In which I finally get to tell someone off about my name and commune with prehistoric Ireland

I know I’ve already said this, but it bears repeating: I think the weather is really getting to me.  I remember living in Michigan where Harrison’s Roadhouse had a signboard out front which proclaimed ” XX days without sunshine” and would update the number every day. If I remember correctly, and my Michigander friends can help me here, it once got up to the low 40s before a spot of sun was seen. Then, as now, it’s a depressing world without sunlight.

I also have to admit that I find Ireland to be isolating. I know that’s contrary to every single thing you read about Ireland, where the place is described as merry redheads waiting on street corners to invite you into their house for a drink. Wait, that doesn’t sound quite right, but you know what I’m trying to say. Some of this is just the difficulty in moving to a new place and trying to make friends, which always takes more time as an adult. And I can’t quite figure out the mom culture here. An example: the girl has singing club on Tuesdays, and one of the songs they sing is “When I Grow Up,” from the musical “Matilda.” Whenever she starts singing this in her off-key warble, I dissolve into tears.  Something about that little voice singing about growing up and what that means just destroys me. So when I went to pick her up last week at the end of class, I said to the two other moms there, “It just makes me tear up when they sing ‘When I Grow Up,’ you know? It’s just so cute,” accompanied by a fluttering open palmed hand in front of my chest.  They both stared at me as if I was mentally deficient, and were entirely silent. I tried to recover from feeling entirely foolish by mumbling, “I cry easily,” to which they murmured something and then turned away. Eric assures me that this is atypical Irish behavior. Seriously, I dare anyone who is a parent with a heart to listen to the link above and not get weepy imagining your kid singing the same song.

In more fun news, one of the classes I’m taking on the Archaeology and History of Newgrange took a field trip to Newgrange as well as Knowth and Dowth, two other passage tomb sites nearby. Passage tombs were created in the prehistoric era, around 3000 BC, and so called because a central enclosed tomb area made with stone walls was entered along a stone passageway. The finished tomb area was covered in small stones to create a large mound over the whole thing. After the Bronze Age, in 2200 BC, the sites were no longer developed, perhaps because they had achieved a sacred status. Much later, in 700 AD, Knowth actually became a residential area for kings, eventually following into disuse again. Over the years, the tomb was buried in the rubble and dirt of ages and resembled nothing more than the usual rolling Irish landscape. It was rediscovered in 1699 by a farmer who excavated the area to scavenge stones from what seemed to be a nondescript pile of earth and found the doorway to the tombs. The sites have been under excavation and reconstruction from then until relatively recently.


A word here about archaeology in general. I love the imagination of archaeology, as much as I take it with a grain of salt. No one really knows exactly how the tombs were used nor what they were used for. Newgrange is aligned with the winter solstice, but the other ones really aren’t unless you squint and lean over at certain times of the year. I’m often reminded of the book “The Motel of Mysteries” by David Macauley, which I read as a child. In this, a modern-day motel is dug up by archaeologists in the future, who hilariously imagine our world entirely wrong. See, for example, the sacred ritual headdress they found upon their excavations.


All this to say that I take all archaeology with a grain of salt, and remind myself that despite all the technology at our disposal, much of it is still conjecture.


These three big sites rest along what’s known as Brú na Boínne, or The Bend of the Boyne River. Legend has it that Boann, a goddess, broke a taboo regarding a wellspring. In protest, the spring rose up against her, washing her away through the plains of Ireland until she reached the sea, leaving the river in her wake. The river was critical in terms of moving building supplies to these three sites, as many of the large stones were transported from some distance away. The thinking is that they would be dragged or rolled to the river then transported on rafts to the final construction site. It’s a wonder of engineering, to think to 3200 BC and how they could have transported the ten-ton stone blocks which make the walls to the passageways (called kerb stones). Much like the stone blocks of the Egyptian pyramids or the standing heads of Rapa Nui, it is not entirely certain how these blocks were moved and put into place, only to know that it must have been a vast coordinated effort of many, many people.


The passage way is a narrow, low roofed tunnel through large stone walls hemming you in on either side. No pictures are allowed so any interior pictures are from the web. It ends in a chamber with a high conical roof, made by overlapping large stones filled in with smaller stones which over the years crushed into a sort of cement. Interestingly, drainage paths were built in as well going down the side of the monument, done so well that the interior of the tomb area is entirely dry, no small feat in this rainy country. Several burial areas inside contained cremains that seemed to be grouped by family members, some of which contained jewelry, pottery and weaponry. On the walls is scratched in graffiti from Irish punk kids from the early 1800s, a later addition.


When you stand in the central passageway, the guide turns on a small light to simulate the way that the rising sun creeps directly along the hall on December 21, or the winter solstice. What I’ve learned in my class thus far is that this was either a signal of well-wishing from the gods, or that this is when they would use the light to go in and bury the dead and perform rituals. This seems like a bit of hogwash to me, given that the sun is rarely seen at sunrise and even less so in December, but so it is told. The construction of the passage is at a slight angle up, so that there is the main door along which light enters and goes part of the way up the passage, and then an opening above the door which light can enter straight through and meet the center tomb area, which you can see in the picture above.

Perhaps the most famous aspect of Newgrange is the striking white quartz wall that surrounds its face. Michael O’Kelley, the main archaeologist of Newgrange for many years, insisted that the white quartz found around the site was stacked up in this wall formation. Though his theory was controversial, it sounds like he was enough of a pompous windbag to insist on it and the wall was constructed. Never mind that the qualities of quartz and the landscape make it architecturally impossible that such a wall could have been constructed at that time.


closer picture of the entrance door, the light box entrance over the doorway, and the decorated stone at the front



Getting professed about the carvings on the kerb stones


What passes for a warning here. The small white sign says “no climbing”

Knowth is another passage tomb site, in my mind more interesting than Newgrange because of the many smaller passage tombs that dot around it. It’s also known for its heavily decorated stones that line the tomb, here sadly wrapped in blue plastic until its official spring opening time. There is no agreement about what the pictures mean, only that it’s noted that swirly curvilinear drawings are more common doodles for people who have taken drugs, and hallucinogenic mushrooms grow wild in the fields.  You draw your own conclusions. The chief archaeologist for Knowth also saw quartz stones laying about, surmised they may have formed a carpet and left them alone, not wanting to make the same mistake as O’Kelley and Newgrange with the wall. Knowth is also interesting for the reconstructed timber henge, thought to have been used for public rituals. Passage tombs are too small to accomodate more than 10-15 people, so perhaps these areas were for people to gather in.


Woodhenge down below


House footprint in the foreground

Knowth isn’t built much for sun times, as it’s off the equinox by about six days. Some archaeologists have been able to twist dates around so that they say it matches up with a lunar calendar, but this seems to me the archaeological version of retconning. The surface of Knowth is dotted with flat rectangular areas that are the footprint of old houses for kings in the Bronze Age, as above.


Having deep thoughts about the history of the passage tombs

While we were rummaging about Knowth, one of the American students on the trip, M, said to me “We think you should have a nickname! How about ‘Sid’?” Internally, I felt my hackles rise and thought, “Oh no you didn’t!” in the way that the sterotypical “sassy black girlfriend” does in movies. Also, SID?! (As I type this, I realize he thought my name was “Sidatha” so maybe that makes sense. STILL.) “No.” I replied flatly. He then went on to babble something about getting my name right. For the last time, my name is NOT HARD TO SAY. It is three consonants separated by three vowels. For people that can somehow easily figure out that “Sean” sounds like “Shawn” and when you’re in the land where “Caiomhe” is pronounced “Queeva,” this is especially rich. Of course, he can’t stop and then proceeds to go on about how he was a paramedic and would take care of “urban blacks with weird names” (his words) and then, THEN! Starts talking about the racist urban legends of the names “Orangejello” (or-ANJ-elo) and of course, “Shithead” (p. sha-teed). I look at him and say “Those are urban legends, and not real names.” How dare he compare my perfectly normal and good name to racist mythical names? It largely ended there, until next class. He walks in and says “Sujata! I got your name right!” “You got it!” I reply. Again, he can’t shut up and says “I still prefer Sid, but you say you don’t like it.” To which I say “Or you could just learn to say my name the way it is instead of twisting it around to make it convenient for you, because frankly it’s offensive.” He doesn’t talk to me in class anymore, which is fine by me.

Our last stop was Dowth. By this point, we were a little passage tombed out. Dowth however is cool in that it’s just on a plot of land owned by a farmer, free to walk into as you wish, and largely unexcavated so you can see how these places looked before anyone knew they were there.


The wild and wooly hill at Dowth, which looks like every other Irish hill.

The sun did make an appearance over the land, and after the clouds you got a sense of how the ancients saw the gods bless them when it shines.



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