that.

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