Excavation at Knowth Site M, County Meath
Excavation of an Early Medieval Secular Cemetery at Knowth Site M
by Geraldine Stout and Matthew Stout.
This report describes the results of three seasons of archaeological excavation
that took place between 2002 and 2004 on a complex of earthworks (Site M) north-east
passage tomb cemetery, County Meath.
Excavation over twelve weeks
revealed three main phases of activity: linear trenches and a cluster of irregularly
shaped pits; a cemetery enclosed by two subcircular ditches of sixth- to tenth-century
date and a later external earthwork constructed in the early medieval period. Evidence
for agricultural and manufacturing activity within the enclosures was also identified.
Large quantities of unstratified prehistoric lithics were recovered.
Knowth Site M is an early medieval cemetery with no ecclesiastical associations and
can be compared to a number of important early secular cemeteries discovered in
recent years in north-east Leinster.
A third and final season of excavations has confirmed that an enigmatic series of
earthen banks and ditches was an ancestral cemetery. Only fields away from the
world famous passage tomb at Knowth, the monument known as Site M has been in use
as a burial-ground from the time of St Patrick to the tenth century.
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Extract from Summary
Three seasons of archaeological excavation between 2002 and 2004 examined an
earthworks complex known as Knowth Site M. These revealed a cemetery enclosed by
two subcircular ditches of 6th to 10th century date and a later, upstanding
external earthwork also constructed in the early medieval period. The earthworks
lie in a natural marshy basin immediately north-east and downslope of the
passage tomb cemetery at Knowth, County Meath
There has been much speculation about the true purpose of the site since an
aerial photo of the monument was first published in 1964. It was not possible,
however, to classify this enigmatic earthworks complex on the basis of its
morphology or through geophysical survey. It was decided, therefore, to excavate
the site (with funding from the Royal Irish Academy) in order to determine its
date and function. Large quantities of unstratified prehistoric lithics were
recovered, as were linear trenches that predated the enclosure, and two
post-medieval clearance cairns, but all the other features of the site dated
from the early medieval period.
The innermost enclosure (ditch 3) at Site M is an oval area enclosed by a single
ditch with some evidence for an inner bank. The area enclosed by the ditch is
48m north-west/south-east by 40m. It is concentric to ditch 2, but is
eccentrically located within the upstanding outer enclosure. Charcoal samples
dated ditch 2 to 573AD-658AD. This ditch enclosed a cemetery that may have been
further delimited by a wall. There was a sizable animal bone assemblage
recovered mainly from ditch 3. Cattle, sheep and pig made up over 82% of the
assemblage, which is dominated by cattle. The choicest cuts of meat were
consumed on the site, suggestive of feasting associated with the burial ceremony.
A total of 52 graves were exposed in the central and southern portions of the
enclosure defined by ditch 3. All but three graves were oriented approximately
east/west. Graves exposed in the north (Squares B-D) had a stronger tendency
towards a north-eastern orientation than those graves exposed in the south
(Cutting H, Square I). This change in orientation could suggest burial during
(at least) two distinct phases.
75% of the graves were shallow, unmarked, unprotected extended inhumations.
Charcoal samples from two graves produced dates between 597AD-673AD and
782AD-989AD. This indicates that burial took place on the site from the 7th to
the 10th centuries. In the south-east of the inner enclosure there were 10
slab-lined graves. All of these were oriented approximately east/west. A bronze
baluster-headed ring-headed pin with its ring missing, similar to a pin from
Lagore crannog, County Meath, was found in the topsoil that covered the
Human bone at Knowth Site M was very poorly preserved. Even the teeth did not
survive very well. Nonetheless, the remains of at least 52 burials were
recovered. Identified burials consisted of 27 adults and 6 juveniles. 6 of the
adults were identified as male and 3 as female. Of the adults that could be
aged, there were two younger adult males present and one individual that was
either an adolescent or a younger adult. One female was a late-middle-aged adult
aged 35 to 44 years. There did not appear to be any evidence for older adults
among the population. Six juveniles were identified but no infants were
uncovered. It was only possible to estimate the stature of one male and one
female. Keeping in mind the small sample, the male stature for Knowth is higher
than at other early medieval sites and the female stature is in the top range.
The only evidence for a structure at Site M was found within the western portion
of the area enclosed by the innermost enclosure. Four shallow, roughly circular
pits could represent the remains of a trapezoidal structure. This 'structure'
produced two dates of between 561AD and 652AD.
Concentric with the cemetery enclosure (ditch 3) was an outer ditch (ditch 2).
It measured 74m north-west/south-east by 62.50m north-east/south-west in maximum
external diameter. The ditch was between 9m to 10m outside the line of ditch 3.
Ditch 2 contained animal bones throughout in a uniform fill of dark brown
gravelly clay with charcoal. The widely spread remains of an internal bank
survived in places. In the south-east of this middle enclosure there was some
habitation evidence in the form of a compacted surface with embedded pebbles.
This may have been a bone-working area as finds associated with this surface
include worked antler, horn, bone, and, most spectacularly, a toggle-like object
made from a sperm whale's tooth.
The outer ditch and banks, the upstanding outer earthworks, enclosed but were
eccentric to ditches 2 and 3. These enclose a roughly circular area with an
internal diameter of 80m. The earthworks comprise two banks and an intervening
ditch. The site has an overall diameter of 110m. The enclosing earthworks are
immediately adjacent to ditch 2 in the north-west (separated by less than 2m)
but are 12m outside ditch 2 in the north-east. Ditch 1 had a stepped external
face and was cut into natural gravel. The basal fill (grey silty clay) was
similar to that found in ditch 2 and ditch 3 but with fewer animal bones
present. The remains of a bank lay on either side of this ditch. Radiocarbon
dates suggest a gradual expansion of the site outwards from c. 600AD (for the
innermost ditch 3) to c. 700AD for the middle ditch, and the artefacts suggest
that the use of the site continued into the 10th century. The outer banks and
ditches, therefore, must have been constructed between the 9th and 10th centuries.
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