The remains of an ancient earthwork found recently near Newgrange, County Meath in Ireland could have been used by ancient astronomers, new research suggests.
The henge was found by Anthony Murphy, a local researcher who was using a drone to observe a nearby site called Brú na Bóinne when he spotted the circular formation, now believed to be a previously undiscovered henge. Upon its discovery, the ancient earthwork was quickly added to the record of national monuments.
A historian and astronomer, Murphy also says that celestial alignments may be represented with the newly found henge. He told Irish Times that there are two times in the year that the alignments would have occurred. One of these is Bealtaine, he says, “which marks the beginning of summer,” and Lughnasa, “which was the time of year when the fruits had ripened and the crops were ready for harvest,” Murphy explained.
The most famous nearby monument is Newgrange, where a prominent neolithic circular mound bearing stone passageways within its interior stands. Dating back to around 3,200 BC, the Newgrange mound predates both Stonehenge and the pyramids at Giza; all of these ancient structures appear to possess alignments with celestial features, a common attribute to various monuments and cultural heritage sites of the ancient world.
In E.C. Krupp’s book Echoes of the Ancient Skies: The Astronomy of Lost Civilizations (a somewhat ironic, but nonetheless eye-grabbing title since none of the civilizations discussed in Krupp’s book are really “lost”), he discussed the relevance of early astronomy practiced by ancient people:
For most of the history of humankind, going back to stone age times, the sky has served as a tool. Just as the hands of the first people grasped the flints they crafted, so their brains grasped the sky. The regularity of the motions of celestial objects enabled them to orient themselves in time and space. And just as their culture was partly a product of the tools they made with their hands—axes and arrowheads, needles and spear-throwers—so it was also shaped by their perceptions of the sky. From the sky they gained—and we, their descendants, have inherited—a profound sense of cyclic time, of order and symmetry, and of the predictability of nature. In this awareness lie not only the foundations of science but of our view of the universe and our place in it.
There have been many researchers that read deeply into the celestial awareness of ancient people, as represented by their various monuments. However, while it’s obvious that they did possess a great degree of knowledge about things occurring in the skies above them, this was a very practical knowledge for ancient people to have, as it was arguably the best way for them to be able to chart the coming and going of the seasons, which thereby assisted with agricultural endeavors and a variety of other things.
People today have it easy: if we wish to know what the weather is looking like a week from now, we turn on our televisions, or we look at the weather apps on our Smartphones. For people of the ancient world, having a knowledge of astronomy and celestial happenings was their closest equivalent; instead of handy little devices that fit in every pocket, they built mounds, henges, and earthworks that helped them chart the periodic changes of the seasons.
New discoveries like the henge adjacent to Newgrange will only add to our growing knowledge of the ancient past, its people, and their practices… and some of these, as time has shown, were actually quite sophisticated.
Image of Newgrange plains (top) by Yvonne Ní Mhuiregán, Wikimedia Commons.