Saturday, July 2, 2011

It's Ancient History (June 23)

I've had multiple people point out how horrible I am at keeping my blog updated, which I have reasons for, so I figured it was about time for me to update.
On Thursday the 23, we did not have class. Instead we boarded a bus to go on a tour of Newgrange and the Boyne Valley, a tour that lasted from approximately 9am until 5pm and that was one of the things I have been most looking forward to.
Our first stop was to Newgrange, one of many archaeological sites in the area. This is the one excavated mound, very few others in the area have been touched (and there are about forty mounds) due to a complete lack of funding. There have also been issues with the possibility of losing the land, and once the sites were recognized as important historical features and effectively became property of the state it was still often very difficult to get to them. Why? Because although the state owns the mounds themselves so they cannot be destroyed, the land around them are still owned by farmers. And archaeologists, geologists, other government officials traipsing through the land and not really informing farmers of what exactly they were doing or what was going on has created a contentious relationship. As such, farmers have, can, and do refuse entry through their land. I suppose it would be more unfortunate if there was available funding for excavation. It's still rather a shame.
Newgrange is built with a specific orientation of the sun or moon in mind, as are many other structures. Newgrange has a small upper window above the door that actually ends up being level with where you stand when you go all the way into the mound (since it is at the top of a hill and on an incline). This small window aligns perfectly with the rising sun during the winter solstice and allows the sun in for about 15 minutes. The structure is absolutely amazing, the stones piles up meters thick and the earth mound built over it. Inside there are three rock basins, where what was left of cremated bodies were found. 5-6 different bodies were located in the mound when excavated, but the number that was actually in there through time is questionable due to grave robbers. What the structure was truly used for remains a complete mystery (it was created 5000 years ago and has no helpful drawings on the walls) though there is an abundance of educated guesses. Our tour guide seemed most fond of the idea that the structure was used during the solstice in some type of ritual, where everyone would gather around and tribal elders would enter the mound. It is thought they would bring the cremated remains of their ancestors or important people who passed and place them in the basins. Then the rays of the rising solstice sun would somehow interact with the spirits of the ancestors and the guarantee that days would lengthen once more and winter is ending would be ensured. (Or something along that line. It was a bit complicated and I'm sure I did not do the best job communicating the theory, but it was a bit more in depth than I feel like going into at the moment.) They rather made me think of Cahokia Mounds, and while taking a stroll along the path outside of Newgrange (waiting for my turn to tour inside of it) I had a nice conversation with my Professor on the subject.
Then it was off to a tourist center to learn some more information about the mounds, their possible uses, theories of those that inhabited the area, watch a short film about the importance of the sun and seasons that had a really creepy background soundtrack. I had a lot of great views of the Boyne River, where the Battle of the Boyne occurred (obviously) but couldn't manage a good picture. I was too short and my arms not long enough to get over the trees on the pathway. There's a bit of it though, between the trees. After a bit of time to explore the path we came to a place that I got oddly fangirl-y about visiting: The Hill of Tara.
I know, I know. "Why are you so excited about a hill?" It's not just any hill, it's an awesome hill with an abundance of interesting facts and historical importance. Really, it is...and allow me to tell you about it! (It also provides absolutely amazing views. You'll notice my facebook profile picture has me with wonderful scenery behind me, and I'm on the Hill of Tara there. Just so you know.)
(To the left you can see the sloping trenches that are abundant on the hill, as well as the corner of my umbrella. It doesn't look it, but it was fiercely windy and rainy at that time.)
Now, there are many different facets to the importance of Tara and some are more mundane than others. I'll start with one reason steeped in myth and lore. Now, Ireland plays an important role in the origins of Halloween. October 31 marked the end of the Celtic year, and the night was considered the time of year when the spirit and mortal worlds were closest together. This was celebrated by the Druids and those dwelling there by Samhain, in which masks were worn to hide your identity and to protect from harmful spirits while the spirits of family and ancestors were honored and invited home. This masked gathering with the druids? Occurred on Tara. Still to this day people gather at Tara to celebrate. On a more personal note to Ireland Tara was the location where the the pre-Christian Kings had their coronation. It was, perhaps, an even bigger deal than later coronations because Kingship was not determined by primogeniture but through consensus or battle. Tara is also home to the Stone of Destiny, which is said to roar/cry out when touched by the true King of Ireland. (Whether or not stories say it has ever roared? I do not know. But I'm not the destined ruler of Ireland.) St. Patrick also came to Tara in 433AD, to preach and I assume for other reasons as well. On the hill there is another interesting mound structure, named Mound of the Hostages which dates to around 2500 BC. The name comes from the custom of kings to take important people hostage, and one of these kings was known as Niall of the Nine Hostages. Our tour guide said it wasn't known whether anyone was actually held hostage in the mound, or if it is just an unfortunate mistranslation or misunderstanding. However, it was used for burials and there are an estimated 250-500 bodies found (most cremated).This mound is built so that it is illuminated inside during the Spring and Fall equinoxes. This is also one of the only two excavated areas of Tara, even though it is over a thousand feet in length. Another interesting tidbit about Tara was that in the early 20th century a group of Israelites came to Tara believe that the Arc of the Covenant was buried there. They dug in the Mound of the Synods in search of the Arc but, of course, did not find it. However, circles of post holes were discovered which indicated structures being present in the past (though there are none left). Unfortunately, no geophysical scans have been done so the extent of the buildings that once existed on Tara is unknown at the moment. Hopefully it'll happen though...and hopefully the construction of the M3 and other motorways won't compromise Tara. (M3 had already been halted before because of something that was excavated during it's construction in another location. Though I do not know that status of the M3 construction at the moment, and am too lazy to google it right now.)
As anyone who knows of my trip to the Cahokia Mounds knows, I have problems not climbing things that are not to be climbed. (And certainly that should not be jumped upon.) Such as the Cahokia Mounds. And the Mound of the Hostages.
After this we took the bus back to Dublin and had free time, which I used to independently walk around in downtown Dublin, mail some post-cards, and sit at the statue of Parnell to read. Then we went and saw the play Translations by Brian Friel which was a very good play to read and to see. It was about the process of the British coming in and renaming the Irish landmarks and areas with English equivalents, and how carelessly it was done. It was a statement about the necessity of preserving the Irish identity, especially the Irish language. There was also a lot of humor, especially in the Irish characters that spoke Latin, Greek and Irish but not English while the English characters spoke only English and yet viewed the Irish characters as ill-educated. It really was a very good play, I suggest reading it. Or at least asking me about it later when I can give a good recap.
Well. Now that it's almost 3am (on July 3rd) here I think I'm going to go to bed. Expect an abundance of posts/information tomorrow about the other 6 or so days I have things to write about.

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