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Martin Brennan 2007
Martin Brennan 2007  
Book throws light on Knowth excavations
The Irish Times, Friday April 6, 1984

Professor George Eogan
At a reception in the Royal Irish Academy Dublin, yesterday to launch the book, "Excavations at Knowth" were the author, Professor George Eogan (centre), his daughter Maeve, and Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Mr Joe Bermingham. - (Photograph: Eddie Kelly).

For many years, Newgrange in Co. Meath has been regarded as the showpiece of our megalithic past. But recent excavations, especially those carried out by Professor George Eogan of University College, Dublin, have shown that Newgrange is but one of a number of a number of important burial sites in the Brugh na Boinne complex along the Boyne.

Now better documented as a result of the publication yesterday by the Royal Irish Academy of Professor George Eogan's Excavations at Knowth is the elaborate site at Knowth, a short distance from Newgrange. Here is a large burial mound, 17 smaller passage tombs, a Neolithic settlement and four areas of Beaker domestic activity.

The main archaeological feature of the site is the large burial mound, documented as early as 1726 in archaeological publications. But the complex of smaller passage tombs, together with the mound, prove that the site was an important early cemetery. The first excavation of the site was carried out in 1941 by Professor R.A.S Macalister.

Professor Eogan's book, the first volume of the Knowth cemetery, covers the work of 22 summers he and his assistants spent on the site. It deals in three parts with the 17 smaller passage tombs, the Neolithic occupation and the Beaker activity on the site.

Outwardly, Knowth was grazing land when Professor Eogan went there to carry out the first excavations in 1962. On the western side there were remains of ridge and furrow cultivation and underneath the sod was a later of soft dark earth of early Christian-Norman derivation, overlying the prehistoric remains.

When Neolithic man arrived at this part of the Boyne hinterland, the countryside was covered with great oaks and elms on the high ground.

In the river valley hazel, alder and birch grew. Large clearances were made by these early settlers.

Excavations have shown that the low hilltop at Knowth was used first during the Neolithic period, some 3,000 years BC, and that it was an attractive area for settlement and other uses during many subsequent periods.

Four main phases of activity are documented: the Neolithic, the Burial, the Iron Age ­ Early Christian and the Norman periods.

In phase one, the Neolithic period, the excavations turned up an elongated 65-metre by 12-metre area and another squarish area, 13 metres across, which may have been a house.

Inside these areas, huts, fireplaces, evidence of flint knapping and pebbling have been found. Other finds include round-bottomed shouldered bowls, flint scrapers and stone axeheads.

In the burial area, a cemetery of passage tombs, consisting of the large mound and 17 smaller sites was uncovered. The main site is 90 by 80 metres and at maximum height is 11 metres. It was methodically constructed by laying down layers of sod, boulder, clay, shale and stones in an ordered fashion and is bounded by impressive, carved kerbstones. It covers two large tombs, placed back to back. One is a squarish, simple chamber with a western approach. The other is cruciform and the corbelled roof rises to a height of six metres. Both are decorated elaborately with megalithic art. Two of the smaller tombs have been destroyed but of the remainder, five have cruciform chambers and 10 are undifferentiated.

The burial rite was cremation and grave goods have been found: Carrowkeel pottery, stone pendants and bone pins. It appears that the four areas of Beaker activity uncovered were areas of domestic activity. There is no evidence of houses, but there are pits and fireplaces.

Professor Eogan believes that probably about the first millennium AD the large mound was transformed into a well protected settlement site by the digging of two concentric ditches, one at the base and another around the top.

Around the eighth century, a considerable expansion took place. Uncovered to date are 10 houses, 10 souterrains, numerous fireplaces, and areas of paving. There also were industrial areas in one of which iron was smelted. In another, bronze and enamelling took place. There is ample evidence of corn growing and keeping of domestic animals. During the latter part of the Early Christian period, the royal residence of the Kings of Northern Brega is thought to have been on the site.

The Early Christian settlement is thought to have continued until the 12th century when the site was taken over by the Normans. The Normans remained there until the early 14th century.

The book, of 258 pages, is lavishly illustrated with 153 photographs and 119 line drawings. The aerial view, taken in 1974 (page 6), gives an impressive overview of the honeycomb-like excavation. The book includes a comprehensive index and bibliography and must rank as one of the most readable volumes yet published on archaeology. Future volumes, we are promised, will deal in greater detail with the large passage tomb mound and the Iron Age Early Christian and Norman settlements.

Excavations at Knowth by Professor George Eogan, published by the Royal Irish Academy, is available from the Academy, Dawson Street, Dublin, or bookshops. Price £28.50.

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