October 14:

Today was a great day all round. AGAIN, the day dawned blue and crisp. Somebody up there likes me! I packed my backpack for a full day and headed back to the Bru na Boinne Visitors’ Centre. That’s the official Irish name for the place where I’m hanging out all this week.

Before I get on with today’s events, I should explain about Jane and Wayne. Wayne is the gentleman I mentioned yesterday that I had seen taking notes. Asked if he was doing research. He said, no, he just has a lousy memory! They are a retired couple but as we kept bumping into one another, I eventually learned that they have a fascination with the Neolithic too; only for them it’s Neolithic cultures all over the world. Ireland is their last stop on along vacation to several other significant sites. When I told them I’m here because I want to set a story here, Wayne said, ‘That’s why we were in Whitby (England). Jane is writing a story set there!’ Needless to say, we hit it off like gangbusters. I think the fact that they are Canadian too (from Victoria) didn’t hurt either.

We had lots of interesting conversations as we drifted through the displays, and ended up giving them my business card in the hopes that they will keep in touch and tell me all about these other interesting places they’ve seen.

Today I was meeting PhD student Conor Brady. He has been asking some of the same questions I’ve been asking. The main difference is he’s been asking for longer and he’s getting answers through first-hand research. I contacted Conor when I found out that his primary concern is to figure out where the people who built these structures lived while they were building them.

You see, the monuments are incredible and so Ireland and its archaeologists have poured a lot of resources into excavating them specifically. When there’s a 5000-year-old one-acre mound with a passage inside it, who wants to instead excavate in a near-by field that may have nothing in it and that some farmer wants you to stay out of’ Conor’s research has been to walk through as many of the near-by fields as he possibly can a little while after they’ve been plowed. In the turned-up earth, he looks for pieces of flint mostly, or other evidence of early cultures.

Flint doesn’t come from this region. If he finds it here, it’s because an early culture dropped or put it here. If he can find pieces that are worked in specific ways, he can make pretty good guesses at what age of culture they date from. (I know, I’m dangling participles all over the place, but hey, I’m on holidays too! Besides, that’ll make Mike and Loretta feel less self-conscious.)

So, Conor has walked a total of 4 square kilometers, but that’s been divided into a patch here, a patch there, to get pretty good coverage over something like a 24 kilometre area. (Much of the area is pasture land for sheep and cows and so doesn’t get plowed.) He spent some time showing me his results and what he thinks they mean. Right now, he is the only one to ask. Nobody else has any data at all.

The thing about the people who built Newgrange (and Knowth and Dowth) is that they didn’t just breeze in and live in temporary huts for a month while they were building. These things took planning. Newgrange is aligned so that the winter solstice light at dawn penetrated to the back of the 19-m-long chamber. Not the kind of thing that happens by chance. So there was lots of preparation. Then came the building. There are 97 kerbstones around Newgrange (I was wrong yesterday when I said over 100. Must have been thinking of Knowth, which is larger.) Each kerbstone weighs between one and ten tonnes. Then within the passage there are huge stones that make up the walls. And covering the entire passage are big roof slabs. Each of those stones had to be brought from somewhere. Some were local, from the fields around the location. Many more had to be brought here from great distances. These people had cows and oxen that could have pulled them, but they had no wheels. It may be that they floated the slabs up the river on large rafts. Or they may have shoved them across the landscape, which would have taken ages and ages.

If you look at the front of Newgrange, you’ll see the white stone. That quartz was quarried in the Wicklow Mountains, 80 km south of the site and brought up, again probably by boat, The grey stones mixed in with the white come from the Mourne Mountains, 40 km north of the site. Because of the weight of the stone slabs alone, some experts estimate that it took about 40 years to build. Some say that is conservative. Some say it was built in distinct stages with periods of no development in between. Chances are h\it took more than a single generation of people (since the average age of an individual was about 32). Whoever was building it, had to live somewhere not too far away. Conor was helping me figure out where I should guess they were living.

I’m getting a much better sense of the landscape. I’m sure the more times I go down there, the better I’ll feel I know it. Conor drove me to a walking path (with a car park at the end!) that goes right along the Boyne river for a ways with a great view of the monument itself. He also pointed out a road I can take that will lead me to near one of the likely settlement sites. From there, I’ll be able to see what my protagonists’ view of the site would have been, if I do indeed put their settlement there in my story.

I came away from our meeting with so many answers, with so many more pieces in my giant jigsaw puzzle. Although I tried to explain, I’m sure he has no idea how much he helped. It was nice to meet someone with the same drive to know the answers. He was equally excited by my description on my project. Let’s see, that makes three people who will for sure want to read it when it’s done!

> From the Centre, I headed into my local Maxol petrol station outside of Drogheda for my online connection. You have no idea how strange it feels to park in front of a gas station and pull out your computer! I can certainly think of more comfortable places to work. I think the gas stations are for people with handheld PDAs. I think those must be the users that this sort of service is more geared to. I still believe that I am the first person to use the service in every one of the settings I’ve used so far. The staff hardly has a clue what I’m even talking about.

Today I took the next step: in toward Drogheda proper. I’m learning to do these things slowly. I’d seen a parking lot on the map that looked to be within walking distance of town. That worked perfectly and I did some mailing and things in town. Then I came back to my cottage where I was greeted by the resident horse. Last evening I got a scare when he let out a whinny. His barn or stable or whatever seems to be right in behind the buildings here and at first I didn’t now what the sound was. But it sounded loud enough to becoming from my bathroom! Joanne tells me he’s been out in the pasture all summer and just starting to come back in to get ready for hunting season. He feels a need to greet his friends when he is stabled in the evening. So, he lets out one good, solid whinny. I heard him again tonight.

Back at my cottage, I got a phone call from a very sick O.R. Melling. She will be in no shape to see me on Sunday, so my trip down to Glendalough is cancelled. I’m sorry that I won’t see it or, more especially, her, but I was feeling a bit as though having lost those three days in Sligo, I should spend as much of my time near Newgrange as I could. It’s a bit of a relief not to face four hours of driving Sunday, I admit.

I then spoke to Joanne Macken who along with her husband and family, runs this place where I’m staying. We got chatting and she asked what research I was doing. When I told her, I asked if she knew the Redhouse family. They own the farmland that lies on one side of Newgrange and Conor had suggested I might get permission from them to walk that land. I figured since Joanne’s family farms too, maybe her name would help get me over the gate, as it were. Joanne said, yes, she knows them, as well as the farm people on the other side. It seems as though she’ll help me get permission. Bonus!

Then she said, ‘You know, Geraldine Stout will be here tomorrow.’ Ms. Stoutis the author of a few books on Newgrange, all of which I’ve read. Joanne then said she’d try to introduce us! So, I may get a chance to talk to another leading expert while I’m here. Totally unexpected. So, I came humming back to my little cottage, thrilled with how this is all developing. It seems that in Ireland it pays to know people. And one friendly person just naturally leads to another.

Tomorrow, I’ll make my way (carefully) back to Loughcrew. Joanne assures me there will be even less traffic on the weekend. Hopefully, I’ll get into the one accessible cairn there and get a sense of the atmosphere. I just hope there aren’t too many other tourists there. And Sunday’ Well, I’m not sure what I’ll do. Maybe I’ll take my computer down to the side of the Boyne and just record everything I see, smell and hear as I wander along the river. Maybe I’ll go to church and find out if the Church of Ireland is Catholic or not. Or maybe I’ll just sleep in’

Having a wonderful time and coming away with everything I’d hoped for. I’m thrilled to the tips of my toes.

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