Newgrange, on the ridge of Brugh na Bóinne, lies between the valleys of the Boyne river and the little tributary river Mattock. On the ridge, each mound is set on the top of a knoll, as it may have been necessary for ritual purposes to set the mound on a high point. The site is a splendid vantage point looking straight down on the Boyne, which is one of the great rivers of Ireland, flowing through a fine fertile valley.
Newgrange was first brought to broad modern attention after 1699 by the Welsh antiquarian, Edward Lloyd. Until then, it was simply a huge, yet somehow 'magical' grass-covered mound. The landscape of Ireland is peppered with many such mounds, also known as Sídhe.
The Valley of the Boyne is effectively the Northern boundary of the Central lowland plain of Ireland. To the North lies the undulating hill country of County Louth, and the line of drumlins which mark the borders of old Ulster. The drainage basin of the river Boyne coincides with the fertile pastureland of County Meath where, today, grazing cattle, coppiced woodland and prosperous farms help to create a scene not unlike the Cheshire Plain on the opposite side of the Irish Sea.
But six thousand years ago, this was all forest. If we stand on the top of Newgrange and look about us in every direction, we overlook a basin of about 50 square kilometres before rising ground cuts off our view. Then if we imagine this basin as completely cleared of trees, we can get some idea of the kind of clearance that would have been required to produce a Neolithic farming community large enough to undertake the enormous task of building the complex of monuments at Brugh na Bóinne.
By about five thousand years ago, everyone working within this radius could either see the monuments, or feel that he ought to be able to see them, and could have a sense of devotion or commitment to these mysterious and sophisticated structures, which were constructed more than a thousand years before the pyramids of Egypt.
Covering an area of one acre, Newgrange is one of the most impressive prehistoric monuments in Europe. The entrance, which is almost sixty feet long, leads to the main chamber, which has a corbelled roof and rises to a height of nineteen feet. The traditional name for Newgrange and the grouping of tombs to which it belongs, was Brugh na Bóinne; and it was regarded as the otherworld dwelling of the divine Aonghus Mac Óg - Aonghus the Youthful.
Older than Stonehenge, the giant megalithic tomb of Newgrange was probably erected about 3,200 BC (in calendar years). It is one of a group of 40 passage tombs including Knowth and Dowth, that are enclosed on three sides by the river Boyne.
Passage tombs are generally found in clusters giving rise to the theory that they were ancient cemeteries, perhaps for leading families. They consist essentially of a round mound or cairn with a long, stone lined passage leading from the outside to a chamber within. As with Newgrange, which can still be seen by the naked eye from the Hill of Tara, some 15 miles away, they tend to be situated on hill tops and commanding sites.
The mound is enclosed on the outside by a circle of standing stones of which twelve remain. This gives the impression that the monument was built and designed to stand out from the landscape - perhaps as a beacon for pagan worship. The present day reconstruction, aimed at restoring the site to its pre-historic appearance, gives this theory further substance. Many have likened it to a grounded flying saucer; and it is the subject of much controversy. However, during the Newgrange excavations between 1962 - 1965, much research focused on the original shape of the cairn. This information was drawn from the accounts of those who had visited the monument in the preceding centuries: all of them commented on its flat top. And the positioning of the white quartz stones that reinforce the front of the mound is based entirely on meticulous engineering analysis of the cairn collapse.