Space & Innovation

Ancient Tomb Magically Heralds Winter Solstice

A 5,000-year-old tomb passage in Ireland can do a neat trick, but only a few people are lucky enough to see it. Continue reading →

When the sun comes up for several days around the Winter Solstice, a 5,000-year-old tomb in Ireland can do a special trick.

This year, a sizable crowd gathered outside the Neolithic burial mound to glimpse the annual spectacle.

The Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland predates Stonehenge and the Pyramids in Egypt. Built in a dome shape with a grassy top, it contains a long, narrow tunnel that leads into a cross-shaped inner chamber. Massive stones around the mound have swirling carvings.

Earth's Extreme Tilt Marks The Winter Solstice

When the sun rises on the days right around the Winter Solstice, the tomb entrance allows in a beam that causes the passage to glow. This golden light moves from the ground to the window area and then the rear chamber in a 17-minute Neolithic light show, according to National Geographic.

Although Tuesday is technically the Winter Solstice, Monday morning was supposed to be "the main event," RTÉ correspondent Richard Dowling tweeted. Over the weekend, conditions had been perfect. "Magic and genius of Newgrange never fails to astound on the winter solstice," IrishCentral.com's headline announced.

But this is Ireland, where a clear morning is never a guarantee. (The country recently experienced terrible flooding.) Onlookers who had arrived before dawn outside the tomb wore raincoats and gripped umbrellas.

More than 30,000 people had applied to be inside the tomb for sunrise, but only 16 had won the lottery to be in the chamber, NewsTalk reported. Clouds and rain blotted out the sun. "Rain sees off any chance of magic in the chamber," the Irish Times announced.

What Is the Summer Solstice?

I can sympathize with the disappointed, damp crowd. Unpredictable weather has started to become the norm. My New England hometown is on track for yet another unseasonably warm and rainy Christmas. Having grown up with so much winter snow, this just feels wrong.

Although the Newgrange passage tomb didn't light up as anticipated, the skies along the Irish coast did. A strong geomagnetic storm made Aurora Borealis visible this week, producing a colorful display.

A row of huge stones stood some 4,000 years ago just two miles from Stonehenge, dwarfing the iconic stone circle. Dubbed "Superhenge," the site is five times bigger than the iconic stone circle and lies buried three feet beneath a thick, grassy bank at a Stone-Age enclosure known as Durrington Walls.

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"We're looking at one of the largest stone monuments in Europe and it has been under our noses for something like 4,000 years," Vince Gaffney, chair in Landscape Archaeology and Geomatics at the University of Birmingham, said. "We don't think there's anything quite like this anywhere else in the world. This is completely new and the scale is extraordinary," he said. Gaffney announced the finding at the opening of the ongoing British Science Festival.

Understanding Stonehenge: Two Explanations

Image: Artist reconstruction of the standing stones at Durrington Walls.

Lesser known than Stonehenge, Durrington Walls was the site of a large Neolithic settlement and later a henge enclosure measuring 1,600 feet in diameter. It is surrounded by a ditch up to 57 feet wide and an outer bank about 131 feet wide and three feet high. The henge, thought to have been built around 4,500 years ago, surrounds several smaller enclosures and timber circles, yet no one had imagined it concealed the massive stone structure, as shown by the yellow circles in the picture.

PHOTOS: Intricate Treasures From Stonehenge Burial

Image: The route of the stone row (yellow circles) at Durrington Walls.

The massive prehistoric site was identified by the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes international team, led by Birmingham and Bradford Universities and Austria's Ludwig Boltzmann Institute. The five-year project, which is the largest geophysical survey ever undertaken, used advanced geophysical technologies such as powerful ground-penetrating radar, which can detect buried features to a depth of up to 13 feet.

Image: Running the radar near Stonehenge.

Stonehenge Was Once A Complete Circle

The remote sensing technologies revealed evidence of a row made up of 90 standing stones, some of which may have originally stood up to 15 feet high.

Image: Green circles show the position of the stone row.

Stonehenge 'Smiley Face,' Other Features Detected Underground

At some point, the stones were deliberately pushed over and covered with a huge bank of earth and chalk, under which they still lie. "In the east up to 30 stones, measuring up to size of 15 feet, have survived below the bank whereas elsewhere the stones are fragmentary or represented by massive foundation pits," co-director Wolfgang Neubauer of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology, said.

Image: A rendition of the superhenge after the stones were pushed over and buried under a bank of earth and chalk.

The archaeologists concluded that the huge stones were part of a C-shaped Neolithic arena that faced directly towards the Avon River. The finding, according to co-director Gaffney, has significant implications for our understanding of Stonehenge and its landscape setting. "Not only does this new evidence demonstrate a completely unexpected phase of monumental architecture at one of the greatest ceremonial sites in prehistoric Europe, the new stone row could well be contemporary with the famous Stonehenge sarsen circle or even earlier," Gaffney said.

Image: A rendition of the Durrington Wall's horseshoe.

Photos: Intricate Treasures From Stonehenge Burial

It's not yet clear whether or not the buried stones will be excavated. "Archaeological excavations may play an important role in proving these findings. We will await any academic proposals and consider them," an English Heritage spokesman told The Guardian.

Image: The buried stones.

Swedish Stonehenge? Stone Structure Spurs Debate

Previous intensive study of the area around Stonehenge had led archaeologists to believe that only the enigmatic stone circle and a smaller henge at the end of the Stonehenge Avenue had significant stone structures. The new findings show Stonehenge wasn't standing in splendid isolation on the edge of Salisbury Plain. On the contrary, it was the center of a large and rich ceremonial landscape. "Everything written previously about the Stonehenge landscape and the ancient monuments within it will need to be re-written," Paul Garwood, the principal prehistorian on the project at the University of Birmingham, said.

Image: A close up of stone circle at Stonehenge.