This Sunday is a big day in County Meath, Ireland. That’s because every year at sunrise on December 21—the winter solstice—Ireland’s most famous prehistoric site puts on a cosmic show that has been capturing people’s imagination for millennia.
The site is called Newgrange, and it’s a passage tomb that was built somewhere around 3,000 B.C. Older than the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge in England, Newgrange is very famous among fans of prehistoric sites. And never are there more eyes on Newgrange than during its annual shining moment, taking place over a few minutes every winter solstice.
As long as the skies are clear, for about 17 minutes at dawn on Sunday, the rising sun will shine through an opening in the front of the ancient tomb (they call such an opening a “roofbox”). The alignment of the opening, the long passageway, and the chamber at the end of it, allows the sunbeam to travel all the way down the passageway and dramatically illuminate the chamber. Archaeologists say this was certainly intentionally planned by the ancient builders of the tomb, who used it as a marker of the new year coming.
Not surprisingly, the event draws viewers from all over the world. In fact, they've had to institute a lottery to determine who gets to be inside the chamber when the moment occurs. If you aren’t one of these lucky people to witness it first-hand, you need not worry. In an interesting mix of very ancient and modern, you can watch the special occurrence on a live webcast.
If you can’t make it for the solstice or the webcast, you still need not worry. Visitors to the site any time of year can watch a simulation of the event, where light bulbs act the part of the sun. Somehow, I imagine the effect is not quite the same as the real thing on December 21.