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Solstice at Newgrange
December 20, 2008 10:00 PM   Subscribe

At dawn on the winter solstice, the passage and chamber of the megalithic passage tomb at Newgrange are illuminated for 17 minutes by a shaft of sunlight entering through the roofbox above the entrance. The builders of Newgrange achieved this precise alignment over 5,000 years ago, 1,000 years before Stonehenge. You can watch the sunrise illumination on a live webcast between 08:30 and 09:30 UTC on Sunday, December 21st.
posted by homunculus (29 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's 6:00 AM UTC right now, so it should start in about two and a half hours.
posted by homunculus at 10:00 PM on December 20, 2008


Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
-- "In Memoriam", Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson
posted by orthogonality at 10:20 PM on December 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


Unfortunately, it looks like they've picked a really wonky stream provider. Gives me a failure in Firefox, but Chrome works.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 10:40 PM on December 20, 2008


"The stag bells, winter snows, summer has gone
Wind high and cold, the sun low, short its course
The sea running high.
Deep red the bracken; its shape is lost;
The wild goose has raised its accustomed cry,
Cold has seized the birds' wings;
Season of ice, this is my news."
- Irish poem, 9th Century
posted by adamvasco at 11:48 PM on December 20, 2008 [4 favorites]


Too bad it's cloudy :-) Like the past 7 years as well it seems. But it's interesting watching/listening to the commenters, history of the place etc. and seeing the people.
posted by bdragon at 12:59 AM on December 21, 2008


I'm surprised that precession or some other astronomical alignment variation hasn't broken this over the years. Maybe the time of the alignment during dawn has changed but not that it occurs at all, or something. But my guess is that it's not nearly as precise as alignment as claimed.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:06 AM on December 21, 2008


They talk about that actually Mitrovarr. They said sun is c. 1 degree behind, so it strikes the chamber slightly after sunrise (a few minutes late).

Supposedly that is equivalent to the amount of expected change between 5k years ago and now.

Also they talk about how it actually hits for about 10 days; because the sun doesn't change its rising position very fast near solstice.
posted by nat at 1:18 AM on December 21, 2008


I don't know why this sounds difficult. You wait for the day, and you draw some lines in the dirt and you build around it. They probably started much smaller and kept building bigger and bigger mounds in the same place.
posted by empath at 1:25 AM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm with empath. And what's so special about 17 minutes?
posted by ubiquity at 2:19 AM on December 21, 2008


And if we're starting with the winter poetry, try this, from Ezra Pound:

Winter is icummen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver
Damn you, sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, tis why I am,
Goddamm.
So 'gainst the winter's balm
Sing Goddamm, damm, sing Goddamm
Sing Goddamm, sing Goddamm,
DAMM.
posted by ubiquity at 2:23 AM on December 21, 2008 [7 favorites]


I don't know why this sounds difficult. You wait for the day, and you draw some lines in the dirt and you build around it. They probably started much smaller and kept building bigger and bigger mounds in the same place.

Yep. I think charting the patterns and rhythms in the first place (This is 5000 years ago, they couldn't just whip up a spreadsheet.) would be the hard part. Once that is done it seems pretty simple. It is probably, like most things, harder in practice, but it still sounds fairly straight-forward.

Unfortunately, it looks like they've picked a really wonky stream provider. Gives me a failure in Firefox, but Chrome works.

I'm glad to hear someone is having some success with Chrome. This was a big reminder that I still have to jump through all the hoops to get Windows Media files to stream correctly. Is there really no other format people can easily implement for streaming video?! I would have liked to have watched all of this live. Oh well, at least I'm not spending my solstice still trapped in that lab room...
posted by Avelwood at 2:33 AM on December 21, 2008


Silly Pagans, don't you know it's Christmas?
posted by gcbv at 3:12 AM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


The winter solstice is a very important day for me, as I know that from this day forward sunlight will be increasing. It makes getting through the darkness of winter a lot more tolerable, especially if you know how many more minutes of sunlight you get each day (which changes by latitude), how many days equal one more hour of sunlight, and so forth. This is the real new year's eve, to me anyway.

No surprise that the early church chose to put the birth of Jesus on a day close to the birthday of the sun. I know someone trots that out every year, but it is a really wonderful experience to see the increasing days from the depth of winter.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:58 AM on December 21, 2008 [7 favorites]


What Marisa said, but by the same token, only some English broad who had never experienced Michigan in early February could refer to the end of December as "the bleak midwinter."
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:22 AM on December 21, 2008


I'm with Marissa ... bring on The Light!

(I've been doing Solstice celebration music performances for the past three years now and it is that "days getting longer now" aspect that I greatly enjoy and celebrate!)

...and as for that Michigan bit, I HAVE experienced it ... and I blame Michigan. After a winter in St. Paul, MN and a few other northern places that get more days of sunlight in winter than, say, Ann Arbor or Detroit, I began to appreciate how much fun Winter can be (just remember the layers!).

Sundogs and -11 degrees, I'm there!
posted by aldus_manutius at 7:31 AM on December 21, 2008


George said it best:

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun,
and I say it's all right

Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
and I say it's all right

Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
and I say it's all right

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes...
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes...
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes...
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes...
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes...

Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun,
and I say it's all right
It's all right
posted by RussHy at 7:50 AM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


I usually do the solstice thing near a scaled-down model of Stonehenge, and often the equiluxes, too. The winter solstice is the most important, though. It's not for the "yay, the days are getting longer!" thing (I prefer the short days and long nights), but it seems right and proper to mark the passage of a year and the coming of another at that point. I suppose it's my version of New Year's Eve, with own little rituals designed to remind me of what has transpired in the last twelve months and to focus my thoughts about the future.

New Year's Eve proper has too many social expectations for me to feel quite comfortable with it as a holiday or an event. Winter solstice is my chill out and contemplate holiday.
posted by adipocere at 8:21 AM on December 21, 2008


RussHy - that always makes me want to overdose, go insane (jump to 3:55) It's a bit of odd to throw in a Beatles sample in the middle of an oldskool rave track, but those were the heady days of 1992. The sample comes in again at the end, with better results (IMO).

Newgrange was originally built between c. 3300 and 2900 BC, predating Stonehenge Trilithons (the post and lintel formations) by approx. 1000 years, though there was a henge at the Stonehenge site before the Bronze Age, built sometime around 2800 B.C. Beyond the age of the Newgrange passage tombs, the materials and building techniques are impressive. "A tribute to its builders, the roof has remained essentially intact and waterproof for over 5,000 years" (Wikipedia). The materials were not found in the immediate area. The entire mound contains an estimated 200,000 tonnes of material, and it has been estimated construction would have taken about 30 years using a workforce of about 300.

It's impressive to see in person. If you're in Ireland and you want to see more than amazing castles and keeps, this is something to seek. The presentation of the area is really nice, too.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:08 AM on December 21, 2008


The Winter Solstice is probably the most meaningful holiday for me, largely because of the rebirth of longer days and more sunlight and the feeling that this day signals the start of a new year, as others have mentioned. It helps, too, that it's my birthday. Always annoyed me as a kid when I would get the old, "I got you one present for your birthday AND Christmas!" but as an adult, I really appreciated being born on the Solstice. The megaliths and prehistoric formations designed to mark this day have fascinated me for a long time. Thanks for this post-- it will keep me busy on this sunny but ridiculously cold day.
posted by Heretic at 11:51 AM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


happy birthday, heretic!!! sun, sun, sun, here it comes!
posted by CitizenD at 12:09 PM on December 21, 2008


Wait...it still works? Why didn't precession of the equinoxes destroy this after 5000 years?

Oh wait. I guess it's always going to work on "the solstice" but the date of the solstice will wander slowly due to precession.
posted by DU at 12:10 PM on December 21, 2008


Oh wait. I guess it's always going to work on "the solstice" but the date of the solstice will wander slowly due to precession.

In astronomy, precession refers to the movement of the rotational axis of a body, such as a planet, with respect to inertial space. In particular, it refers to the precession of the Earth's rotational axis, also called the precession of the equinoxes. (The term "precession" may also refer to the rotational movement through space of the apsides of a body's orbit; this usage is explained later in the article.)

If I'm reading you right, DU, what you say is true according to the parenthetical definition of precession as a movement of the Earth's orbital ellipse around the Sun-- that is, movement of the earth's orbit around the sun would not change the situation of the sun shining into the passage and chamber at dawn on the shortest day of the year.

However, according to the more conventional definition of 'precession of equinoxes' of the first part of the paragraph, a change in the direction of the axis of the Earth (what we observe as a change in the Pole Star), I think it would, because that changes the point on the horizon at which an observer at the site of the monument would see the southern-most sunrise of the year.
posted by jamjam at 2:50 PM on December 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wait...it still works? Why didn't precession of the equinoxes destroy this after 5000 years?

According to Wikipedia, "the first light enters about four minutes after sunrise, but calculations based on the precession of the Earth show that 5000 years ago first light would have entered exactly at sunrise."
posted by homunculus at 2:58 PM on December 21, 2008 [2 favorites]


Happy birthday, Heretic!

And thanks for the fun post, homunculus. I woke up too late to watch the webcast, but winter solstice has always been my (only) favorite winter holiday as well. Here comes the sun!
posted by mrgrimm at 3:26 PM on December 21, 2008


Meanings for the number 17... I too enjoy the solstice but not because of the lack of light here where I live. If anything, it's too bright 99% of the time, I think.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 4:34 PM on December 21, 2008


Four minutes after 1/4 of a precessional period of ~20,000 years seems awfully short to me. But I'm going to have to talk to one of the orbit experts at work to figure this out.
posted by DU at 5:07 PM on December 21, 2008


more about the change due to precession, from the Astronomy Picture of the Day yesterday:
In this view from within the burial mound's inner chamber, the first rays of the solstice sunrise are passing through a box constructed above the entrance and shine down an 18 meter long tunnel to illuminate the floor at the foot of a decorated stone. The actual stone itself would have been directly illuminated by the solstice Sun 5,000 years ago.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:27 PM on December 21, 2008


Four minutes after 1/4 of a precessional period of ~20,000 years seems awfully short to me. But I'm going to have to talk to one of the orbit experts at work to figure this out.
posted by DU at 1:07 AM on December 22 [+] [!]


You're confusing several things. The precessional period is indeed about 26k years but thats the time it takes a tropical year (upon which our calendar is based) to do one full sidereal year. Since our calendar is tropical, the winter solstice pretty much falls on the same date - its pretty much defined that way.

The "actual" solstice is the moment when the sun is at its lowest point in the sky but at that moment it may not be daylight in Newgrange. When dawn arrives at Newgrange, the Sun will be in a slightly different position depending on how far it has traveled along the lowest arc of its yearly path (the analemma) I'm not doing the math here but it seems right that this wouldn't deviate by more than many minutes variation for the exact time of dawn (remember its never more than a day along its path since we define the calendar day by the equinoxes/solstices)
posted by vacapinta at 2:03 AM on December 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


For those of you who are claiming this is no big deal...well, where's YOUR Newgrange? If it's so simple, I challenge you to do the same thing. And oh yeah, while you're at it, only use bronze-age materials.

Well? I'm waiting!
posted by happyroach at 1:42 PM on December 22, 2008


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