Ireland is probably not the first place anyone would expect to find a pyramind, yet the Emerald Isle, home to the ancient Druidic Celts, is rife with Neolithic structures known as “passage tombs” built in much the same fashion as the ancient pyramids of Egypt. And some of these Stone Age structures predate the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt by 500 years and the Stonehenge trilithons in neighboring England by as much as 1,000 years. Like the Egyptian pyramids, the Irish pyramids were used for internment of the dead, but these odd structures have some fascinating -- almost “magical” -- qualities of their own.
The oldest and largest of the Irish pyramids -- and the oldest structure in Ireland -- is Newgrange, located 28 miles north of Dublin near Drogheda. More of a large, egg-shaped mound than a triangular pyramid in shape, Newgrange shares some of the same construction designs as Egyptian pyramids, such as corbelled or huge stone slab ceilings. According to carbon dating, Newgrange was built around 3200 B.C., making it older than the Egyptian pyramids. It was originally circled by 97 kerbstones topped with an inward-leaning wall of white quartz. Newgrange stands nearly 45 feet high, has a diameter of around 249 feet and contains a 65-foot-long by 3-foot-wide passage leading to a cruciform or cross-shaped chamber with a 20-foot-high corbelled ceiling. Distinctive swirling patterns are carved into the passage stone at the entrance and repeated throughout the passage, but the most remarkable feature is the roof box above the entrance. It was designed to allow a shaft of light to shine down the passage and illuminate the burial chamber on the winter solstice, December 21.
Built around the same time as Newgrange, the Loughcrew Cairns are southeast of Oldcastle on two main hills in County Meath. Thirty burial mounds, each identified with a letter, lie on the hills, which are also known as Slieve na Calliagh or Hill of the Witch because legend has it that the mounds were created by witches flying overhead and dropping pebbles on the hilltops. The largest, Cairn T, is approximately 120 feet in diameter and covered in the same white quartz as Newgrange. It also features the same Irish cruciform with large central and side chambers. Cairn T contains a wealth of megalithic petrogylphs in lozenge shapes, leaf shapes and circles, some surrounded by radiating lines. These are particularly apparent on the main chamber’s rear wall. The entrance to Cairn T also contains a roof box that allows sunlight to penetrate the passage and illuminate the interior chamber on a certain day, in this case the spring equinox of March 23.
Ten miles southwest of Newgrange between Ardcath in County Meath and Naul in County Dubin is another passage tomb known as Four Knocks, which doubtlessly comes from the Gaelic “Fuair Cnocs,” meaning cold hills. It has a cruciform chamber nearly twice the size of Newgranges, and evidence suggests that, unlike the other sites, it might have originally had a roof made of wood or hides, or might not have had a roof at all. But Four Knocks contains an even wider variety of megalithic petrogylphs, including the only known depiction of what might be a human face carved into one of the stones. Newer than Newgrange or Loughcrew Cairns, Four Knocks contained actual human remains -- unlike the other passage tombs, which contained mostly cremated remains found in large basins -- making Four Knocks an invaluable find for archeologists.
Mound of the Hostages
Off the road to Dublin just outside of Navan is the Hill of Tara, a seat of political power during the Neolithic period where over 100 of the high kings of Ireland were crowned. The only standing monument on the hill is the Mound of Hostages, a dome-shaped passage tomb built in the same manner as Newgrange but on a much smaller scale. It’s only 10 feet high and 50 feet across, with a 6-foot-high, 3-foot-wide passage leading only 13 feet into its cruciform chambers. Yet somewhere between 250 to 500 people were buried here. When the burial space was filled during the Bronze Age around 1600 B.C., people were buried in the dome itself. Like Newgrange and Loughcrew, the straight passage at the Mound of Hostages allows the sunlight to light up the burial chamber on a specific time: At sunrise on Samhain, the ancient day of the dead known today as Halloween.