Knowth and the passage-tombs of Ireland
Knowth and the passage-tombs of Ireland
by George Eogan.
Knowth is one of the great wonders of the prehistoric world. Professor
for the first time the full story of this remarkable site in the Boyne Valley north
of Dublin, where his excavations over some twenty-five years have revealed a
five-thousand-year-old burial complex and a treasure-house of megalithic art.
A huge central mound dominates a cluster of smaller sites around it, yielding
more than a quarter of the engraved art from the whole of Neolithic Europe.
But what was the purpose of this exceptional concentration of effort?
How were the tombs built and, indeed, by whom?
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Knowth and the passage-tombs of Ireland by George Eogan
Professor Eogan describes in vivid detail the dramatic discovery of not one
but two tombs within the central mound, their narrow passages and decorated
chambers hitherto unseen by man since ancient times. Built back to back, the tombs,
Professor Eogan argues, were used for burials and very likely for ceremonies
celebrating the rising and setting sun at spring and autumn equinox. Ritual
deposits in the chambers included an exquisitely carved flint mace-head,
hailed by experts as one of the finest pieces ever to come out of prehistoric Ireland.
But the chief glory of Knowth is undoubtedly the megalithic art. The excavations
have brought to light hundreds of massive stones ornamented with intricately carved
abstract motifs, whose discovery transforms the known artistic heritage of our
prehistoric ancestors. This magnificent corpus of ancient art is discussed here
at length and richly illustrated, together with the other major finds.
In addition, Knowth
is interpreted in the context of its great Neolithic
, and of Irish passage-tombs generally. The result is an
authoritative volume, a fitting record of a quarter-century of sustained
archaeological enquiry and a tribute to the achievements of the megalith-builders of ancient Ireland.
It is rarely given to any man to enter, for the first time in centuries or
millennia, a well-preserved structure from the prehistoric period that is
actually older than the Pyramids of Egypt by several hundred years. This is
precisely what George Eogan did, he located the stone-build passageway
which led a distance of 34 metres into the western side of the great earth mound
at Knowth, and discovered the megalithic tomb at its centre, hitherto unknown to science.
An even more striking discovery was to come. For on July 30th of the following
year, another long passage was discovered on the eastern
side of the mound. And on August 1st, Professor Eogan had the remarkable experience of entering,
for the first time, the great corbelled eastern chamber at Knowth
, and of
discovering the carved stone basin which still lay within it.
Corbelled roof over the chamber in the eastern tomb.
Knowth is one of the three great mounds in the prehistoric cemetery at the
Bend of the River Boyne. Newgrange
has been justly famous since the discovery
in AD 1699 of the chamber tomb within it, and it was systematically
investigated in recent years by the late Professor M. J. O'Kelly, whose full
account, Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend
, was published in 1982 in the
present 'New Aspects of Antiquity' series. The third mound, Dowth
partially investigated in the last century. In view of the chamber tombs
within the two other mounds, it was no surprise that Knowth
contain a burial chamber. But the discovery of two chambers, situated
back-to-back, as it were, as well as their scale, and above all the richness
of the decorative art on the stones, was something which could not have been anticipated.
As Professor Eogan describes, these were no chance discoveries. He began work
at Knowth in 1962, devoting his attention first to the interesting series of
smaller megalithic tombs which surrounded the great mound. Although none of
these stands complete, in the way the two burial chambers in the main mound
do, they are of considerable interest for the light which they shed on how
the site was used and developed, and indeed for our understanding of
the use of the whole remarkable cemetery of the Bend of the Boyne. No fewer
than twenty-four seasons' work have gone into the very comprehensive project
at Knowth, and as the photographs clearly show, the mound itself and the area
surrounding it was very thoroughly investigated. The full and details account
by Professor Eogan of the excavation is to be published by the Royal Irish
Academy in a number of monographs, of which the first recently appeared.
The art of the Boyne cemetery is one of its chief glories, and indeed
represents one of the most remarkable artistic achievements of
Europe. The decorated stones at Newgrange have long been known and admired,
and it came as no surprise that further examples should emerge when Knowth
was systemically studied. No one could have predicted, however, that the site
would yield so many sculptured stones, and in such variety, a corpus of art
works actually far larger than that at Newgrange. In this book many of them
are published for the first time, with a discussion of the art of the Boyne
as a whole, and of its origins and chronology.
Basin Stone from the eastern tomb at Knowth.
The important new discoveries at Knowth have made necessary a re-evaluation of
the Irish passage-tombs as a whole, and that is what Professor Eogan here
undertakes, with a thorough consideration of their construction, their
chronology, of the finds made within them, and of their use.
For many readers, however, as for myself, one of the great pleasures of this
book will be the way it allows one to relive the moments of the great
discoveries, and to visualize very clearly the nature of this splendid
monument, its construction and its art. Bar in the summer of 1982 I had the
privilege of accompanying Professor Eogan down the long entrance passage
into the great eastern chamber at Knowth, and it is an experience which I
shall never forget. It is a pleasure to see this remarkable discovery so
clearly described here, and so effectively set within its wider context in
Irish and indeed in European prehistory.
In a extract from Knowth and the passage-tombs of Ireland
George Eogan speculates about the prehistoric religious rites that may have been held there.
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