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Social sciences, Archaeology, Architectural design
December 2017 marked 50 years since archaeologist Michael J. O’Kelly first observed the solar illumination of the burial chamber in the Neolithic passage tomb at Newgrange during the period of the winter solstice. O’Kelly subsequently recorded direct sunlight entering Newgrange through the ‘especially contrived slit which lies under the roof-box at the outer end of the passage roof’ on 21 December 1969. The discovery of this historic phenomenon, dating back over 5,000 years, captured the public interest and imagination at that time and ever since. In this major article published in the Winter 2017 edition of Archaeology Ireland (date of publication 4 December), leading experts in this field, Frank Prendergast, Muiris O’Sullivan, Ken Williams and Gabriel Cooney, ask (and try to answer):
Why were solstitial orientations and, in a few cases, orientations close to sunrise and sunset around the periods of the equinoxes incorporated into passage tomb architecture?
Drawing on archaeoastronomy and archaeology, and examining the seasonally changing skyscape, the authors consider solstitial alignments in Irish passage tombs, including Newgrange, Dowth, Loughcrew (Co. Meath) and Townley Hall (Co. Louth), and feature evidence from a number of other sites, such as Slieve Gullion (Co. Armagh), Thomastown (Co. Meath) and Knockroe (Co. Kilkenny). The article features stunning images from renowned photographer Ken Williams and an introduction to archaeoastronomy and cultural astronomy.
The Archaeology Ireland publication precedes a similarly themed conference in Dublin Castle on 15 September 2018 to mark the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018. This one-day conference is organised by Archaeology Ireland for the National Monuments Service at the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the Office of Public Works and is titled:
PATHWAYS TO THE COSMOS—the alignment of megalithic tombs in Ireland and Atlantic Europe.
At Dublin Castle, an interdisciplinary gathering of eminent scholars and practitioners will explore connections between archaeology and cultural astronomy, linking the physical evidence and more intangible aspects such as the cultural ideas, beliefs and ceremonies of Neolithic and Bronze Age societies, with a focus on the seasonally changing skyscape. The conference will also explore the connections between Ireland and Atlantic Europe and the likely role and meaning of the sky to our prehistoric ancestors as a response to the growing interest in astronomical heritage and the importance of the ‘Dark Sky’. It also illustrates the importance of this heritage and of megalithic tombs for communities and for cultural tourism.
This article’s accompanying PDF provides full details of the programme and speakers. The authors acknowledge Archaeology Ireland’s generosity in allowing ‘Facing the Sun’ to be made freely available on-line.
Prendergast, Frank, Muiris O'Sullivan, Ken Williams, and Gabriel Cooney. (2017). Facing the Sun. Archaeology Ireland ,31 (4 Winter) pp.10–17.