Knowth, County Meath, Ireland – Passage Portal Tomb
This month we travel to Knowth, a Neolithic passage tomb that is part of the Brú na Bóinne complex in County Meath, Ireland. While Newgrange is by far the most famous of the three Boyne Valley passage-tombs (Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth), it is probably Knowths astonishing quantity of art, which makes it more impressive than Newgrange. Knowth contains one quarter of all known megalithic art in Europe and is by far the most significant find in terms of art, scale and history.
Surrounded by 17-18 satellite mounds, Knowth, also known as the Great Mound, is itself decorated with 127 Kerbstones. Interestingly, some of the Kerbstones have carvings on the backs of the stones, this has become known as hidden art. Perhaps the decoration facing inward held special meaning to these ancient people or due to the difficulty in finding, hauling and etching the stones it made more sense to re-use them.
A path that winds between the mounds at Knowth, October 2008
A brief excavation of the site was carried out in 1941, but full-scale excavations began on the site in 1962 and were undertaken by Professor George Eogan of the University of Dublin College. When the excavations began, very little was known about the full extent of the site. The entrances to the western and eastern passages were discovered in 1967 and 1968 respectively and slowly the layers of activity at the site of Knowth were uncovered.
Dating from about 3000 BC, the portal tomb has two passages one eastern and another western. The western passage is significantly shorter then the eastern and neither connect, but the eastern passage ends in a cruciform shape, much like it’s neighbor Newgrange. Upon entering the great mound and you can see down the eastern passage from inside the tomb. There are three recesses that held basin stones into which the cremated remains of the dead were placed. Both passages are lined with decoratively carved stones known as orthostats.
Looking down the eastern passage of the Great Mound at Knowth
Visitors to Knowth cannot currently enter either passage due to safety reasons, but can enter a chamber created by archaeologists just south of the eastern passage. Visitors are able to see down the eastern passage, but do not see the interior of the chambers.
Megalithic Art and Artifacts
Many significant artifacts have been found over the 40 years of excavations at Knowth. Found in the right hand recess of the Eastern passage was a giant basin, also known as Dagda’s cauldron, the passage also contained a beautifully engraved mace head carved from flint. In the Western passage a small stone phallus was found (and no, I don’t have a picture of the phallus – sorry). The artifacts are currently on display in the National Museum of Ireland.
Over 200 decorated stones were found during excavations at Knowth.
Solar or Lunar Alignment
Over the years many theories on the astronomical alignments at Knowth have been investigated. It has been thought to align with the equinoxes, and later it was believed to have a lunar alignment. Its sister site at Newgrange aligns with the sunrise at the Winter Solstice so it seems likely that the passages were intended to align in some way.
Regardless, the alignment at Knowth does not occur today. This is due to the passages either being destroyed by those who settled the land or the passages were incorporated into souterrains (man made tunnels).
Just east of the eastern passage is a timber circle or “woodhenge” that was constructed between 2800 and 2500 BC. Using the post-holes that were discovered fairly recently, archaeologists have reconstructed the woodhenge to show what it would have looked like then.
A reconstruction of the Woodhenge
Evidence of the late Neolithic and Bronze Age is suggested by the presence of grooved ware found near the timber circle, (Woodhenge). Grooved ware is a type of earthen pot that has been found at Henge and burial sites.
Archeological evidence suggests that Woodhenge was used as a ritual or sacred area after the Great Mound had already fallen into disuse. A large number of votive offerings have been found in and around the immediate areas of the timbers that formed the circle.
There is no direct access to the Knowth site, access is by guided tour from the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre located close to the village of Donore on the south bank of the river Boyne. Guided Tours of Knowth are from April to October, the last tour is 90 minutes before closing time of the Visitor Centre.
It is highly recommended that you tour both Knowth and Newgrange; the combined tour is about 3 hours, with the tour of Knowth lasting about 45 minutes. There is time at the end (about 15 minutes) where you can wander on your own and if you wish, you can climb to the top of the Great Mound where there are amazing views of the Boyne Valley and surrounding countryside.
In between the tours take the time to visit the permanent exhibitions of artifacts on display. All of the artifacts are replicas; the originals are now in the National Museum of Ireland.
Knowth and the other megalithic sites of the Boyne Valley were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993.