Celtic Antecedents


Pre-Celtic Culture Astronomical Observatories

Newgrange (Brugh na Boinne)

County Meath, Ireland

Built ~ 3200 - 3600 BCE

At some time after 6,000 years ago, there arose a remarkable community of people on the island now known as Ireland. These astute, organized, intelligent and capable people staked their claim on the country and began constructing permanent, indelible monuments which were to stand the test of eons of time. They were the megalithic builders.

Their constructions are Ireland's best known, most explored, and possibly least understood, monuments. The most famous of these is Newgrange. Newgrange is a magnet for tourists, who flock to the Boyne Valley every year in huge numbers. In 1999, there were 297,000 visitors to Newgrange, and numbers have been steadily rising.

On the Winter Solstice every year, just after 9am, across the Boyne Valley from Newgrange over a hill known locally as Red Mountain, the sun begins to rise. Given the right weather conditions, the event is spectacular. At four and a half minutes past nine, the light from the rising sun strikes the front of Newgrange, and enters through the passage and roofbox.

For the next 14 minutes, a narrow, foot wide beam of sunlight stretches into the passage and on into the central chamber. In Neolithic times, it illuminated the rear stone of the central recess of the chamber. With simple stone technology, these Neolithic people captured a very significant astronomical and calendrical moment in a spectacular way.

There are two beams of sunlight: a higher beam formed by the doorway falling on the passage, and lower beam from the roofbox that reaches the central chamber. Originally, the roofbox beam would have struck the rear chamber orthostat stone, and, possibly, would have been reflected onto another chamber stone, which contains the famous triple spiral. After these 14 minutes, the beam retreats down the passage and once again all is darkness.

Who were these ancient builders? The Maltese (~4000-3500BCE) and Minoans (~3500-1400BCE) were the first known, great sea-faring civilizations, and had mining colonies for copper and tin in the British Isles, northwestern Spain and Portugal, and later in upper Michigan in the U.S.

The earliest bronze work, gold work, and mines found in Ireland and Cornwall date to this period. It is likely, but not certain, that most of the earliest inhabitants of these parts of the British Isles were Minoans, and later Phoenicians. The bronze age, roughly, began as the Sicilian-Maltese sea kingdom declined and the Minoan sea kingdom rose. Bronze was in use at nearly the same time and the population and number of ancient village/town sites exploded just after 4000 BCE. However, the Minoans were at their zenith between 2500 and 1500 BCE. However, Newgrange seems to have been built prior to the first known cities of the Minoans, by a few hundred years.

There is a second candidate for "first settlement" of Ireland in the ancient megalithic Sicilian-Maltese island kingdom that dates to about 5600BCE (earliest large temple sites) and declined by 2600 BCE--about when the Minoans were hitting their zenith. Settlers of Malta arrived by sea from Sicily. The Minoan sea kingdom shows some evidence of, itself, being a successor state, to this earlier, more westerly, sea kingdom. It's hard to say how far the ancient Sicilian-Maltese explorers traveled and for what purposes.

The Moon and Newgrange

The Winter Solstice sunrise phenomenon is not the only function of Newgrange. In the book 'Uriel's Machine', Robert Lomas and Christopher Knight have suggest that the series of eight markings above the roofbox may have been used to track down Venus during specific positions in its eight-year cycle. This eight-year cycle of Venus ties in very closely with the metonic cycle of the moon.

Many astronomers will know that the moon's orbit around the earth is slightly inclined to the sun's path, which causes the moon to cross the sun's path. The moon's orbit also rotates, and this precession takes 18.6 years. This means that every 9.3 years, on the sun's summer solstice and winter solstice, a full moon, or waning gibbous moon, will rise in the sun's position and, weather permitting, shine into the passage and central chamber of Newgrange.

The Irish name for Newgrange is Brugh na Boinne. The word Boinne, from which the River Boyne is derived, means 'White Cow', and the ancient goddess Boann may have been associated with the Moon. Indeed, some researchers have pointed out that the period of gestation of a cow is equivalent to nine and a half synodic lunar months. The word Brugh is interesting too. Traditionally it has been interpreted by academics as meaning 'mansion' or 'house', but there is a word Brú which has been found by researchers of ancient Irish Gaelic to mean 'womb' (MacCionnaith Foclóir, 1938). Could the real meaning of Newgrange be 'The womb of the Moon???' The symbolism and interplay between the various elements involved leads to further speculation about the whole purpose of the site. We can imagine a full Moon rising over the Hill of Red Mountain, shining across the valley, over the Boyne River, which has the same meaning as the Milky Way in the sky, and may in fact have been seen as its earthly reflection. The Irish for Milky Way is 'Bealach, or Bothar, an Bó Finne' - the way or the road of the white cow. Some researchers have speculated that perhaps the quartz façade on the front of Newgrange is supposed to be a representation of the Milky Way.

The Celts and Moon images in art

These ancient megalithic cultures were in both Ireland and Scotland. Their culture and carvings are very similar to ancient pre-Celtic sites in Spain, and similar to other ancient megalithic cultures in the northeastern Mediterranean, westernmost Asia and the island kingdoms in between these areas. But, by language, artifacts and DNA, the first definable Celts, arrived in Ireland and Scotland much later, about 900-1100 BCE. These Celts came from Iberia (now Spain and Portugal), bringing iron with them, and so were not the first migration from the Iberian Peninsula.

Based upon place names and archaeological evidence, the Neolithic people came to Scotland from the sea, most likely from Scandinavia or the Baltic area. The Knap of Howar site, on the island of Papa Westray, Orkney, was occupied between 3700-2800 BCE and is considered the oldest stone house in northern Europe. The one consistent aspect of their settlements is the construction of burial sites from stone. Cairns, barrows, passage graves, chambered tombs and burial mounds, all built by the dry stone method (placing and lodging one stone snugly against another without mortar) have been discovered throughout Scotland. Skara Brae is a neolithic site situated in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. The village of stone buildings was inhabited from c. 3100 to 2500 BCE.

In the past, historians dated the arrival of the Picts in Scotland to sometime shortly before their mention in Roman history, and as a single invasive wave. Modern scholarship, however, offers a much earlier date of arrival, prior to 800 BCE, based on a long continuity of Pictish stone carvings, with no full-scale invasion. According to the Collins Encyclopedia of Scotland, 'the Picts did not 'arrive' - in a sense, they had always been there, for they were the descendants of the first people to inhabit what eventually became Scotland'. Historian Stuart McHardy supports this claim, writing that 'the Picts were, in fact, the indigenous population of this part of the world,' by the time the Romans arrived in Britain, 32 CE. They originally came from Scythia (Scandinavia, the Baltic area, Poland, and southward into what is now Russia and Ukrainia), settled first in Orkney, and then migrated south. They created many intricately carved symbol stones. People at the time would have understood the symbols and figures carved on the stones, but their meanings have been lost over the centuries and, today, there is much debate about the meaning of some Pictish symbols. Here we see one that is clearly a crescent moon.

Carrowkeel - World’s Oldest Known Astronomical Observatory

Cairn G at Carrowkeel, County Sligo, Ireland

This Monday, June 20 was the first day of summer 2016, aka Mid-Summer and was also are rare co-incidence with a full moon. This got us thinking again about the ancient astronomical observatories of the Neolithic age in Ireland and Scotland.

When this subject is discussed, we usually hear mostly about the huge passage tomb at Newgrange in County Meath, famed for being built around 3200 BCE, making it more than 600 years older than the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, and 1,000 years more ancient than Stonehenge. However, there are other neo-lithic sites throughout Ireland, and one of the oldest is at Carrowkeel in County Sligo.

CarrowkeelCairnG 2

There are 14 passage mounds at Carrowkeel, all in different stages of construction. Although the site suffered an explosive assault in the 1911 'digs', there are enough remains to show us that this was once an extremely important part of the Neolithic Irish landscape.

Carrowkeel Cairn G is smaller and less sophisticated, and the Cairn G passage is only two meters long compared with nineteen meters at Newgrange but Cairn G is estimated to have been built around 3900 BCE, or 700 years before Newgrange!

Researcher Martin Byrne, whose website, http://www.carrowkeel.com, covers many subjects, was the first to demonstrate that the passage mound known as Cairn G, has a 'light-box', which is similar in design to the light-box at Newgrange, and so constructed so as to allow the light of both the sun and moon to penetrate the inner chamber.

In summer the effect is present for a month on either side of the summer solstice, and in winter, the light of the full moon is present on either side of the winter solstice. Here is a link to more photographs of the setting sun shining into Cairn G taken at summer solstice, 20th June 2008

Here is a short video of the summer solstice effect, taken at sunset on June 21, 2010, at Cairn G in Carrowkeel, County Sligo


Earlier tomb / observatories

The 6,000 year old monuments of the sea-going Maltese and Minoans

These passage tomb / observatories of Ireland are most similar to the passage tombs of Malta which pre-date them by several hundred years.

The same spiral motifs at the entrance, and the same 'shamrock' configuration of three side chambers surrounding the central chamber of Newgrange are both present in the first constructions at Ggantija on Malta. Over time, extra 'lobes' were added along with additional construction joining the three original buildings, and so eventually, a massive external temple complex was built.

This suggests that the Maltese sea-going empire of ~6,000 years ago was brought to Ireland in the succeeding millennia.

When the Maltese sea-going empire was rising ~4000 BCE and at its peak ~3600 BCE, the sea level was several hundred feet lower than it is today, and the Britannic islands were was still joined to continental Europe. The Maltese islands were also larger and some adjoined. Their distance to Italy was shorter. Malta is noted also for having some of the earliest bronze artifacts. We now know that the Minoan ships were crossing the Atlantic, in search of copper, and that the resulting copper ore-trace minerals used in Maltese bronze suggests the Maltese had done so first.

Malta's civilization fell as the sea level rose, and the Minoan empire succeeded the Maltese. Larger islands, like Crete, comprised the Minoan empire, and the Minoans had developed more coastal colonies, some seem to have succeeded earlier Maltese colonies. These colonies had a dual purpose. Although the passage tomb-observatories with their light-box windows were certainly built to mark the solstices, equinoxes and moon cycles important for agriculture, there is another likely purpose for these sea-going empires. These colonies provided control over lands that provided resources to the empire, including food and provisions for the ships.

However, these large buildings could have served also as weather observatories and navigational beacons to let the ships know where they were. Since weather is also seasonal and affects the likelihood of more regular, fair winds and a safe voyage, these same seasonal observations may have been used to indicate when the ice pack in the north was receding and storms were likely to be at their worst or least. The evidence is also shows that some of these temple complexes had perpetual fires burning which would have served as light-houses or navigational beacons to let the sailors know where they were and how far away from land.

Sligo's location is on the northwest coast of Ireland, one of the last points of land before heading west across the Atlantic. Newgrange is in a more sheltered, navigable river area with a rich alluvial flood plain for food. Just south are the Wicklow Mountains where gold was mined and crafted into torcs and other jewelry dating back to the bronze age, and late Neolithic age, (now displayed in the National Museum of Ireland).