Discovering the Dark Wonders of Knowth

Printed in The Irish Times | 11 November 1986

John Rock and George Eogan at the opening to the passage of the Eastern tomb at Knowth in August 1969
John Rock and George Eogan at the opening to the passage of the Eastern tomb at Knowth in August 1969

George Eogan, professor of archaeology at University College, Dublin, has been excavating the great passage tomb at Knowth, in the Boyne Valley, since the 1960s. In the first of two edited extracts from his new book, Knowth, and the passage-tombs of Ireland, he describes the discovery of the two large prehistoric tombs within the central mound.

The most spectacular of the twenty or so tombs discovered during the excavations at Knowth is certainly the great mound. Occupying the highest part of the ridge, it has a smooth profile when viewed from some distance. But close examination showed that the surface was irregular in places. There was a large pit in the centre about 2 metres deep, possibly dating from the early nineteenth century, when William F. Wakeman recorded that stones were being removed for house building and road repairs. A ditch, perhaps a fairly modern field-boundary, crossed the mound from south to north. Elsewhere, especially along the north-western side, the tips of kerbstones could be detected. The external measurements, to the outside of the kerbstones, are 80 metres (east-west) by 95 metres (north-south). It covers 6,080 square metres, about three-fifths of a hectare (1.5 acres), and is 9.9 metres in height.

Initially there was no evidence that the mound contained tombs. Having begun to excavate on its northern side, we gradually moved westward and by the end kerb, but these were suspected at the time to be associated with one of the nearby small passage-tombs. Leaving the site in August of that year, we had no definite clue as to the location of an entrance into the mound.

Operations resumed in this area for the summer of 1967. After some time, it became clear that the kerb was curving in from both sides toward a point occupied by a uniquely decorated stone. The suspected souterrain was confirmed and associated with it we then found the top of what resembled a dry-stone wall leading into the tumulus, followed by part of a parallel wall on the southern side. Loose stone fill was removed between and around the walls, bringing to light a capstone. Beneath this lay a solid fill of dark, generally loose stoneless earth. The capstone had prevented it from extending far inward and, after less than a metre was excavated, a cavity appeared.

By the afternoon of July 11th the cavity had become larger. I asked the youngest and smallest workman on the site, Martin Colfer of Slane, to try and looks, I thought, the structure might be only a large souterrain, and the passage which we were excavating was plainly the work of souterrain builders. Therefore, normal investigation of the drystone passage's fill proceeded until evening. An entrance was now visible, about 70 by 70 cm, between tow dry-stone walls and roofed by a smallish capstone. I could easily look in with a torchlight, and saw immediately that the passage led far --- perhaps indeed for "20 yards." But most exciting was that the dry-stone walling, after a short distance, gave way to a monumental passage built with orthostats on the sides and roofed with substantial capstones. Equally important, one of the orthostats on the left side bore megalithic art.

At last I was convinced that the entrance had been found. As the time was 6.30pm and the day's work was about to stop, I came out, delighted but speculating as to how far the parallel-sided passage might extend. Student helpers were told of the discovery and, with Quentin Dresser in the fore, we soon set out on our hands and knees to investigate. It proved to be a thrilling, if also rather worrying, experience. About 10 metres from the entrance, we had to crawl under an orthostat that had partly fallen inward. Next it was necessary to wriggle through a pool of muddy water on the floor beneath a couple of leaning orthostats. Loose stones on the floor made our crawling rather uncomfortable, and it grew difficult to judge how far we had gone; yet there was no sign of an end to the passage.

Eventually the roof began to rise in height and we could almost stand upright. Nearly all the orthostats appeared to be decorated, and the whole structure was much more impressive. At one point a stone basin lay in the passage. Then, coming to a stone sill, we illuminated the orthostat on its inner right side and beheld what seemed to be an anthropomorphic figure with two large, staring eyes. This ghostly guardian suggested that we were approaching the inner sanctum. But we still had several metres to go, now walking erect and easily except for some boulders on the floor. The end of the passage was finally reached: an undifferentiated chamber with two sillstones. The outer sill and the rear stone of the chamber were decorated, apart from the vertical line, in a manner similar to that of the kerbstone before the entrance with concentric rectangles.

We remained speechless for some time and marvelled at the achievement of these anonymous passage-tomb builders. Here was truly one of their great enterprises of close to 5,000 years ago the tomb was about 34 metres long. What a day!

The north-eastern side between the mound and the roadway, a low bank enclosing a rectangular area - like the bailey of a Norman moat - had shown up on air photographs. Investigation of this 'earthwork' was first carried out, not only so as to determine its nature, but also to clear what could have been an area used for dumping material excavated from the mound. But it soon proved to be complicated, and the remains of a number of smaller passage-tombs were revealed.

Thus, our attention shifted to simultaneous excavations extending onto the large mound. Several cuttings were opened on its eastern side at the beginning of July. Under the natural sod layer was soft dark earth, punctured by rabbit burrows, and obviously accumulated through occupation on the mound. Beneath this, in turn, was a stony layer with cavities, suggesting the presence of a souterrain.

On Tuesday 30 July, a hole appeared just to the south of the souterrain. As the hole was at a much lower level, it could not have been a continuation lf the passage of that souterrain. We enlarged it and, the next day, saw that it was due to a collapsed lintel. In the evening, I slid down into the hole, and was surprised to land at the junction of an elaborate complex of four passages. Three were constructed with dry-stone walling, indicative of souterrains, and they had large capstones, like those in passage-tombs. Yet the fourth had orthostats, arousing suspicion and one of these, very near the beginning, bore some art.

It was now time to explore the fourth and most substantial passage of all, 1metre wide and a little over 1 metre high at the point where I entered. After a couple of metres, progress became difficult due to orthostats leaning inwards and to a shifted capstone. Getting beyond these obstructions, and at a point which would prove to be about a third of the way in, we came upon a well-preserved stretch and felt between the tops of the orthostats and the capstones but, two thirds of the way in, it was almost possible to stand up. I noticed a cracked capstone and, flashing my lamp to check its trustworthiness, was that it was elaborately decorated with chevron ornament. The orthostats to left and right were also decorated. For the first time I was certain that we had another tomb.

Not knowing that there was so much more to come, I continued in astonishment, and with increasing trouble from inward-leaning orthostats. These touched at their tops, producing an inverted-V cross-section, but the drystone walling which was placed above remained largely intact and as a result I found it easier to proceed on top of the orthostats than on the stony floor underneath. My course sloped gradually upwards, then stopped as if in mid-air. Before me in the lamp's beam was the most amazing sight of my life. About 2/5 metres below lay a large chamber, whose great-corbelled roof rose around me, spanned by a single capstone up to 4 metres above. Vast lintels, some of which were decorated, roofed my "passage" over the orthostats. After a while I dropped down into the chamber, noticing its cruciform plan with a number of decorated orthostats. The right-hand recess in this plan was "guarded" by two large jambstones. Looking between them, I saw a uniquely ornamented stone basin, with horizontal and vertical scorings on the outside and just opposite the recess opening, a composition of concentric circles with flankers at the bottom. The inside of the basin, and the rear stone of the recess, were decorated as well.

What a structure and what a surprise! Since the previous year's great discovery, I had never expected a second tomb in the main mound, let alone a much more impressive one.

Knowth, and the passage-tombs of Ireland

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