Knowth Virtual Tour - Section 1
Knowth Great Mound and Satellite Mounds
is arguably one of the most fascinating archaeological sites in the
whole of Co. Meath, if not the whole of Leinster, because there has been
human activity here for no less than 6,000 years. At various stages,
people have been using this site as a place to live, a place to bury their
dead, a place to work, and more than likely, a place for ceremonies and
festivals, since 4,000BC. The history of Knowth is far more complex than
the history of its more famous and more popular sister tomb, Newgrange
because for thousands of years after it ceased to be used solely as a
place of burial and ritual, it lived on as a place of settlement, and as a
centre of political and military power.
The earliest evidence for settlement here dates back as far as 4,000BC.
These are the remains of a rectangular house made of wood and wattle which
probably had a roof of thatch. But the most significant phase of
Knowth’s history came a thousand years later when the tombs themselves
were built, and these are the mounds which you can see today.
This complex of 18 passage graves is part of a much larger complex, known
as ‘The Boyne Cemetery’ or Brú na Bóinne, which covers an area of
ten square kilometres (approximately 6 sq. miles) and is made up of 40
passage graves in total. Thirty seven of these are quite small like the
smaller ones here, but three are very large: Newgrange, which is the most
which is closed to the public because it has not been
excavated yet, and Knowth which is the largest in the whole cemetery. All
the tombs are located in an area of land bordered on three sides by the
. As the Boyne flows from West to East, it loops to the south
and it was inside this loop that the tombs were built, five thousand years
ago in the Neolithic, or the New Stone Age. Perhaps the builders of the
tombs believed that the sacred River Boyne would protect the cemetery in
this way. Because they were built around 3,000BC, they are 1,000 years older
in England, and 500 years older than the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt.
The Neolithic, or New Stone Age, people who built the tombs were
Ireland’s first farmers. They settled along the banks of the Boyne about
6,000 years ago, they cleared away the trees so they could grow crops such
as wheat and barley in the fertile soil, and they kept animals as well
like cattle, pigs, sheep and goats, much as the farmers around here are
still doing all these thousands of years later.
You don’t normally consider Stone Age people to be all that intelligent,
advanced technologically, or even well organised socially, but obviously
these New Stone Age people were highly advanced, highly skilled engineers
and astronomers, who were very well organised and extremely dedicated to
their spiritual beliefs and to the spirits of their dead.
Because they left no written records however, we know very little about
them for sure, but we can say that this community of about 1,200 people
must have been well settled and living in relative peace, because it would
have taken centuries to build all the tombs around here: the three main
tombs alone probably took around 50 years each to build, and remember
there are 37 smaller ones in the Boyne Cemetery. We don’t know how their
society was organised: maybe they had leaders like kings or queens, or
maybe they worked perfectly well together without them. Maybe men
dominated; maybe women, or perhaps they were equal too. Maybe people were
employed to build the tombs, while the others farmed the land to support
the tribe; or maybe they worked in shifts.
Some suggest, as they do when
talking about the pyramids in Egypt, that slave labour was used to build
the tombs for powerful families. We have no way of knowing for certain,
but personally, I prefer to think that everyone was pulling together in
the common hope of a better life after death; they shed blood, sweat and
tears for what they believed in, and more than simply being a place to
bury their dead, the Knowth
complex of tombs, like Newgrange
, was a centre
of ceremony and festivity. They were more than just tombs: they were
places where the spirits of the ancestors would live on forever, and they
represented the hopes of the people who worked harder to build them than
we can ever imagine. They were a constant, spectacular reminder of the
promise of life after death. But, as I have already said, nobody can say
for certain what these people believed, how they lived, or what the tombs
really meant to them. We can only speculate.
The next main period in Ireland’s history was the Bronze Age, so called
because people had advanced beyond stone as the main material for
jewellery and tools and onto metal. There is very little evidence of
activity here at Knowth during this period however. The gap is hard to
explain — perhaps there was migration out of this area; perhaps some
kind of plague killed the people off; or maybe the site was so respected
as a sacred place, it was simply left alone. This latter explanation is
the most likely, especially when you consider what the Bronze Age people
did at Newgrange, they erected a circle of standing stones around it to
denote its importance. And if the Bronze Age people knew that Newgrange
was a sacred place to an earlier society, they would without question have
known that Knowth was sacred too. So, out of respect for, or fear of, the
spirits of an earlier culture, they simply stayed away.
The one piece of evidence which we do have from this period, however, is
very important. The early Bronze Age people were known as the ‘Beaker
People’ because of the style of pottery they used. In Ireland, this
pottery was almost entirely used for domestic purposes, i.e. in the home,
while on the Continent, it was often used in association with burial. But
here at Knowth, a Beaker burial was found: a Beaker pot was discovered
next to some cremated human remains, and this is the only confirmed Beaker
burial in Ireland to date.
The second major phase in the history of Knowth itself came in the Iron
Age, over 3,000 years after the tombs were built. By this time the Roman
Empire was at its height in Europe. The Romans never came to Ireland in
any great number, but the Celts
did, probably from Iberia which is the
large peninsula where modern Spain and Portugal is now situated. The Celts
built a settlement here at Knowth, with an enclosure on top for the local
chieftain. From there, he could see for miles around, and so be warned of
any threat from rivals, and his house was protected by two concentric
ditches and banks which were dug into the main mound. These ditches
shortened the passages leading into the tombs by 4m (about 12 feet) and
destroyed the original entrances, so we will never know what they really
looked like. And we know that the Celts also entered the tomb because
Celtic graffiti in the form of Ogham writing was discovered inside the passages.
One good thing to come from what they did was by piling
the stones and soil from the dug-out ditches on top of the kerbstones
around the base of the mound, they protected them and the beautiful
artwork on them, so that 5,000 years later, only 3 of the 127 kerbstones
are missing and the artwork is beautifully preserved.
The Celts brought with them their own culture and beliefs of course, and
they also brought a different style of burial — Inhumation. In other
words, they buried their dead in pits in the ground, usually placing the
bodies in a crouched or foetal position, and then covered them with soil
and stones. Thirty five such inhumations have been found here at Knowth.
Like their Neolithic predecessors, the Celts
of the Iron Age liked to
place grave goods with their dead, and with the bodies, were found
necklaces made of glass beads and bronze finger rings were uncovered as
well. The most interesting find, however, was that of two young men buried
together with a gaming set made up of three bone dice and some counters.
These men had been decapitated, so maybe they were both in debt to the
wrong person, or maybe gaming was illegal in this community, especially if
gambling was involved, and they were sentenced to death. But the most
romantic and most likely explanation is that they were simply best friends
who used to play the game all the time in life. One day, they went into
battle, side by side, and were both slain, and as a tribute to their great
friendship were buried together with their precious game so that they
could continue to have re-matches in the afterlife.
The next phase in Knowth’s history came during the Early Christian
period, between the 8th and 12th centuries AD. By now, the smaller tombs
which had been built during the Neolithic had almost disappeared without
trace, since they had collapsed, or been used as quarries for building,
while the slippage of stones from the main mound had begun to raise the
ground level of the entire site and hide the foundations which were left.
By now, Knowth had completed its conversion from an important spiritual
centre for one society to an important political centre for another, much
later one. Knowth was now the capital of one of Ireland’s 120 kingdoms,
that of North Brega, and became the tribal headquarters for a branch of
the O’ Neill dynasty. One of the earlier kings who lived on top of the
main mound was called Congallach Cnogbha, and he went on to become one of
the High Kings of Ireland, possibly based at Tara
. Congallach Cnogbha took
his name from Knowth’s ancient title, Cnogbha, which possibly comes from
the Gaelic Cnoc Bua, meaning the Hill of Bua, who was supposedly buried here.
The Christians who lived here built rectangular houses with stone
foundations and we will see the foundations of one of these later when we
walk around the site. We will also see two of their nine souterrains, or
underground passages, which they built for storage and refuge.
At least three of the Christians living here entered the main tomb and we
know this because they signed their names on the stones before they left.
These graffiti artists were called Conan, Teimtennach and Snedges, which
are all old Gaelic names. Most of the original Celtic Gaels of the Iron
Age probably would not have entered the tombs out of fear, because they
believed that these tombs were gateways to the Otherworld, and the homes
of the Tuatha de Danann, a mythical race of supernatural people who had
fled to the Otherworld when the Celts arrived. Christianity had diluted
such superstition however.
The final significant phase of Knowth’s history was during the Norman
period. These invaders arrived from England in 1169, but it wasn’t until
1175 that they got as far Knowth, the capital of North Brega, and used it
as a military base for their conquest of Meath. By that time however, all
the lands around Knowth were in the hands of the Cistercian monks of
. The Cistercians had arrived from Clairveaux in France in
1142 and 40,000 acres of land had been given to them by O’ Rourke, the
arch rival of the O’ Neills, in 1157. By giving away the ancient O’
Neill capital to the church, O’ Rourke was attempting to humiliate his
defeated enemy, and also trying to increase his own chances of getting
The Cistercians renamed much of the land around here, and this included
Newgrange. A ‘grange’ is an area of farmland attached to a monastery,
and so the land around the tomb, which was before that known as Brú na Bóinne,
was now a New Grange belonging to Mellifont Abbey. In this area you will
also find the townlands of Littlegrange, and Sheepgrange, as well as
Roughgrange, which is where the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre was built.
We don’t know the details of the arrangement between the monks of
Mellifont and the Norman invaders who built a fortress on the mound here
at Knowth. Perhaps they were borrowing it without charge, or maybe they
were paying rent. Whatever the arrangement, the Normans recognised the
strategic and defensive advantages of the main mound, just like their Iron
Age predecessors. They built their fortress out of stone and mortar on the
mound, and this building had a tiled roof. It may also have had a chapel,
because fragments of stained glass were found, along with pieces of floor
tiles bearing the word Maria, the Latin for Mary. Maybe one of the
conditions of the agreement between the monks and the Normans was that a
chapel had to be included in the building.
The Normans probably had no idea what they were living on, thinking that
it was a natural hill in the landscape. But what had started life as a
place of burial and ritual over 4,000 years earlier, had now become a base
for invading knights and a headquarters for military conquest. They
didn’t stay very long though — about a year — and once they had
established their authority in the area, they moved on and built more
permanent castles elsewhere.
Once they had left, settlement at Knowth was stepped down dramatically. A
few stone houses were built in the 16th and 17th centuries, but on the
whole, Knowth became forgotten, blending into the landscape like its
sister tombs, Newgrange and Dowth.
Knowth is now in its latest, and presumably final phase of human activity.
The archaeologists arrived in 1962, led by Prof. George Eogan
They have excavated about one third of the site and restored seven of the
seventeen small tombs to what they would have looked like when they were
first built 5,000 years ago, in the Neolithic, Knowth’s most glorious
and important phase.
Forward to Section 2
or Section 3
Boyne Valley Private Day Tours
Pick up and return to your accommodation or cruise ship. Suggested day tour:
Newgrange World Heritage site, 10th century High Crosses at Monasterboice,
Hill of Tara the seat of the High Kings of Ireland and the Hill of Slane where St. Patrick let a Paschal fire in 433