Thursday 23 January 2020

The signs that told our ancestors it was a New Year

Newgrange in the Boyne Valley is the jewel in the crown of Irish prehistoric monuments
Newgrange in the Boyne Valley is the jewel in the crown of Irish prehistoric monuments

Jim Hurley - Nature Trail

The Band Aid charity song written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure that was Christmas number one in 1984 and stayed at number one in the UK singles chart for five weeks raising an amazing £8 for famine relief in Ethiopia, asked the ironic question about the starving people in that war-torn country: "Do They Know It's Christmas?".

The question we could ask ourselves today is how do we know that its New Year? The answer, of course, is that we know because we are bombarded by media telling us that it is so. But what of our distant ancestors; how did they know the time of death of an old year and the birth of a new one?

The clues that people got about the passage of time in the distant past came from the natural world and the movement of the sun. The flowering of Hazel traditionally marked both the end of winter and the start of spring, a very important milestone for those who eked a living from subsistence farming.

The daily ritual of being in tune with the natural world and following the apparent annual movement of the sun across the sky from east to west and back again charts the passage of time and breaks the continuum into the four familiar seasons.

Our distant ancestors noted the apparent movements of the sun and erected wooden posts or more permanent standing stones to record the activity of our nearest star.

Newgrange, one of the best examples in north-west Europe of a passage tomb, is Ireland's most famous prehistoric monument. It was built by farmers and astronomers about 5,200 years ago, some 600 years before construction commenced on the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt and 1,000 years before the stone circle at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain was planned.

The entrance to the tomb is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice. Winter sunlight shines through a roof box, penetrates the 24m-long passage and floods the inner chamber.

The great astronomical clock that is Newgrange told the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the turning point of the calendar. Of course, the time lag from solstice to the flowering of Hazel could vary by a month or two so it was nowhere near as accurate as our modern countdown to midnight in seconds.

Wishing you and yours a very happy and enjoyable New Year.

Wexford People

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