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Caves of the winter sun: Astronomy at the Boyne Valley Passage Graves

100_0091This article, published in Riocht Na Midhe, the journal of the Co. Meath Archaeological and Historical Society (2003), argues that the three great Boyne valley passage-graves: Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth have inter-related astronomical orientations.

It reveals that all three passage-graves are precisely and exclusively oriented on the winter solar cycle, with the solstice orientations at Newgrange, Dowth and possibly at a range of satellite mounds, at their heart. This finding has two significant implications. The first is that it reveals that not only was orientation to astronomical phenomena central to the ritual uses to which the individual monuments were put, but that these orientations functioned together, so that the relationship between orientation and ritual was coordinated across sites as well as operative within each single site. The second is that the winter solar cycle appears to have been central to the ritual meanings embodied in the monumental site as a whole.

There is a tendency within archaeology to dismiss such evidence, even as it is revealed; but in fact, the pattern of orientations at the Boyne valley presented here is striking, and significantly furthers our understanding of the ways in which the site may have functioned as a ritual and cosmological complex. The fact that the winter solar cycle was enshrined at the heart of an extremely elaborate prehistoric monumental and ritual site such as the Boyne indicates that the season itself had a powerful role within the cosmologies of such groups. Such a role cannot be reduced to ‘simple’ concerns to observe the turning of the year, but would have interacted integrally with the range of procession, deposition and initiation rituals evidently practiced at all three monuments. It would also have had meaning and significance in terms of the spatial use of the monuments, and certainly had significance in relation to the complex cosmological symbolism suggested by the rock art. 

The central and integrated relationship of the orientations at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth suggests that the winter cycle may even have acted as a structuring principle for such ritual practices and cosmological meanings, embodying an authority that appeared to lie beyond human agency, within the ‘order’ of the cosmos itself. Moreover, the winter solstice is a central alignment at other highly prominent Neolithic sites, suggesting it may have had a structural ritual role across as well as within particular regional monumental groups.