Updated: May 23, 2022
One of the things that I find so fascinating about Ireland is the range and depth of history. The people have witnessed and rebelled against centuries of outside conquerors from Vikings to British nobility. I am personally drawn to the energy of ancient pagan sites and the mysticism that surrounds such places. The Brú na Bóinne UNESCO World Heritage site, located in Boyne Valley, County Meath includes the ancient monuments of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. This site has more Neolithic art than anywhere else in the Western world.
Brú na Bóine literally means Palace/Valley of the Boyne and is centered around the River Boyne. It is considered to be one of the most important prehistoric landscapes. The site is dominated by the three major passage tombs built about 5,000 years ago. At the time, the area would have been populated mainly by farmers but the construction of at least 40 passage tombs indicate the community had a sophisticated knowledge of engineering and astronomy, as well as an appreciation for art. Experts have found evidence that shows a complex society full of many rituals and ceremonies, especially regarding death.
Although the sites stopped being used for homes, they continued to be used for ceremonial purposes. Henges were constructed during the Bronze Age. Even early Christian ceremonies happened here. Over time, the site fell into disuse and time covered the monuments until 1699 when they were rediscovered by the local landowner. The site became officially protected in 1882.
The only way to access the Knowth and Newgrange monuments of the Brú na Bóinne site is through the Visitor Center, which is an excellent multi-media, state-of-the-art interpretive center that explains the life and times of the farming people who built these monuments. After exploring the Visitor Center exhibits and grabbing a cup of coffee from the café, we crossed over the River Boyne to the first monument, Knowth.
The Neolithic burial passage tombs (formerly called "fairy hills") in Knowth are aligned to the Spring and Autumn equinox. The main tomb is surrounded by satellite tombs.
For years, these were buried under a farmer's field. The smaller tombs had collapsed in the centres and it suddenly became apparent that the fairy hill was actually something more significant.
Regular folks aren't allowed to explore the passages for safety and preservation reasons. There are two long passages, each leading to a different burial chamber.
During excavation, over 200 pieces of decorated stone were uncovered, most being the kerbstones which surround the mounds. The experts are divided as to the purpose of these intricate granite carvings. Some say they are astronomical, some say it is a form of written communication, while still others say it is simply lovely decoration without any true meaning.
After exploring Knowth, it's a short walk to Newgrange, another Neolithic tomb passage but much bigger. The outside walls are created from Quartz and granite. The quartz came from the Wicklow mountains and the round river stones came from an area about 50 km away.
In walking around this site, it boggles the mind to realize that it is older than Stonehenge and the Ancient Pyramids.
The spirals are a constant theme in the decorations
The standing stones outside of Newgrange. These henges are found all over present day UK. Both the wooden henge at Knowth and this stone henge are reconstructions based upon archeological evidence.
The third passage tomb is not actually part of the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Center site, so to access Dowth you'll need to leave this site to drive to the next site.
Dowth has not been excavated in modern times, so it's rather underwhelming upon first glance. What visitors see once they arrive is an unremarkable grassy hill, making it clear how very challenging it is to discover these sites. The entrance into the tomb and a small part of an exterior wall are the only signs that this may be a more significant site.
Our tour guide books suggested that a visit to Knowth and Newgrange would require 2 hours. We easily doubled that as we checked out every detail whether minor or significant. We especially enjoyed the sentinel stones of Knowth and the superb experience provided by the Visitor's Center. At the time of publication, due to covid restrictions, all visits must be pre-booked.