The Brú na Bóinne World Heritage Site is made up of three major passage grave sites: Newgrange, Dowth, and Knowth. I’ve written about the first two already, so it’s time to explore the most-complicated of them all, Knowth: quite literally, a city of the dead.
Constructed contemporaneously with Newgrange, the Knowth site consists of a cluster of 18 smaller tombs around one huge central tomb. When I was a child, I used to peer through the gate to the site at the huge network of rectangular pits that marked the excavation that continued for decades before the site was finally open to visitors. It took the archaeologists five years of digging to discover the entrance to the first passage, and then another year before they found the second one. Eventually, archaeologists would spend over 40 years excavating Knowth, and the story they discovered was extremely complex.
Knowth is remarkable on many accounts, not the least of which is the vast amount of neolithic carved rock art. There are over 260 carved stones on the site, which accounts for as much as 45% of the known rock art in Ireland. Significantly, much of the art is found on the back of boulders (the faces not seen once the rock is in place), suggesting that the carving of the art may have been the significant event, rather than its in-situ decorative affect. Another possibility is that these carved boulders were re-used, and originally formed part of a different structure. However, the footprint of this earlier structure has not been found.
The site has a very different history to Newgrange, a mere kilometer away. The central mound fell into disuse and the ground slipped down, covering the kerbstones and burying the entrances to two central passages. It then became simply a convenient hill, and was used as a dwelling by successive waves of inhabitants.
In the late Iron age, the Knowth mound was repurposed as a hillfort, with two deep ditches dug around the perimeter: one outside the ring of kerbstones, one inside. This second ditch undoubtedly revealed the long-lost passages, and allowed access to the burial chambers. It appears that somebody attempted to remove an enormous carved stone basin (but had to give up as it is far too immense to be removed through the passage, and it must be assumed that it and the other carved stone basins were put in place before the mound was constructed), so we can be fairly certain that some grave robbing went on. Early Christian and even ogham graffiti can be found in the tunnels, bearing witness to two different waves of disturbance. Souterrains, underground passages used for storage and as places of refuge, were also constructed during this period.
Knowth was at one time the principal site of the kingdom of Brega, until the Normans displaced the native Irish in the region. The Normans built a motte, or wooden fortification on top of the mound in the 12th century, as they did around much of what is now County Meath. Norman mottes can be seem in Navan, Nobber, Drogheda, and on the Hill of Slane. Like Knowth, Millmount in Drogheda and the motte on the Hill of Slane are thought to have been built on top of ancient passage graves — but these suspicions have never been followed up by excavations.
Today, Knowth is a fascinating site for a family visit, as the site is very atmospheric; walking along between the mounds visitors can momentarily lose sight of electricity wires and the guides’ office and imagine oneself walking between the burial mounds on the way to visit the spirits of ones’ ancestors. There is one souterrain that brave souls can crawl through — although its size and the necessity to wriggle through on your knees means it’s mostly stout-hearted children who explore this portal into the past. The entrance to another souterrain under the main mound can be found down a “rabbit hole,” which affords a cute photo op.
Steps set into the main mound affords easy access to the top, where the foundation of medieval farm buildings can be seem. The view from the top is spectacular, and one can appreciate why different groups prized the Knowth mound for its defensive aspect.
The waves of reuse and rebuilding have destroyed any evidence of an astronomical alignment of the East and West passages, although it is thought that they could have been originally aligned either to lunar phases or perhaps to the equinoxes. As the passages are harder to traverse than Newgrange and are somewhat damaged, there is no public access to the burial chambers. However, a special chamber was constructed at the Eastern passage entrance that affords a unique view of the history of the site. Part of the Iron Age ditch has been left exposed, which gives the visitor a sense of perspective on the imposing physical barrier a double-ditch ring would have afforded in a violent society.
A wooden henge has been reconstructed beside the Eastern entrance. It’s thought that this henge would have served as a focus of ritual at a time shortly after the passages had ceased to be used, perhaps by a group that displaced the original tomb builders.
In contrast to the singular splendor of Newgrange, Knowth’s cluster of satellite tombs around the immense mound gives a powereful sense of the community of neolithic farmers, artisans, and priests who may have first constructed the mounds. If Newgrange was a tomb for the gods, or a cathedral for honoring the gods with the returning sun — possibly only in use once a year or for very special occasions — then Knowth feels like a community graveyard, and you can imagine the different satellite tombs as perhaps being family crypts. Walking among the mounds one can feel connected to the generations of people who worshiped, interred their dead, and lived at Knowth. It is a truly special place to visit, and a very different experience to Newgrange.