When did you begin excavations at Knowth in Co Meath?
George Eogan - Archaeologist, on burial rites & megalithic art.
Eoin Butler's Questions & Answers - The
- June 2012
In 1962. I was an
archaeologist with a particular interest in passage tombs. I knew it was
important to carry out excavations at Brú na Bóinne and Knowth
seemed, to me, to
be the most interesting place I could start.
What did the site consist of at the time?
It was a large mound, about 30ft high,
covering about an acre of ground. Subsequent excavations have revealed two
enormous chambers with impressive
around the base and a variety of
Those are carvings rather than paintings, I assume?
non-representational carvings. Circles, triangles, symbols and so on. It's the
largest collection of megalithic art anywhere in Europe. There are hundreds of
How old is the site?
It dates back to 3,500 BC. That's older than the pyramids.
What function did it serve in 3,500 BC?
It was a burial chamber.
Why such an extravagant burial chamber? Was it hubris on the part of a king?
We're not certain. Certainly, society was stratified and only the remains of the
upper classes would have been buried here. Unfortunately, the burial rite was
cremation. The bodies were burned so, as a result, a lot of information was
lost. What we can say is that the cult of the dead was a very important part of
these people's lives.
Was the tomb built by slaves or by skilled craftsmen?
definitely. The architectural and engineering elements are so sophisticated –
they had to be built by skilled people. Because of the east-west orientation of
the passages, we believe there may have been an astronomical alignment with the
spring and autumn equinoxes.
How has the site weathered the past five millennia? Were subsequent inhabitants
of the area respectful of it? Did they build over it?
That's a very interesting
question. In fact, between the 7th and 12th centuries AD, the mound at
Knowth was the royal residence of the kings of Northern Brega, which occupied
roughly the northern half of the modern county of Meath.
When you went down there in 1962, were you the first person to enter the tomb in
5,500 years or had previous generations pottered around in there?
The kings of
Northern Brega transformed the site into a protected settlement by digging two
ditches. When they were digging, they discovered the entrance to the passage.
Some people went in and scratched their names on the stones.
What kind of names did people have in the seventh century?
They weren't like our
names today. One name was Snedta, who was a male individual, we think.
If he was carving his name all over the place, it was definitely a man.
Yes, most likely. The other was Teistennach. They would both have been members of the
Northern Brega kingdom.
You've been working at the site, on and off, for 50 years now. Is it slow,
deliberate work or have there been any dramatic Tutankhamun-esque breakthroughs?
There were two such moments, in fact. Once, in 1967, we discovered a small hole
on the western side of the mound. I uttered an exclamation, took my flash lamp
and entered the passage. This, in turn, led to a very impressive chamber. The
whole thing was over 100ft in length. It was very dramatic. The next year, we
discovered a similar chamber on the eastern side. It was about 20ft high and
extremely well constructed.
Prof George Eogan's Excavations at Knowth Volume 5
was launched at Knowth House, Co Meath in June 2012.
Current Archaeology article published in October 2003
The excavation at Knowth is one of the greatest pieces of archaeology of our time.
On June 18th 2002 it was my privilege to be there with some students forty years
to the day from the start of the excavation. After touring the site, George Eogan
invited us over to a large caravan in the farmyard across the road to join the
anniversary celebrations with Knowth trowellers, workmen and other local folk.
This year I returned to Ireland to see George again, and to find out more
about George Eogan. Why did he choose to spend the greater part of his life
excavating at one site? And what was it like to be the first person in a
thousand years to enter a great Neolithic passage tomb?
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