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Last Updated: Friday, 21 December 2007, 10:44 GMT
Solstice clock goes live on web
Live images of an ancient "solar clock" have been beamed to a global audience from an ancient tomb in Ireland.

Newgrange
Newgrange: Pic: Knowth.com
For five days around the 21 December winter solstice - the shortest day of the year - the sun shines deep into a tomb in County Meath, flooding the chamber with light.

The Newgrange tomb, now one of Ireland's top tourist attractions, dates to about 3200 BC - 1,000 years before Britain's Stonehenge was built and 500 years before Egypt's Great Pyramid of Giza.

For the first time, the phenomenon was streamed live on the internet.

Speaking before the event, Claire Tuffy, manager of Newgrange, said she was delighted it would be a clear sunrise, because without a midwinter sun the solstice "clock" would not work.

"It is quite a leap of faith for some international visitors to travel thousands of miles to get here on the off-chance of clear skies. It is a big commitment time-wise and financially," she said.

"But people don't really care about the weather. It is the anticipation that is the most exciting part of the event."

This year, a record 28,106 people from around the world applied to be one of the 50 lucky people allowed into Newgrange's cramped chamber, on one of the five days surrounding the solstice.

They travelled from the United States, Canada, Italy, Switzerland, Australia, Poland and Britain for the experience.

The prehistoric tomb was carefully aligned by its Neolithic builders so the sun only cuts through the gloom of the chamber at sunrise through a small window above the entrance.

When skies are clear, the rising sun slowly shines all the way down the 19-metre long chamber into the centre of the tomb, lighting it for up to 17 minutes before the rays disappear and darkness returns.

Excitement

The sun lights up where the cremated ashes of the dead were laid on large stone basins deep inside the tomb.

Ms Tuffy added: "I was speaking to two women from Yorkshire who told me they were unable to sleep the night before because they were so excited.

"They kept calling each other in the night. It is a bit like waiting for Santa Claus."

Newgrange is believed to be the world's oldest continuously roofed building.

When the tomb's solstice phenomenon was discovered in 1967, archaeologists were astonished Stone Age builders had the architectural skills and scientific understanding of the sun's movement that was needed to construct it.

The grass-roofed tomb is about 13 metres high and 85 metres in diameter, and covers almost half a hectare.

About 200,000 tonnes of stone and earth were used to build it.

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