Knowth Virtual Tour - Section 1

Aerial view of Knowth Great Mound
Knowth Great Mound and Satellite Mounds

Knowth 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 famous, Dowth 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 River Boyne. 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 than Stonehenge 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 Mellifont Abbey. 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 into heaven.

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 from UCD. 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.

Bryn Coldrick

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