Star Fields

July 2022

In early autumn 2018, together with good friends, I visited the neolithic passage grave of Newgrange in the Boyne Valley, about 35 km north of Dublin. It was a warm, sunny day and a light breeze pushed small rows of fluffy clouds over the sky. A small bus brought us together with other visitors from the Visitor Center to the burial mound. We had booked a guided tour in advance, the only chance to enter the inner part of the grave on a day determined in advance.

The more than 5000 years old mound lies on the crest of a natural hill. With 12 meters height and a diameter of about 90 meters Sí an Bhrú, so the Irish name, fits harmonically into the landscape. Originally the mound was supported by a stone wall, which could be restored only halfway, because modern settlers used the broken wall as a quarry. The wall was built up of white granite stones. But there were also singular black stones inserted into the white wall at random positions, creating a negative of an arbitrary star field. Nothing is known about the original position of these black stones, but probably they represented a real star constellation.

This assumption is supported by the fact, that Newgrange is not only a burial mound but also a neolithic observatory. At the south-eastern side of the mound a small low opening with a small window above was inserted into a recess of the stone wall. Behind the opening a long, low and narrow tunnel leads into the interior of the mound.

Arriving at the mound, we followed the guide into the opening in a bent-over position. As our eyes adapted to darkness, we recognized some small lamps providing a faint light. At some places the tunnel was so narrow that we could pass sideways only. The walls, constructed by laid stones without any kind of mortar, were covered with graffities, most of them from the Victorian Era.

After 22 meters the tunnel opened into the seven meters height dome-shaped central camber. On the left and right side and in the prolongation of the tunnel lay separate burial chambers. Due to the narrowness of the tunnel the seven meters high ‘hall’ seemed to be larger than it really was. Impressed and amazed, we stood closely packed along the walls.

After some explanations the guide switched off the light. Immediately the murmur of the visitors stopped, we stood in complete silence. For a moment I had the feeling to sense the weight of the stones above me bodily. Again, the eyes needed a little moment to adapt to darkness, then I could recognize a very faint diffusive light in the outlet of the tunnel. Suddenly, a warm red light left the tunnel, becoming brighter and brighter until the whole bottom of the central chamber was flooded with red light.

The entrance of the tunnel is orientated towards the position of sunrise at the winter solstice. Only on this particular day, the sunlight passes through the little window above the opening and takes its way through the tunnel into the central chamber. Though this was simulated by a cleverly placed lamp only, it was a magical experience.

Blended by the light, we left the tunnel and went around the mound, which is also halfway circled by single stone steles. There are a lot of other burial mounds in the Boyne Valley, dotting the softly undulating fields and meadows grazed by dairy cattle. It’s really a beautiful place, providing a wide view from the top of the mound.

All over Europe you find astronomically orientated stone-settings and graves which show, that humans observed the sky carefully for some thousand years. Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney, the Standing Stones of Callanish on Lewis, and the Menhirs of Brittany are only a few examples. These stone witnesses are well-preserved, however, excavations at Stonehenge give evidence, that in the same place a comparable wooden ‘henge’ existed a further 5000 years before. Another proof is provided by the Nebra Disk from the Bronze Age, about 3600 years old, discovered in Germany. This disc shows a star field, including among other things the Pleiades and the full moon or the sun.

Close to my hometown north of Hamburg, in northern Germany, on a field where once grew rye or pastured cows, lies for several years a station of the LOFAR, the Low Frequency Array. It's a radio telescope with about 50 similar stations all over Europe, which receives radio waves from stars and galaxies which can be some billion years old. The data of all stations are merged to high-resolution radio pictures, another kind of star fields. Its large antenna system lies behind a row of old oaks at the field edge, surrounded by a wooden picked fence. It is an entirely different observatory, no mound, no boulders, nothing to go into.

During my late walks through the fields now and then I pass the LOFAR and I always pause for a while to look over the site. One type of antennas is mounted into large, flat boxes which are covered by black tarpaulins. Sometimes, in the dark of the night, when the sky is clear and the tarpaulins are wet due to dew or previous rain, the night sky faintly mirrors on the black tarpaulins.

One evening I imagined, that inside this very, very thin layer of water on the tarpaulins both skies touch each other, the current sky and the ancient sky reconstructed by the LOFAR. Of course, this is nonsense, just a reverie. But nevertheless, I like this idea.  I also wonder if there is any kind of connection between these two fascinating places, the LOFAR and Newgrange.

The temporal distance between both observatories spans over a long time of human history, experiencing a period of increasing scientific knowledge within the last decades. Obviously, most neolithic sites have also been connected with relegious visions, relating celestial bodies and their carefully observed movements in the sky with local creation myths. And each of these myths, including Christianity, has its own story about the origin of humans.

In his book ‘The meaning of human existence’, Edward O. Wilson mentioned that these early creation stories are also ‘the heart of tribalism’. They keep a group or a people together by providing the feeling to belong to a certain group that gives shelter and safety. However, with increasing knowledge, creation myths have to adapt to the gain of knowledge and the availability of more and more reliable information about the formation of our universe. And due to this successive adaption, in the long-term, new kinds of creation myths will emerge.

Heading home, I mused about another aspect.  Today the efforts to understand how we came into being are no longer ‘tribal’. They are only possible by international scientific approaches which now cross the borders of groups, peoples, states and ideologies. However, sometimes scientists are regarded as an own tribe. That this cooperative research is working well, at least within a growing number of scientific expert groups, gives hope in a time of local and global tensions and conflicts.

Leaving the small, dark road between the fields, another detail came into my mind. Neolithic observatories were looking into the near future. They helped to identify the right time for sowing, harvesting and other essential dates over the year and thereby also supported the survival of their people. In contrast, the LOFAR looks into the very, very far past.