As sunlight floods through the Neolithic passage tomb Newgrange once a year, it's as though our ancestors are reaching out to us.
The 2022 Winter Solstice occurs on Wednesday, December 21, marking the shortest day and longest night of the year for those who live in the northern half of the planet.
At sunrise on the shortest day of the year, for 17 minutes, direct sunlight enters the Newgrange monument in Co Meath to illuminate the Chamber, not through the doorway, but through the specially contrived small opening above the entrance known as the ‘roof box’.
The ancient event draws such attention that in 2000, the Irish site instituted a lottery system for ticketing.
On December 20, the day before the 2022 Winter Solstice, Brú na Bóinne, Newgrange and Knowth shared these spectacular photos from inside Newgrage taken by lottery winner Kieran Sheedy:
What is Newgrange?
Newgrange is a prehistoric monument built by stone age farmers located in the Boyne Valley in Co Meath. Along with nearby sites Knowth and Dowth, it is among the most important Neolithic sites in the world.
Dating back to 3200 BC, Newgrange predates Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza.
The structure itself lay hidden beneath the earth for over 5,000 years due to mound slippage, which effectively preserved it, until its rediscovery in the late 17th century, when men looking for building stone came across what they thought was a cave.
Restored to its former glory, the Newgrange mound is a solid structure that’s 250 feet across and 40 feet high, covering one acre of land. A tribute to its builders, the roof has remained essentially intact and waterproof for over 5,000 years.
Ancient carvings can be seen on many of the massive, kidney-shaped mound’s curbstones, including the triple-spiral design synonymous with Newgrange.
Local expert Michael Fox said in 2015: “Archaeologists have classified Newgrange as a passage tomb but it is more than that. ‘Ancient temple’ is a more fitting label: a place of astronomical, spiritual, and ceremonial importance.”
Excavations at Newgrange
Irish archaeologist MJ O’Kelly carried out excavations at Newgrange from 1962 to 1975 and became known as the father of “New Archaeology." It was O’Kelly who produced the first scientific dates for Newgrange and rediscovered the 'roof box,' which guides the light into the chamber.
On December 21, 1967, O'Kelly was the first person to see the winter solstice display at Newgrange in thousands of years.
O’Kelly’s daughter told the BBC, “He found the roof box when uncovering the roof chamber but wondered about its purpose…My mother, who worked closely with him, suggested that it might be connected with the winter solstice. And that was how he discovered it."
In his notes, O’Kelly recorded: “The effect is very dramatic as the direct light of the sun brightens and cast a glow of light all over the chamber. I can see parts of the roof and a reflected light shines right back into the back of the end chamber.”
His daughter, who experienced the solstice at Newgrange the following year, told the BBC, “Suddenly this shaft of light came into the chamber and hit the back wall. I remember being quietly moved – it was like someone was speaking to you from thousands of years before. I still see it like a picture before my inner eye – it was a golden light."
Here's a short clip from National Geographic on Newgrange:
What happens on the winter solstice at Newgrange
On the mornings surrounding the Winter Solstice, the passage and chamber of Newgrange are aligned with the rising sun.
The light enters about four minutes after sunrise, but calculations based on the precession of the Earth show that 5,000 years ago first light would have entered exactly at sunrise. That makes the solar alignment at Newgrange very precise compared to similar phenomena at other passage graves in England and Scotland.
It is a marvel of early astronomy that never fails to amaze.
The event has become so popular that in 2000, the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre instituted a lottery system for ticketing. Each year, 60 people are selected to visit Newgrange on the days surrounding the Winter Solstice.
In 2020 and 2021, however, visitors were not permitted to visit Newgrange during the Winter Solstice due to public health restrictions amidst the pandemic. In both years, Ireland's Office of Public Works facilitated a live stream of the magical event, both of which can be watched below.
Winter Solstice at Newgrange - December 21, 2021
Winter Solstice at Newgrange - December 21, 2020
* Originally published in 2015. Updated in 2022.