Brú na bóinne

After a short break to think about the history of chocolate, I am again musing about the Rock Star Tour of Western Ireland.  If fact, this week I will be meeting my Captain, Niamh, to finalize the itinerary for Study Abroad Ireland 2014.

Newgrange View from Newgrange

The next stop on the Rock Star tour was the archaeological site of Newgrange, called  Brú na bóinne in Irish.  Newgrange is pre-Celtic passage grave (tomb) which part of a group of three monuments (Knowth and Dowth) along the River Boyne.  The site is dates to approximately 3200 BC.  It is older than Stonehenge in England and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.  Archaeologists classified Newgrange as a passage tomb, but more aptly it is a temple, a place of ceremonial importance.1

Newgrange Newgrange wall

Newgrange spans aproximately 1 acre and has a base constructed of 97 kerbstones, decorated with megalithic art.  The reconstructed facade of flattish white quartz stones is studded at intervals with large rounded cobbles.

passage drawing

newgrange-ab1-2004 newgrange-ab2-2004

The inner passage is 19 meters long and leads to a cruciform chamber with a corbelled roof.   At the end of the passage are three small chambers off a larger central chamber.2  At winter solstice the passage is illuminated by the sun streaming through the window, called a roof-box, above the entranceway.


Newgrange passage entrance Newgrange triple spiral

A motif consisting of three interlocked spirals, called a triskele, is carved into the rock near the main entrance of Newgrange.    The triskele has also come to be associated with the Triple Goddess going back to pre-Christian times. The Triple Goddess symbolism, maiden-mother-crone, is also represented as a moon in three phases.  Because the triskele is often drawn using one continuous line, it has come to represent the unending and continuous movement of life.3

Of course this activity was right up my alley.  Pre-Celtic archaeological passage tomb-summer solstice ceremonial celebrations- megalithic art – oh yeah!  The Gypsy Archaeologist was in her glory here.  I can’t wait to return with students to get another look at Newgrange.  I also want to see at least one of the other 2 passage tombs as well.





When Did Humans Come to the Americas? | Science & Nature | Smithsonian Magazine

Not on any recent theme, but an interesting random article about the peopling of the Americas that happens to be from my old stompping grounds in FL.  Just another random musing….

When Did Humans Come to the Americas? | Science & Nature | Smithsonian Magazine.

Food of the Gods

Valentine’s day is upon us.  As we head out to purchase that special gift for our special someone, what is at the top of our list? Chocolate.  It is the quintessential representation of love.  Have you ever wondered where it came from and how it came to symbolize love?



Chocolate comes from the seeds of the Cacao tree.  The cacao tree is indigenous to tropical rainforest environments.  Although it is thought that cacao originated in South America, cacao was first produced and used in Mesoamerican regions of Mexico, Belize, Honduras, & Guatemala, as well as Oaxaca Valley and Valley of Mexico.


Cacao’s scientific name is Theobroma cacao, which means “food of the gods.”  The word cacao has been reconstructed back to approximately 1000 BC.  Maya called it kakaw and appears as a loan word in their language between 400 BC – AD 100.  The Maya are believed to have borrowed the word from Izapan culture, an Olmec influenced culture located on the Pacific Slope of Chiapas, in the rich cacao producing region of the Soconusco, on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, during this time period.  Aztec called it cacahuatl.  The origin of the Aztec word “chocolate” is thought to be derived from the Classical Nahuatl word xocolātl meaning “bitter water.”



Chocolate has a 3500 year history in Ancient Mesoamerica.  Mesoamerican people were the first to cultivate and transform cacao beans into chocolate. Cacao was prepared and ingested as a beverage, offered during rituals as food to the gods, and used as a form of currency and tribute.

Chocolate beverages were an array of drinks to which could be added a variety of flavorings.  Chemical residue analysis of pottery vessels of four sites from the Pacific and Gulf Coasts of Mesoamerica yielded evidence for the use of chocolate beverages dating back as early as around 1000 BC.

Cacao-based beverages were important in the Maya culture.  Ceramic vessels used for chocolate consumption were buried in tombs with the dead.  The Maya consumed chocolate-based beverages at social or political events.  The earliest use of cacao by the Maya comes from the ancient site of Colha in northern Belize.  Fourteen ceramic jars taken from burials were analyzed for cacao residue and dates to 600 BC.

Diego de Landa, in the 16th Century, describes the Maya use of cacao.  Cacao was mixed with maize to make and flavorings such as honey, achiote, or a variety of seeds to make a beverage.  Today, the Lacandón Maya in southern Chiapas, make two types of cacao-based beverages; one to drink themselves and one for the gods.  The secular chocolate drink is prepared by first fermenting, drying, and toasting the beans.  The cacao beans are then ground and water and toasted corn is added.  The mixture is frothed with a molinillo, or beater, to form a foam.  The foam is scooped off and put on top of maize gruel, then the liquid is drunk.

The sacred version of the drink is prepared differently.  The wife of the ritual’s sponsor roasts the beans and grinds them with a mano and metate.  She mixes in grass called aak’ while grinding.  Water is added, the mixture is strained, and then poured into bowls of balché, a ritual honey based fermented beverage, or corn gruel.  The preparation is done in a special place near the “god house” where the “god pots” are kept.  The resulting beverages are fed to the “god pots.”

The consumption of cachoatl in Aztec culture was restricted to the wealthy.  Only individuals of the royal family, nobility, long-distance merchants, and warriors were permitted to imbibe chocolate beverages.  Merchants of high status in Aztec society hosted feasts for other merchants, which included chocolate beverages.  The serving of chocolate was at the end of a meal signaling the end of the festivities.

Chocolate and Amour 

Within Aztec poetry, chocolate was a metaphor for luxuriousness and sensuality.  The European notion of chocolate as an aphrodisiac can be dated back the Spanish Exploration period and is tied to the Aztec culture.  Spanish explorers observed women serving the Aztec ruler Moctezuma 50 golden cups of chocolate at a palace feast and concluded it was for success with women, thus sealing the fate of this myth.  Ever since, chocolate has been offered as a token of love.

Chocolate Travels Across the Atlantic

 In 1528, Chocolate arrives in Spain. Cortés presented the Spanish King, Charles V with cacao beans from the New World and the necessary tools for its preparation.   Cortés is also responsible for inspiring the modern preparation of chocolate.  He suggests that the bitter beverage be blended with sugar, clearing the path for the preparation of chocolate we now consume. The Spaniards prepared chocolate with sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, cloves, allspice and cinnamon. Chocolate became all the rage with Spanish nobility.   Spain was able to keep chocolate a secret from the rest of the world for almost 100 years.

In 1615 Princess Anne, daughter of King Philip III let the secret out by introducing the chocolate drink to her Husband King Louis XIII and the French court.  By the 17th century, chocolate was a fashionable drink throughout Europe, believed to have nutritious, medicinal and even aphrodisiac properties.  The Europeans sweetened and lightened it by adding refined sugar and milk.  Unlike in Mesoamerica, Europeans used chocolate for sweets and desserts.

Chocolate as we know it was born in the 19th century, when Briton John Cadbury developed an emulsification process to make solid chocolate creating the modern chocolate bar.  Richard Cadbury produced the first box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day in the late 1800s.

As we prepare to partake in our box of heart shaped deliciousness, remember that chocolate is rich in history as well as flavor.  Consider it food for thought.



References Consulted:

Coe, Sophie D.

1992    Chocolate: Not the Flavor but the Flavored. In Spicing up the Palate: Studies of Flavorings – Ancient and Modern, edited by Harlan Walker, pp. 63-66.  Proceedings of the 1992 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Prospect Books, London.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe

1996    The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, New York.

Dreiss, Meredith L. and Sharon E. Greenhill

2008    Chocolate: Pathways to the Gods. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

LeCount, Lisa J.

2001    Like Water for Chocolate: Feasting and Political Ritual Among the Late Classic Maya at Xunantunich, Belize. American Anthropologist 103:935-953.

Hurst, W. Jeffrey, Tarka, Jr., Stanley M., Powis, Terry G., Valdez, Jr., Fred, and Thomas R. Hester

2002    Cacao Use by the Earliest Maya Civilization. Nature 418:289-290.

Powis, Terry G., Hurst, W. Jeffery, Rodriguez, Maria del Carmen, Ortiz, Ponciano, Blake, Michael, Cheetham, David, Coe, Michael D., and John G. Hodgson

2008    Origins of Cacao Use in Mesoamerica. Mexicon 30:35-38.

Wikipedia.  History of Chocolate.  Electronic Resource, Accessed January 29, 2013.

Young, Allen M.

1994    The Chocolate Tree: A Natural History of Cacao. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC.

The Water Temple of Inca-Caranqui

A quick break from all things Irish for this cool article on Ecuador 🙂

The Water Temple of Inca-Caranqui.

The Road to Western Ireland

Slane 2

The Rock Star Tour departed Dublin after my impromptu tour of Georgian architecture and headed west.  On the road we were to Bundoran!  Our first stop was near Slane Village in the Boyne River Valley where our fearless leader, Niamh, gave us a brief history of the area.

Boyne River Valley

Slane 3  Slane 4

The River Boyne, An Bhóinn or Abhainn na Bóinne, is located in Leinster, Ireland.  It Spans Trinity Well, Newberry Hall, near Carbury, County Kildare, and extends towards the Northeast through County Meath to reach the Irish Sea between Mornington, County Meath and Baltray, County Louth.  The Boyne River Valley has historical, archaeological and mythical significance. The Battle of the Boyne, a major battle in Irish history, took place along the Boyne. It passes near the ancient city of Trim, Trim Castle, the Hill of Tara (the ancient capital of the High King of Ireland, more to come on that later), Navan, the Hill of Slane,  and the archaeological site of Newgrange, Brú na Bóinne (more to come on that later as well).

Battle of Boyne

The Battle of Boyne  occurred in 1690 between William III, Prince of Orange and King of England, protestant and James II, Catholic king who fought with Irish support.  The battle was won by William for the English, Scottish, & Irish thrones.  This battle is celebrated on 7/12 each year.

Slane Castle & Village

Slane Castle 2

The Hill of Slane, which overlooks the Castle, is where St. Patrick lit his paschal fire, which caused him to be summoned by the High King to Tara, and to make a long story short, Ireland was subsequently converted to Christianity. The Castle was also a setting for a famous historical romance between King George IV of England and the  great, great, great, great grandmother of Lord Henry Conyngham, Elizabeth, the first Marchioness Conyngham.  According to Niamh, Lord Conyngham hosts many musical events at Slane Castle for residents of the surrounding area.

One last interesting tidbit – Frances Ledwidge, an Irish war poet killed in action during WWI was from Slane, in Co. Meath.

Back in the Bus we went, on the road west toward our next adventure.  As Niamh would say, “and we go…” while hearding us back into the bus with a flourish of her arm.  Bundoran or Bust!

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Liberal Arts & University Transfer
Craven Community College

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