Irish journalist Anthony Murphy starts easy when he talks about the site of a famous Irish earth chamber called Newgrange.
“Visitors may find it difficult to relate to a time 5,200 years ago, when a community of people vastly different to us began their monumental construction projects in the Bend of the Boyne,” he writes in his 2012 book “Newgrange: Monument to Immortality.”
Then the mystery begins to unfold. “The builders of the great stone passage mounds set about their grand venture without the assistance of the sophisticated technology which we take almost completely for granted,” he adds.
Then the independent archaeological investigator — who will be in Princeton on Friday, November 22, to talk about this National Heritage Site as part of the Fund for Irish Studies Series at Princeton University — adds this pre-Celtic society that left no written records had a “much shorter life span, and a much tougher physical existence, and a fragile one at that.”
Yet this settlement of farmers on the Eastern section of Ireland devoted time, energy, and physical resources to create a structure that Murphy calls “a grand expression of the mystical dimension of the human spirit.”
The secret for the effort, says the man involved with a new archaeological discovery, “will not be revealed by archaeology alone.” The reason is that clues remain in the old stories told for centuries.
Newgrange refers both to one particular large and studied structure and a specific area in the bend of the Boyne River.
The site’s original name is Bru na Boinne, or the “palace” or the “mansion” of the Boyne River. The more familiar Newgrange, or “new farm,” came from a sect of medieval monks who used the site.
Boyne — or Boinne — refers to a pre-Celtic goddess associated with fertility and life.
Located in County Meath, about 35 miles north of Dublin, the Newgrange “palace” is a circular stone and earth mound 15 yards high and 93 yards in diameter.
An initially narrow 21-yard inward passageway leads to a central chamber with several alcoves and a wall engraved with spiral circles — continuing a pattern found on the outside stones that has become synonymous with Ireland.
The date of its construction is 3,200 B.C.E., making it and the entire site older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza.
While its historical existence is enough to attract attention, a design function — a small opening over the passageway entrance — is the source of intrigue.
In the previously mentioned book, Murphy, like other archaeologist, points to “something remarkable about the winter solstice” at the site.
He notes that at 8:54 a.m. on the shortest day of the year, “the monument becomes bathed in a golden light” and “its stones have turned form shades of pale grey to radiant hues of yellow and orange.”
Then “four minutes after the sun first makes its appearance, a shaft of its light has penetrated deep into the mound’s interior, reaching the chamber floor. At its widest, the beam is 17 centimeters (about 7 inches) on the floor of the chamber. It reaches towards the end recess.”
Murphy then puts all the details in perspective. “The winter solstice alignment of Newgrange is trumpeted worldwide as a remarkable achievement of ancient engineering. And rightly so. For here is a structure which is made of largely unhewn stones — many of the stones are ‘surface dress,’ which means they were smoothened by a percussive hammering action — but none is ‘worked’ into a block with straightened edges. Unlike the corridors in the pyramids in Egypt, which have exceptionally straight walls, formed by blocks with extremely even surfaces, the passage of Newgrange is created with humongous rocks which have been barely altered at all.
“With these enormous stones, the creators of Newgrange cleverly created an aperture which was able to admit just a very thin beam of sunlight on the chamber floor … What they achieved was extraordinary. Not only did the roofbox and passage and chamber have to be very carefully designed and constructed, to focus a beam of sunlight into the back of the chamber, but they had to build in such a way as to sustain the weight of the cairn material above. And, it is suspected, they built Newgrange as an everlasting memorial, designed to withstand the harsh ravages of time, long into the future.”
Given the achievement and the construction, at least two questions arise.
Why did this group of people who left only silent structures and symbols create them in the first place? And how does this famous structure relate to others in a river-side complex containing two similar monuments and dozens of smaller ones?
That includes the one with the unusual name connected with Murphy’s Princeton talk and latest book, “Dronehenge.”
A combination of drone, as in the contemporary flying camera, and henge, a circular wood or stone prehistoric structure, Dronehenge refers to Murphy’s 2018 co-discovery of the remains of a hitherto overlooked underground stone-age structure.
It was detected when Murphy and fellow photographer and researcher Ken Williams used a drone to conduct a survey of the Newgrange complex during a drought.
According to Murphy, the dry ground provided imagery that “revealed the shadowy, ghostly footprint of the monuments. It was very difficult, looking at the drone images of the new henge, to picture it in your mind — to imagine what it actually looked like.”
But artist and past Murphy collaborator Kerem Gogus provided some suggestions with his 3-D renderings. They show a large circular open area defined by tall wooden posts — similar to other wooden henges found throughout the British Isles.
While Murphy speculates that this was a gathering space, he is unsure of the reason, mentioning seasonal celebrations, astronomical events, or even rituals. “We can only speculate,” he says.
During a recent telephone interview, Murphy says the Dronehenge name was coined by the media.
And while he initially resisted it, he then had another thought. “Archaeologists aren’t imaginative about naming sites. They use terms like Site K. An archaeologist called this one ‘Geometric Henge.’ I decided that if I was going to write about it I was going to call it Dronehenge.”
Whatever the name, the site is “internationally significant, and we need to figure out what it means,” noted a University College of Dublin professor during an NPR interview when the news traveled around the world and added to the intrigue already caused by Newgrange.
“It would be difficult to talk about one without the other,” Murphy says about specific structures on the site.
Frequently introduced as “author, writer, photographer, and astronomer,” Murphy — born, in 1974 and raised in Drogheda, Ireland — has been exploring ancient Irish architecture and mythology since 1999, but the roots of his interest were in the sky.
“I was passionately interested in astronomy from 7 to 8 years old. So at a very early age I became hooked on the night sky and really enjoyed the habit of observing the sky.
At the same time, he says, school trips took him on tours to the Newgrange site just 12 miles away.
“There was excavation going on and new information,” he says, recalling stories appearing in newspapers such as the Drogheda Independent, where his father still works as an editor.
The archaeological and myth “bug” bit him when “local artist, Richard Moore, wanted to see me about astronomy. He felt the Boyne Valley dealt with astronomy and wanted to learn more. The hair went up in the back of my head. And I started to teach about him astronomy, and he taught me about mythology.
“It was a very interesting exciting period of time. We thought we were making connections between the myths, the site, and astronomy. I became completely captivated the age of the site.”
Murphy and Moore’s work eventually became the first of Murphy’s five books exploring Irish mythology featuring solar gods, archaeology, and astronomy, “Island of the Setting Sun: In Search of Ireland’s Ancient Astronomers.”
It also was the catalyst for Murphy creating the Mythical Ireland website and the start of other projects in 2000.
“What I wanted to do was to disseminate some of the information and photography that Richard and I were coming up with. We had already amassed a lot of material and interpretation of myth. We wanted to get some out of it into the public arena prior to getting a book. That was the primary reason the website was started.”
Murphy says the website’s unusual mixture of ancient myth, spirituality, and science began attracting a broad audience that “encouraged me to keep going at it.”
A “modest business” produced at home and outside his daily business as graphic designer for the Irish Farm Journal, the married father of five says after 21 years of providing research, creating photographs and video tapes, presenting tours and lectures, and producing publications through Mythical Ireland, “I feel like that I am just starting to scratch the surface.”
He also admits that between work and family commitments that it takes a toll on him and wishes it could provide a livable income.
But the current recognition, including the invitation to talk at Princeton University, may change that.
That invitation was initiated by internationally recognized poet and Princeton University professor and Fund for Irish Studies co-chair Paul Muldoon, who will introduce Murphy at the event.
“I was fascinated to read about the impact on Ireland of the dry summer,” says Muldoon on inviting Murphy. “Paradoxically, the drought revealed a flood of information about the outlines of a vast number of ancient earthworks that had been obscured for centuries or, perhaps, millennia.”
Raised in Ireland, Muldoon says “the Newgrange site has been a feature of the Irish imagination at least since its last major excavation in the 1960s and ’70s. I was aware of it since I was a child.”
And while he visited without entering the mound, he says he “had a sense of the weight and immediacy of the history of the place. It’s pretty impressive that (people) could come up with the idea of building such a complex, interconnected system. Coming up with the idea is one thing; seeing it through quite another. I’m fascinated by the notion that we may have lost some of the know-how and technologies we had 5,000 years ago.”
About his Princeton talk and U.S. book signing (it won’t be available in the U.S. until January), Murphy says, “This is my first visit to the United States, and there is a huge interest in Irish history and culture in the United States. I’m hoping that it could be the start of something regular and talking to audiences about this wonderful complex that has so much myth and archaeology.”
Dronehenge: An Illustrated Talk by Anthony Murphy, James Stewart Film Theater, Lewis Center for the Arts, 185 Nassau Street, Princeton. Friday, November 22, 4:30 to 6 p.m. Free. arts.princeton.edu/events/fund-for-irish-studies-anthony-murphy-lecture
A Silent Symbol, an Old Story, and a Broken Secret?
I have been fascinated with prehistoric and ancient art since I was a child. As a person of Irish ancestry I visited the Newgrange monument and became fascinated with its designs carved in stone, especially the triple spiral or Triskelion image echoed in the more familiar shape with three spirals, the Shamrock.
During my interview with Anthony Murphy about his Princeton University talk and his recent discoveries at Newgrange, I asked him about the potential significance of the three spirals.
He responded by saying that it was interesting that I had brought the subject up because he had just posted on his website something an old Irishman had heard from older generations.
This is what he wrote:
“About 20 years ago, the triple spiral at Newgrange was explained to me by a Drogheda man (who at that time was in his 80s) who used to recall old stories all the time. The spirals are supposed to represent the sun in this way: The first spiral is the old sun, the dying sun. The second represents the new, growing sun. The third spiral represents days on which neither sun is stronger. A lovely explanation.”
For more stories and information from Anthony Murphy, go to www.mythicalireland.com or get regular notices by liking Mythical Ireland on Facebook.