Was this really the way? The directions given by the navigation system had taken us down what looked like a tertiary road, narrow and twisting, without any signage that could confirm that this was the route to Newgrange, Ireland’s ancient heritage site. It was not as though our destination was some remote and unknown outpost. Were we being hoaxed? Again? This clever computer had directed us along its shortest, ‘most efficient’ route on another occasion when we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, on a dirt track, with cows standing startled, looking puzzled, as though they had never seen a vehicle before. It is possible for a gadget to be just too clever. Still we persisted. We were not on dirt yet. If everything failed we could loop around and reach our destination using the roadway we thought would take us there - via the next village. There was no real concern. There was no rush and the drive was taking us through some picturesque countryside. Sometimes getting off the beaten track can be a more enjoyable experience than maintaining the hype of speed in the forced flow of motorways. As we progressed, we convinced ourselves that we were on the wrong road.
Then the sign appeared - 'Newgrange.' Well, who would have guessed? Why was the route not better signed - well, signed at all? Still, we were pleased. Soon the site - the purpose of this trip - could be seen in the distance high on the left, but we drove on well past this first sighting until we reached a sign that directed us into a leafy car park. There was no building here. After collecting our bits and pieces, we moved off in what we assumed to be the direction of the visitor centre, along a twisting path framed by a pergola. It went on and on - and on. It was a surprising distance, but eventually a building appeared. We moved in up to the counter that looked like the place where things were formally resolved. Unlike that at the Giant’s Causeway, there was no charge to enter this centre: (see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/giants-causeway-gateway.html)
"Are you wanting to go on the tour?"
"One will be going in ten minutes."
Well, one can be lucky. Maybe the crowd of students seen alighting in the car park will take longer than ten minutes to get organised? Arrangements were agreed, sorted out and finalized. We were labelled and told to walk to the bus in the indicated direction. So we walked, and walked - and walked, down over the river and along to the bus stop tucked in behind a wall of information that presented facts in various languages. Here we waited and waited - and waited, until the driver decided it was time to leave, which seemed a much longer period than the predicted ten minutes, but still the large student group had not arrived. Why had we pushed ourselves so hard to get there? Why had we rushed anxiously, breathlessly, along the long, ramping, twisted path of unknown length?
"All aboard," was said with a Polish accent.
Then we were off. We drove and drove - and drove, until we reached the small building that was the kiosk at the entry to the site of Newgrange, at the bottom of the hill, squeezed tightly into a corner of the field surrounding the mound. The narrow timber steps and gateway seemed too rustic, too informally ad hoc for this monument. At this time of the year adjacent, similar historic sites - Knowth, Dowth - were closed, so there were no options to see the other mounds that apparently had more carvings and archaeology on display. Perhaps Newgrange was the closest to the visitor centre, the most convenient? All visitors were checked in and told to move up to and assemble at the entry to the mound. Here the group waited as the surrounding countryside was surveyed. This was an astonishing location, complete with a three hundred and sixty degree vista into the surrounding distant hills. What was the meaning of this place?
Newgrange itself was a surprise. We had seen the promotional images that highlighted the bright white wall, usually in images shot from the air, but the surprise was that this wall was made of white stones with a grid of darker pebbles patterned across it, almost digitally. The quartz and pebbles - they were really sizeable rocks that the scale of the place made appear as small stones and river-washed pebbles - were merely a facing; but it was an extremely sophisticated cladding. The wall started as a dark surface, with a mass of dark pebbles that faded, blended by selective gradation, into a pure white wall with a grid of dark dots, and then shaded back again to the dark pebbles. The portion of facing over the entry was all white, to, as we discovered later, reflect, concentrate and direct light. Was this the original structure? It looked amazingly modern - very subtly modern. Its use of a sparse dot pattern reminded one of an Otto Wagner wall, his Postal Savings Bank in Vienna. It is an appearance that has once again become popular with architects.
The eye could not leave this elegant wall, all pure white, with a beautifully modulated, pixilated pattern, standing vertical, directly on a base of massive dark stones. It was an amazing sight, exceeding all expectations. There was power here. Before the question to the tour guide could be put, the spiel had started. This wall was a reconstruction carried out by the Irish archaeologist Michael O'Kelly in the early twentieth century. The original wall had collapsed into a pile of rubble. O'Kelly pieced the parts together by analyzing the locations of the various parts and pieces. Just how he knew it was a vertical pebble-faced wall remains uncertain. The manner in which he devised the precise pattern from the rubble mess is even more unclear. But there was a question: what lies behind this pebble facing? What structure? The wall has a substantial portion of the mound to support, as well as itself. Would ancient man really have created a vertical retaining wall out of rubble and then faced it so carefully? How were the pebbles fixed? Could it be possible that the wall might really have been a tilted gravity structure rather than a vertical retaining cantilever, as it now appears to be? What footings sat on the base rocks? It seems more likely to the casual, ignorant eye that it might have been a raking structure, but who knows? The vertical wall looks really impressive, but would the unique challenge of erecting a high vertical retaining wall for such a mound be chosen when other more efficient raking structures could perform the required ask? There was an enigma here. Perhaps the significance of the site demanded a special effort?
The guide continued as the mind pondered. He gave an extremely professional presentation. Once the group already in the mound - those on the previous guided tour that day, (the site can only be accessed by one on a guided tour) - had exited, it was our turn. The directions were given, warning everyone that the space was narrow, low, and claustrophobic. One became slightly concerned. How long was this tunnel entry? What endurance was needed? We moved into the dim, low and narrow space that twisted and contorted, making one do the same for some twenty metres, and then the inner space expanded, opening up into a high, circular chamber with a lapped, cantilevered stone ceiling over a space that was surrounded by cubic recesses on three sides. The generous volume was no distance at all from the entry, but the passage leading into it was very low and narrow, certainly as awkward as the warning had suggested. The guide started his interior spiel. The purpose of the whole was unknown.
As the guide gave his well-learned and excellent presentation, all to the point, and precise, without pandering to the tourist mentality that prefers presentations as entertainment, smattered with high humour and smart stories, the eyes explored the details of the structure, and the markings and colourings on the stones. It was good to see the 'No Photography' requirement enforced rigourously. For some tourists, raising the camera in response to something new is almost a conditioned reflex that, today, is made easier with cameras becoming as mobile as phones. The structure of the main ceiling and the shaping of the three side compartments seemed familiar. The parallels with Mayes Howe in Orkney were remarkable, even down to the concept of light penetrating deep on axial alignment precisely on the winter solstice.
The presentation concluded with a light show that first blackened the void and then shone a beam along the entry path as it would be revealed on the winter solstice when the whole space would be aglow from the brilliant ray of rising sunlight that reached deep into the western recess. Unlike Mayes Howe where the light entered the corridor through the doorway entrance, here the light entered through the opening over the doorway because the entry passage ramped up steeply, a fact that was not noticed with the distraction of the squeeze. These high entry walls formed the recess that was faced only with the white pebbles to enhance the brilliance of this event. After a few questions, the guide revealed the detailed carvings and the wonderful triple Newgrange spiral tucked away behind a large rock framing the entry to the western void. So this is the original, the source of what has almost become a cliché decorative symbol. It had been beautifully carved. It was larger than anticipated. The other puzzling difference with Mayes Howe was the fact that there was no 'runes' graffiti at Newgrange. What did this mean, if anything? No Vikings? More respect?
The exit reminded one of the tight fit of the tunnel, and the tricky low lintel that catches the brow even when one has been warned. The student group was there waiting for our exit to be completed. Walking out past the carved iconic entry stone, we strolled around the perimeter of the mound to admire the setting and to look at the detailing of the base. Even here, some stones were decorated. There seemed to be no design strategy to the patterns or their locations. It has been suggested that the stones were perhaps from another site as they seemed to have been decorated prior to being located both inside the mound and outside.
'Coracle' seats on the path by the Boyne River
The eye was constantly drawn to the stonework and the subtle curve of the mound. It was truly an elegant and well-considered structure. The walk took us back past a grand old tree to the kiosk. Here there was a pause to look over the shoulder, like Lot's wife, to see Newgrange once more, for one last time, just to admire it again - to see if the eyes were really seeing this wonder. Then on into the bus and back into the real word of tourism: to the bus stop and the long walk to and across the gushing Boyne River; then the climb to the Visitor Centre, to enjoy a coffee and a browse. There were informative displays in this building that had been designed for crowds. It must be busy in summer. Our visit was in winter, obviously a quieter period. The centre seemed to be arranged for a precise flow of crowds: in, down, out; in, food and shop, up, out; and please leave your sticker for reuse. We pasted our stickers on the board provided and left, returning to parade along the kilometre-length of pergola promenade to the car.
Why were the distances so great? From car to centre; from centre to bus stop; from bus stop to Newgrange - it must have been ten kilometres. On reflection, this remoteness was essential for the integrity of the historic site. It gave the tourist a sense of humility, and maintained the context of the historic site with its uninterrupted, grand three hundred and sixty degree open vistas. It also physically illustrated, in a small way, the effort required to construct this site, with the chosen materials having to be transported from distant regions. Anyhow, why should this place be compromised purely for the convenience of anyone?
Driving back to the highway, the site could be glimpsed on the right, high in the distance, but infrequently. Its location was so open, but so secluded. One remained both astonished and puzzled: just what was the purpose of this structure? Will we ever know? The committed work of archaeologist O'Kelly is impressive, but was he too eager, like Evans was at Knossoss in Crete? Reconstruction work is always something to be wary of. It is always controversial. It relies on a personal interpretation, albeit one based on the best professional opinion of the time. It is also driven by the specific attitudes to history of that era. We have seen how these change with time and understanding. The world has come to understand on many occasions and in many different circumstances, how years can alter perceptions, making modifications that are usually based on assumptions, come to be labelled as ‘past failures.’ Still, even with this circumstance, the work of O'Kelly has been important for Newgrange and what we have and know of it today.
In spite of doubts and uncertainties - these perpetually recurring questions on veracity - we are left admiring what can be seen and felt as the sense of this site, its skill, its determination, and its mystery; a mystery enhanced by the triple spiral, the promotional icon off this place that is steeped in its own richness of references to life itself and its spiritual roots in continuity: the trinity. The rigour of Newgrange sets an example for our work today that seems so trite and limited when compared to our immediate concerns and their solutions. How can we assimilate substance into our projects? How can we harness power in place today? Indeed, how does Newgrange do this with such a simple stacking of stones and mounding of dirt? Is it the thinking, the feeling, the intelligence - the intent and commitment - that makes the difference?