Tuesday, May 19, 2009

We feel small and humbled

Yep, we were right - the view from our bedroom this morning is just lovely. We are up fairly early as we know that Bill and Greta have a funeral to attend this morning. Bill is in to the full cooked breakfast for us. Mind you, they might do this sometimes on a weekend, but put a visitor in their home at any time and out come all the trimmings!
Sausage, bacon, white pudding, grilled tomato, mushrooms, scrambled eggs and great toast as well as the obligatory orange juice followed by cups of tea. I make the comment that with a breakfast like this we forgo lunch to which Bill replied that this was the plan!
Luke is champing at the bit to get to school - how unusual. He goes to arrive about 9am although classes don't start until 9:20am. He is full of energy (bit like Bud!)

Bill and Greta are so accommodating and generous. Plug the computer in so you can book accommodation, stay another night if you would like to - do you want to do a load of washing? Life is definitely better for knowing them. Thanks ever so much guys for making us so welcome. Please call in home sometime you are in Oz so we can return the hospitality.

We get away just before 10:30 am and get to Limerick when Michael realises that he has left his hat in the lounge. So around we turn and head back to Cratloe to collect it. Heaven help it that he might lose it!!!!!!! How on earth would we all recognise him?

Back on the road we head straight through Limerick. We had planned to have a quick stop at King John's Castle but now that we have lost 20 minutes, we just give it a passing glance as we drive on by.

A number of people have told us about this amazing megalithic cemetery near Dublin and today we are in search of Newgrange and Knowth. The two hour trip from Limerick up to and through the outskirts of Dublin to Slane was pretty uneventful other than constant roadworks - there is so much being done over here at the moment.

We follow the directions to the Visitor Centre at Newgrange / Knowth. You park your car here and then travel by shuttle bus to the two monument sites - a clever way of controlling numbers and minimising the potential damage to the sites. All of the sites had been restored and consolidated to the glorification of an enigmatic age.

These monuments are truly sights of sites, as our first visit is to the Great Mound of Knowth (Cnobha) passage cairn. We are greeted by Darra, our guide, who provides a historic preamble before we venture into the mound. During the initial dissertation, we all become aware that the mounds were constructed with ingenuity augmented with a knowledge of engineering, architecture, artistry and an understanding of astronomy and all thousands of years ago.

What is perhaps most amazing is that these tombs and chambers have not been dug into the hillside - they have been constructed from flat ground!!! The sheer overall weight of the materials used to construct the mound and the construction itself is almost imperceptible. In our arrogance we are inconsiderate as to the ingenuity, and the technological prowess which was possessed by these remarkable engineers enabling them to build this edifice about 5000 years ago. This predates Stonehenge by a thousand years and the Pyramids of Giza by 500 years! The mounds are surrounded by large border stones that have been sourced from a coastal area 40 kms from the site. Through wooded forest. Across streams. And they weigh between 1.5 and 10 tonnes. You thinking yet? Amazed yet? These border stones have rock art all over them and they are beautiful. In fact, almost all the rock on the site has been collected from far flung areas with quartz and granite also not native to the local landscape. This means that there was a very deliberate plan to build this sacred place. And a construction period of about 50 years when the average lifespan was 20 - 25 years. Wow, wow, and even more wow. Makes you feel very small and insignificant.

For 4,000 years they stood, forgotten in time, subsumed into the landscape and safely overgrown. They were only discovered in the mid 20th Century and archaeologists from the University College Cork spent 40 excavating, preserving, dating and interpreting before re-creating the exterior of the tombs. However, the inside chambers had not been distrubed and are just as they were built millenia ago! Probably the most fascinating bit of information for me was that the huge bowl stone 1.2m long x 0.3 m high had to have been placed before any of the construction of inner chambers or mound began as there was no way to place it inside when the chambers measured at their widest is 0.7m x 0.2m. Gives you goosebumps doesn't it!

At Knowth you can't go into the chamber, but go into an room created within the entry area where there is an interpretation of some of the major elements including the construction of layers, an enlarged photo of the bowl stone and an intricately carved stone mace head found in front of it. Now, that bowl stone is still where it was placed more than 5000 years ago. Maybe our neolithic ancestors understood human nature far more than we gave them credit for previously! This really is mind-blowing stuff. There are two chambers within the large mound, 40 odd smaller mounds surrounding the large one and ceremonial activity areas all round. The main purpose appears to have been for ceremonial internment of cremated human remains - there appear to have been placed into that large bowl stone for some time before being moved into the smaller mounds. All the reconstructed areas are based on legitimate archaeological information and represent exactly what was on the site.

Now, most people who come to the site visit Newgrange first. I think there are a couple of reasons - firstly, the mound itself is higher and secondly, with the amazing quartz and granite facade is so visually impacting. What it actually looked like is all guesswork, but there is no doubt that there was an entry facade constructed of these exact materials on this site and the remaining small low pieces indicated that it was something like this. All the materials used in the reconstruction are from the base of the mound - and like Knowth just a few kms away, they are not native to the area.

We were lucky though because arriving as late as we did (3pm) it meant that we could only do it in the order we did on the last tour of the day. And actually, visiting Knowth first gave us a greater understanding of the role of the area and how is was developed all those thousands of years ago. This was important because we were not overwhelmed by the actual visual impression and were able to concentrate more on the intricacies of this site that includes not only an amazing rock (lintel style large rocks) lined passageway with lots of carvings but also a roof box that at the winter solstice throws light through that passageway into the inner chamber. And we could go into that chamber!

Now, there were only twelve of us in the group plus the guide making thirteen people standing shoulder to shoulder. Normally they take up to 24 people. But with the smaller number, we could all see down that passageway - which was important. The guide explains the construction of the chamber and tells us that although there has been some securing of the lower small packing stones (to prevent stealing or 'souveniring') that everything above head height is exactly as it was found when opened! There are huge stones, layered upon layer, over hanging and balanced with smaller packing stones ensuring that they do not fall. And these have been accurately dated in place to 5200 years ago! So, with no modern engineering or construction techniques, this constructed place has stood for more than 5000 years. It is almost impossible to comprehend.

Then it was time for something really special - a simulation of the winter solstice. So shoulder to shoulder we stand. Jean, our guide, turns out the few lights and switches off her torch. We are now standing in total blackness (I would hate to be claustrophobic or nyctophobic) in a deep and mostly secret place. Jean then activates a lighting system that simulates what happens over a period of 17 minutes on 5 days a year only (if there is not cloud cover). I can tell you, my heart was in my mouth. It is such an amazing and humbling experience. The light, entering through the roof box chamber, crawls slowly up that passageway until it reaches that inner chamber and slowly fills it with light - right into the three recesses. And creeps away back down the passageway. You just have to experience it - it really is impossible to describe in a way that would allow you to feel what we felt. And there was more than just me wiping away a tear or two when the lights cam back up. They only allow 10 people on each of the five days to be there on the summer solstice and everyone has an equal chance of being one of the chosen few through a international lottery.

Unfortunately we can't take photos but then even if we could, it could never convey the specialness of the experience. But if you click here then you can get an impression of the 2007 event right at the entrance to the passageway. Now this is just totally mind blowing but let me add a few more facts for you to ponder - as you enter the chamber you are walking up an incline so that inside the chamber you are 6 feet higher than the entry and you are now in direct line with the roof box; and that roof box is perfectly aligned with the horizon at the hills opposite.
So where do we now think that Fred Flinstone sits in all this now?

BLOODY AMAZING. As we walk back to the Visitor Centre from the bus stop, we pass a little Robin Red Breast singing the praises of the site! We had lots to think about and talk about on the 30 minute drive back into Dublin. Called in to see the site of the Battle of the Boyne River - but the site was closed (well, it was now 6:30 pm!).

Tonight we are booked in to the Bewleys Newlands Cross Hotel, about 15 minutes out of the city centre. Interestingly, it is another in the DeVere venues chain (remember we stay in Barony Castle). A large complex that caters to businesspeople as well as travellers. Dinner in The Brasserie tonight - we are too tired to go any further. Choices - we shared a garlic bread and a breaded brie with the yummiest tomato relish for entree and for our main we both chose pan fried lemon sole on muchroom and bacon risotto with a red pepper sauce. Personally, the capsicum overpowered it. But the fish was superb!

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