This is Newgrange, in County Meath, Ireland, 30 miles north of Dublin. It was built 5,000 years ago, around 3300-2900 BCE. It’s 400 years older than the pyramids in Egypt, a thousand years older than Stonehenge in England. There are religious ruins in Turkey and on Malta that are a thousand years older than Newgrange, ruins in Brittany, France, that are 500 years older. So—not the oldest man-made structure in the world, but nearly.
Newgrange overlooks the River Boyne, in an area known as Brú na Bóinne, Irish for the Mansion of the Boyne. The structure is what archeologists call a megalithic passage tomb or an incised tumulus. A cairn of 220,000 tons of medium-sized stones interspersed with layers of turf was built over a passage and central chamber of large stone slabs. No mortar was used. The roof has never leaked. There are more than 40 passage tombs in the so-called Bend of the Boyne. Nothing is known about the people who built them. Whatever they did there, they stopped doing it by 2045 BCE.
In 1967 AD, Michael O’Kelly, an archeologist from University College, Cork, Ireland, discovered that Newgrange was more than a ceremonial tomb. O’Kelly had been supervising the excavation of Newgrange since 1962 (and continued until 1975) and had heard stories from local people that on certain days of the year the rising sun illuminated the 60-foot-long passage. On 21 December 1967, O’Kelly went into the passage before dawn and at 0858—when the sun appeared over Red Mountain, on the opposite rank of the Boyne—he observed a thin pencil of light that widened to 17 cm (6.5 inches) and illuminated the central chamber for 17 minutes before it narrowed.
On 20 December 2015, 48 years after O’Kelly, 5,000 years after the construction of the passage tomb, I was one of 21 people inside Newgrange at 0858. Our names had been drawn in a lottery from among 30,000 entrants. We saw a golden bracelet of light on the floor of the chamber. It grew wider and longer until the chamber was bright enough that we could see one another’s faces. Some of us, at the invitation of our guide, placed objects in the beam of light. Somone put down a ring, someone else a bracelet. I put down my 24-year AA medallion. We were asked not to take photographs of the solstice event, but after the band of light had moved across the chamber, I made this photograph:
A little later, outside the tomb, I made the photograph at the top of the page.